Airports echo the anger of passengers who find their flight canceled or delayed, or who wait hours for their luggage to reach the baggage carousel. Ticket prices are increasing, as are fuel costs. Airline reputations and airport experiences have never been so bad. But Americans’ hunger to get back to Europe this summer after two years of pandemic confinement is amazingly insatiable.
In fact, one US airline, United, is offering nearly half a million more seats across the pond this summer than it was at its pre-pandemic peak in 2019. They’re also offering more flights to more cities than ever before . And that was before the US finally stopped requiring passengers from Europe to test negative for COVID before flying, a decision that will fill many more seats almost overnight.
European airlines are also adding flights. Analysis by Craig Jenks of New York-based Airline/Aircraft Projects shows that Aer Lingus is increasing flights between Dublin and Orlando from four to seven weekly, as well as new daily flights between Manchester, UK and New York. Air France introduced three weekly flights from Paris to Denver and British Airways has added four new weekly flights from London to Portland, Oregon. There are also numerous new flights to other non-coastal cities such as Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas and Austin.
In fact, the route map of flights between the US and Europe has become so fluid and dynamic that planning a vacation in Europe is a far greater challenge – especially when you want to find the most relaxing and enjoyable flight across the pond given the chaos, that may occur will get in your way before you reach your seat.
To that end, the first thing to remember is that you’re not just picking a seat. You also choose an airplane. If you spend between seven and eleven hours in a cabin, the comfort of the cabin will depend on the age of the aircraft, where you’re flying from and how far into Europe you’re flying.
For nearly a quarter of the 21st century, only a handful of airplanes have optimal, state-of-the-art air conditioning in their cabins – precisely the kind of details that can transform the long-haul flight experience. These include higher humidity levels in the cabin to counteract the physical effects of very dry air; better climate control that keeps temperatures even, no matter what part of the cabin you are in; individually adjustable lighting to support sleep and better soundproofing to reduce annoying engine and aerodynamic noise.
There are only three widebody jets that embody these qualities: the Airbus A380 superjumbo; the smaller Airbus A350; and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. All have a cabin altitude of 6,000 feet, meaning that the air pressure in the cabin is equivalent to breathing at that altitude and the air is wetter, while in all older jets the cabin altitude is 8,000 feet where the air is significantly drier.
dr Paulo Alves, aerospace medical expert and member of the Aerospace Medical Association’s Air Transport Medical Committee, told the Daily Beast: “The otherwise healthy passenger should not expect any health problems at the 8,000ft cabin altitude. However, there are some studies and reports of improved comfort when flying modern jetliners due to lower noise levels, less vibration and better space. Of course, the longer the flight, the greater the need for comfort.”
The most common complaints, says Dr. Alves, are thirsty, “not because of dehydration, but because of dryness in our mouth. Dry eyes is another problem, and people who are prone to nosebleeds can also have a moisture-induced episode. Staying hydrated and using eye lubricants is useful to prevent discomfort.”
If you fly across the Atlantic on any of the big three US airlines this summer, the number of older aircraft will far outnumber the new generation jets. According to July data provided exclusively by Cirium, an aeronautics analysis company, to The Daily Beast, Delta has flown 212 flights on the A350, versus more than 2,000 flights operated on older jets; United has 651 flights on the 787 compared to more than 2,000 flights on older jets. In contrast, American Airlines operates 1,018 flights, almost half of its European flights, on the newer jets, either the A350 or 787.
The oldest jets are the Boeing 757 and 767, which average between 22 and 24 years in service and are approaching the point where their maintenance becomes too expensive. American Airlines permanently removed both of these planes from its fleet during the pandemic because their gas-guzzling engines made them costly to operate. The sudden recovery in international flights has caught the airline with fewer jets than necessary, exacerbated by a delay in deliveries of new Boeing 787s due to quality control issues at Boeing. As a result, American has discontinued five European routes.
Global airline data cruncher OAG’s John Grant provided the Daily Beast with new figures showing United leading the way in available seats across the Atlantic this summer with just over 4 million, up from 3.5 million in 2019 ; Delta is second with 3.6 million compared to 4 million in 2019 and American is third with 3.1 million compared to 3.5 million in 2019.
Frequent travelers in Business Class pay more attention to the quality of the cabin climate when choosing a flight. Leisure travelers are more cost conscious, but don’t forget that seats on newer jets cost no more than equivalent seats on older ones (they use a lot less gas so they cost airlines less to run) and the benefits are better air and climate visible in the rear of the cab as well as in front. Still, Mike Arnot, an airline industry commentator, says: “Most passengers will not notice the product difference between an older aircraft and the newest. United has upgraded its older aircraft with a nifty product, Polaris Business Class, and those seats are packed with people burning their long-accumulated miles on the experience.”
British Airways has introduced all three new jets deep into their American destinations; It now flies to the UK from 26 cities. It flies the A380 from four hubs, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles, where there is enough demand to fill the 469 seats. (No US airline has ever bought the superjumbo, and many were permanently grounded early in the pandemic, including those operated by Air France and Lufthansa. But BA remains committed to the Goliath for hub-to-hub routes.) BA flies the very best popular 787 Dreamliners from Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Nashville, New Orleans, Pittsburg, Portland, Seattle and Washington Dulles. The larger A350 flies from Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando and Phoenix.
The odd thing about this list is that it excludes the busiest and most competitive route across the Atlantic, New York to the UK, which has head-to-head competition with Virgin Atlantic’s A350 business class cabins on the same route. (With far fewer flights, Virgin Atlantic is expanding its acclaimed Club House Business Lounge at Heathrow in pure style as part of its branding projection.)
But now, in New York, BA has returned to the Boeing 777, the oldest widebody jet in its fleet, averaging about 18 years old. They have all been upgraded with the same business class suites as the A350 and new cabin lighting, but still have the disadvantage of a higher cabin height. This isn’t as noticeable on the shorter flights between the East Coast and London, but on the longer routes where the 777 shares the airline’s gates with the new jets, such as Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where the flight takes place, if this becomes noticeable it can take up to 11 hours.
On long-haul routes, United flies even older jets. For example, it is offering four new flights per week from Newark to Dubrovnik, one of the best value European destinations due to the spectacular Dalmatian coastal resorts. These are flown by Boeing 767s with an average age of 24, and the 4,500-mile flight takes more than nine hours. In the 1980s, the 767 pioneered long-haul transatlantic flights when doing so with only two engines was controversial (jets with three or four engines were considered safer) and now every widebody except the A380 is twin-engine, but these early 767s, like the cabins are tidy, are not only tired, but compared to newer jets they are notorious environmental polluters.
Some budget airlines fly the latest generation of jets across the pond. Newcomer Norse Atlantic Airways, for example, flies 787 Dreamliners from New York to London (Gatwick), Berlin and Oslo; from Los Angeles to Berlin and Oslo; and from Fort Lauderdale and Orlando to Oslo. Norse has basically taken the place of Norwegian Airlines, which had suspended Atlantic flights during the pandemic because it had opened too many routes too quickly and was out of cash. Norse is more cautious as it tries to offer a cheap alternative to the legacy airlines’ fares. With all airlines and airport services strained this summer, Norse will likely be judged on its reliability as much as its prices.
But people who can buy maximum comfort always will, and they like to live in their own fine air. This has never been truer than in aviation. The private jet crowd can fly in a new Gulfstream G700 with a cabin height of just 800 meters while the butler pours a glass of Dom Perignon.