Twelve hours out of Houston, I hit the wall. I'd eaten a four-course meal and drunk a bracing German Riesling. I'd listened to Tammy Wynette and been humiliated in video chess. I'd read the entirety of a slim novel, watched four episodes of The Office, slept nearly five hours and even managed to do some work. With two hours to go before landing in Doha, Qatar, I was ready for solid ground.
More of us are getting to know that feeling. Over the past decade, ultra-long-haul plane flights--those lasting more than 12 hours--have become a component of business life like never before. It used to be that only a diplomat or top executive would jump on a plane and set off for halfway around the world. Today--with markets such as China, India and the Middle East too large and lucrative to ignore--even small companies operate internationally.
Because of aircraft such as the Boeing 777-200 that I flew to Doha, the means now exist to get there without intermediate stops. So, to fully experience the rigors and rewards of ultra-long-haul travel, I set out to take one of the longest trips on Earth. While I'd been told that my return flight would take more than 16 hours, the outbound was a mere 14, time enough to put in almost an entire workday, grab dinner and get six hours' sleep.
Qatar Airways doesn't have nearly the international profile of Emirates, which markets itself on the jerseys of England's Arsenal FC, one of the most popular sports teams in the world. But Qatar does win most of the regional awards; in January it was named best airline in the world for international travel for the third consecutive year by Business Traveller magazine. When booking my flight to Doha, I was told that the business class service is so luxurious that, even after more than half a day aloft, I wouldn't want to get off the plane. That turned out to be hyperbolic; by the time we were over Kuwait, I would have been ready to leave the Queen Mary. But the flight did rank as the finest I'd taken, in terms of comfort, solicitousness of service, entertainment options and the quality of the food.
To make sure your long-haul trip is as painless as possible, follow these rules.
Choose your carrier and aircraft wisely. You're going to spend more than 12 hours in that seat. The service can be impeccable, the food hand-cooked by Thomas Keller, but if you can recline only 75 percent, it's going to be a long, long flight. The planes plying the ultralong routes vary widely; as fleets expand, state-of-the-art 777s (and, soon, 787 Dreamliners) are put into service alongside older 747s. Check with your carrier to make sure that the plane you'll be on offers flat-bed service and all the entertainment amenities.
Request a seat next to an empty one. I find that the main predictor for whether I'll have a superior experience aboard an overnight flight is whether I have someone sitting next to me. Especially if you're flying economy class, but even in business, having that empty space next to you will ensure a more comfortable flight. If you have status with the airline and the flight isn't full, they're often able to oblige you.
Have a plan for arrival. Once you're onboard, it's important to have a strategy. Late last year, I flew from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, a 13-hour trip that put me on the ground before breakfast. My plan for that flight was to arrive ready for a workday. So I ate dinner, watched a movie, then slept six hours and awakened an hour before landing. I'd adapted to the time change from the moment I hit the ground.
My 14-hour Doha flight was scheduled to land at 7 p.m.--a very different situation. I needed to arrive weary enough to be able to sleep that night so I'd be alert the following day. That meant snoozing a few hours right after dinner, then keeping myself busy so I wouldn't doze. It's a tougher challenge--I'm jet-lagged as I type this--but my plan worked. I was ready for a 9 a.m. meeting on my first day.
All in all, my nonstop flight put me in the best possible position to succeed in the Middle East. I'm grateful. Now I just have to fly home.