Extreme aviation takes off

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. Joni Mitchell had paradise in mind when she crooned that line, but it applies equally to the world's only supersonic jet. As Concorde enters her final week in service, all those people who secretly fancied a ride - and have the odd £5,000 to spare - are climbing aboard. If they had turned up in such numbers over the past 27 years, the jet would not be en route to the supersonic scrapheap. Indeed, aircraft manufacturers might be building a 21st-century replacement for the Sellotape-et-string Anglo-French creation, perhaps capable of travelling at three times the speed of sound. Yet instead of designing planes for short, quick flights, Airbus and Boeing are concocting ways to keep us on board and in the air for even longer.

As Concorde droops towards oblivion, a more promising product of European air partnership is lining up for take-off. The Airbus assembly plant at Toulouse has a Concorde parked outside as a reminder of past folly. Inside, the workers are churning out jets that are three times as big and 100 times more practical. One sub-species, the A340-500, is soon to become the successor to supersonic travel. This latest Airbus will significantly reduce the flight time for long distances by doing away with the need to stop.

Build an efficient aircraft, bung a big tank on board and fill it up, and you have a plane capable of flying almost halfway around the world. With a maximum range of more than 10,000 miles, and the ability to stay aloft for more than 18 hours without refuelling, this jet will shrink the planet more dramatically than Concorde ever could. Welcome to extreme aviation.

AS THE last rites and final futile flights take place for Concorde, anyone who cares to tap "Birmingham to Sydney" into the Emirates website is in for a pleasant surprise. From next weekend, it promises, you can fly from the West Midlands to New South Wales with a single pause to change planes at the airline's base in Dubai. Emirates is launching non-stop flights from there to Sydney, a distance of almost 7,500 miles.

Don't believe everything you read on the internet; the new planes are still being kitted out, and will not now be ready until early December. Brum to Bondi Beach still requires a refuelling stop in Singapore. But by Christmas, you should be able to join the 14-hour ride across oceans, jungles and deserts (that's the Dubai to Sydney leg, not the approach to Birmingham airport).

Yet the hop from the Gulf to Australia's largest city barely begins to test the resolve of the new Airbus. Indeed, it will not challenge the world's current longest flight: Continental Airlines' daily departure from New York to Hong Kong, which breezes across the North Pole, covering 8,055 miles in just under 16 hours using a twin-engined Boeing 777. If you're tempted to try it, take sandwiches: the only refreshment promised to economy passengers is lunch.

FOR THE ultimate jet-set experience, wait until February next year, when Singapore Airlines starts flying non-stop between its home base and Los Angeles. The eastbound trip, wind assisted by the jetstream, will take 16 hours to cover 9,090 miles. Thanks to the interjection of the International Date Line, flight 20 should arrive at precisely the same time, and on the same day, as it departed. That's what I call time travel.

Heading west, adverse headwinds extend flight 19's trip to 18 hours and 20 minutes. With the loss of 24 hours at the 180-degree line of longitude, you will arrive a day-and-a-half later.

Will you feel a year-and-a-half older? Probably not, due to the airline's decision to abandon economy class on this route. The return fare of £747 (presumably a joke at Boeing's expense) entitles you to "Executive Economy", a cabin that looks more comfortable than some airlines' business classes. You get a seat pitch of 37 inches, which means six extra inches compared with the cheap seats on British Airways' and Virgin Atlantic's flights. Seats are seven abreast, rather than the usual eight per row on this type of plane.

The premium payable for this increased comfort, and saving two hours that would otherwise be wasted in the dismal transit lounge at Taipei or Tokyo, is just £65 each way - a bargain compared with the £150 or so that British Airways and Virgin Atlantic demand for their enhanced economy products.

Singapore Airlines is also eliminating first class. The airline believes that its business cabin - known as Raffles Class - has sufficient appeal. The return fare is £3,030, unless you pick the winning ticket in a raffle. In total, the plane will carry only 181 seats - fewer than Ryanair squeezes on to its Boeing 737s, an aircraft about half the size.

Unlike the utilitarian Irish no-frills carrier, Singapore Airlines has made up a name, and a number, for its new planes: the A345LeaderShip. Can this really be a tribute to the main road between Salisbury and Marlborough in Wiltshire?

THE TIMETABLE symbol "+1" signifies you arrive the day after your journey began; "+2", applied to SQ19 from Los Angeles, means two days later. Timetables of the national airline from neighbouring Indonesia until recently had a "+3" symbol, which warned of a seriously long ride.

In the Seventies and early Eighties, Australia was three hops away from Britain on most airlines, with one stop in the Gulf and a second in Singapore or Bangkok. When longer-range 747s were introduced, a quick pause in India, Sri Lanka, or the Far East was sufficient. But Garuda Indonesia's flight from London continued to call at all stations to Sydney. I counted stops in Zurich, Abu Dhabi, Bangkok, Jakarta, Bali and Melbourne. By the end, I knew the safety briefing better than the cabin crew.

THE NEW Airbus opens up the possibility of non-stop flights from Britain to Australian destinations such as Perth, Darwin and Cairns. All are within the plane's 10,184-mile maximum range. Sadly, none of those cities is likely to be sufficiently attractive to airlines to launch a single-hop schedule to Australia. And Sydney, choice of arrival point for most British travellers, is 380 tantalising miles beyond the aircraft's reach.

Is everyone happy with airlines pulling out the stops? Not Tony Wheeler. The Lonely Planet founder observes that, "The longer the flight, the more fuel that has to be carried in order to carry more fuel - which is not nice for the world's oil reserves or pollution levels. How much less damage would be caused if the longest flights were only six to eight hours?"

The trade-offs are tricky. The more take-offs and landings, the higher the risk to passengers, since these are the most dangerous parts of any flight. Concorde bows out as the most lethal civil airliner, ever. Because it has flown so few missions, the single tragic accident in Paris in July 2000 means a higher proportion of Concorde passengers have died than those of any other plane.

For travellers who like to play safe, four leading aircraft types have never suffered a fatal accident: the two newest Boeings (777 and 717), and the two biggest Airbuses (A330 and A340). But the world's safest airline, Southwest in the US, flies only Boeing 737 - an aircraft type that has suffered 50 fatal crashes worldwide.

looking for the fast track to Borneo? The new non-stop flights from Heathrow to the Malaysian islands of Langkawi and Penang, described on page 10, open up all kinds of possibilities. Southern Thailand will now be much easier to reach via Langkawi than it is via Bangkok. And anyone aiming for Kota Kinabalu, the main city on the island of Borneo, can identify in the Malaysia Airlines schedules a direct flight from Penang

This could be when you find out the difference between "non-stop" and "direct". The former term means the plane takes off and flies straight to your destination. "Direct" merely implies that you can get from A to B on a journey with a single flight number. It may actually involve your having to switch planes along the way, since many airlines "change gauge" (typically from a large plane to a smaller one) during the course of an apparently direct journey. On American Airlines flight 109 from Heathrow to Dallas, for example, you fly as far as Boston in a 777, then clear US customs and immigration, and board a 757 for the hop to Texas. Yet technically it is direct.

Malaysia Airlines flight 2610 is a single-plane operation from Penang to Kota Kinabalu. But with en-route stops at Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Miri and Labuani, the journey takes 8 hours 10 minutes. That is three times longer than a non-stop trip would be, and almost as arduous as the flight from London.

We might lose Concorde, and see the longest-flight record disappear to the Pacific, but Britain can still boast the shortest and most expensive (in terms of time) flight in the world: the hop between Westray and Papa Westray in Orkney. On a good day, the two-minute flight time is reduced to just 70 seconds, but the fare is not reduced at all from its £14 each way - working out at 20p a second, six times more even than Concorde.