What matters most? Time, money or brand?

What matters most to their customers is something airlines spend a great of time and money trying to find out.

Is it the price of the ticket – regardless of how much time it takes to get there?

Is it the shortest amount of time? Regardless of the price, or a half way house of the two? You might not want to fly for 19 hours with a 3 hour change in the middle but you might fly for 14 with a 2 hour stopover, even if it costs a little more.

Will you only fly direct no matter what?

If you have a choice of airlines, do you care which as long as the price is right? Will you choose between just a handful of preferred airlines or, are you so brand oriented you’ll fly on one, and one only, no matter the price or time involved?

Such are the questions being asked by Qantas as it tries to find a way of peering into the crystal ball of the long distance non-stop flight. Singapore Airlines are right their with them. These two are about to embark on super-long haul flights with the latest aircraft. By 2022 Qantas will have it believes, the longest non-stop flights in the world – and for the first time a direct non-stop to London from Sydney.

And yet it cannot answer the question. Is it too far? Do passengers need to stop and break the journey? Does the thought of 23-26 hours flying in economy seats 17″ wide leave some people too numb at the thought?

How do you keep even business class flyers occupied for an entire day?

Most of all is there actually enough business to make it viable? The economics are already looking marginal and it’s got to work to justify the investment in aircraft.

Whichever aircraft they choose, an A350ULR variant or the 777-8, they already know compromise is essential. Each flight will need 33% more crew and bigger rest areas.

Economy seats will be minimised – their weight to revenue ratio is too low to carry more than 30% over the distances needed. There will be no first class for the same reason. Premium economy and business class are the only seats with sufficient weight:revenue balances to make the flights financially viable.

If I offered you a 27 hour journey time to Sydney from London with a 3 hour stop included in Singapore or Hong Kong for £600 or a direct 23 hour flight for £740 what would you pick?

If it was a 30hr flight with 7 hours in Beijing for £430?

What if Virgin Atlantic – my favourite U.K. airline – were doing it direct in Premium for £900?

Until airlines can get a good view on likely preferences – the ULH – ultra long haul – flight may struggle to be financially viable.

I sat down with some friends and gave them all of the above options. All 5 said they couldn’t imagine being stuck in economy without a break for 24 hours. 4 chose the Singapore option and one Premium Economy direct.

Interestingly nobody else chose premium because they didn’t really understand what it gave them. The one who did had flown it before.

ULH flights are inevitable – but they may very well herald a sharper social division between those who can afford better seats, and value their time, over those whose wallets are not so well endowed.