Flying to Europe this summer could be hell

Airports resound with the rage of passengers who discover their flight has been canceled or delayed or who wait hours for their luggage to arrive on the carousel. Ticket prices are skyrocketing as fuel costs do the same. Airline reputation and airport experience have never been worse. Still, Americans’ thirst to be back in Europe this summer after two years of pandemic restraint is insatiable.

Indeed, an American airline, United, is offering nearly 500,000 more seats across the pond this summer than it did during the pre-pandemic peak of 2019. Plus, they’re adding more flights to more cities than ever before. And that was before the United States finally dropped the requirement for European passengers to test negative for COVID-19 before flying, a move that almost overnight will fill many more seats.

European airlines are also adding flights. Analysis by Craig Jenks of New York-based Airline/Aircraft Projects shows that Aer Lingus is increasing its flights between Dublin and Orlando from four to seven per week, as well as new daily flights between Manchester, UK United, and New York. Air France has introduced three flights a week from Paris to Denver, and British Airways is offering four new flights a week from London to Portland, Oregon. There are also dozens of new flights to other non-coastal cities, such as Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas and Austin.

In fact, the map of flight routes between the United States and Europe has become so fluid and dynamic that planning a vacation in Europe is much more difficult, especially if you want to find the most relaxing and sybaritic flight to across the pond, given the chaos that can lie in your way before you reach your seat.

To that end, the first thing to remember is that you don’t just pick a seat. You also choose a plane. If you are going to stay in a cabin between 7 and 11 a.m., depending on where you are departing from and how far you are traveling in Europe, cabin comfort will depend on the age of the aircraft.

Nearing a quarter of the 21st century, only a handful of aircraft have optimal, state-of-the-art climate technology in their cabins, precisely the kind of details that can transform the experience of long-haul flights. This includes higher humidity in the cabin to counter the physical effects of very dry air; better quality air conditioning that maintains even temperatures no matter what part of the cabin you occupy; individually controlled lighting to aid sleep and better soundproofing to reduce intrusive engine and aerodynamic noise.

There are only three jumbo 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, which means the air pressure in the cabin is equivalent to breathing at that height, and the air is more humid, while in all older jets the cabin altitude is 8,000 feet, where the air is significantly drier.

Dr Paulo Alves, an aerospace medical expert and member of the Air Transport Medical Committee of the Aerospace Medical Association, told The Daily Beast: “The otherwise healthy passenger should not expect a medical condition at cabin altitude of 8,000 feet. However, there are many studies and reports of improved well-being when flying modern airliners, due to lower noise levels, lower vibrations and better space. Of course, the longer the flight, the greater the need for comfort.

The most common ailments, says Dr. Alves, are thirst, “not from dehydration but from dry mouth. Another problem is dry eyes. People prone to nosebleeds may also have an episode precipitated by low humidity. Proper hydration and the use of eye lubricants are helpful in preventing discomfort.

If you’re flying on any of the three major US airlines across the Atlantic this summer, the number of older planes far outnumbers newer generation jets. According to July data, provided exclusively to The Daily Beast by Cirium, an aviation analytics firm, Delta has 212 flights flown by the A350, compared to more than 2,000 flights operated by older jets; United has 651 flights using the 787, compared to more than 2,000 flights with older jets. In contrast, American Airlines operates 1,018 flights, almost half of its European flights, with the newer jets, either the A350 or the 787.

The oldest of the jets are the Boeing 757 and 767, with an average of 22 to 24 years in service, approaching the time when their maintenance becomes too expensive. American Airlines permanently gutted these two planes from its fleet during the pandemic because their gas-guzzling engines made them expensive to operate. The sudden resumption of international flights has left the airline with fewer jets than needed, exacerbated by a delay in the delivery of new Boeing 787s due to quality control issues at Boeing. As a result, American dropped five European routes.

John Grant, of global airline data specialist OAG, has provided The Daily Beast with new figures which show United are the leader in available seats across the Atlantic this summer, with just over 4 million, down from 3.5 million in 2019; Delta is second with 3.6 million, up from 4 million in 2019, and US third with 3.1 million, up from 3.5 million in 2019.

Business class frequent flyers tend to be more savvy about cabin climate quality when selecting flights. Leisure travelers are more cost-conscious, but remember that seats on new jets don’t cost more than the equivalent of old ones (they use a lot less gas, so they cost airlines less) and the virtues of better air and a better climate. are as visible at the rear of the cabin as at the front. Nevertheless, Mike Arnot, an airline industry commentator, says, “Most travelers won’t notice the difference in product between an older aircraft and the newer one. United has upgraded its older planes with a sleek product, Polaris business class, and those seats are jam-packed with people burning up their long-saved miles for the experience.

British Airways introduced the three new jets deep into its US destinations; it now flies to the UK from 26 cities. It flies the A380 from four hubs, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles, where demand is sufficient to fill all 469 seats. (No US airline has ever bought the superjumbo, and many were permanently grounded at the start of the pandemic, including those operated by Air France and Lufthansa. But BA remains committed to the goliath for hub-to- hub.) BA flies the hugely popular 787 Dreamliner 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.

What is odd about this list is that it excludes the busiest and most competitive route over the Atlantic from New York to the UK. Before the pandemic, BA caused a stir by introducing the A350 on this route, particularly touting its new business class suites in a head-to-head competition with Virgin Atlantic’s A350 business class cabins on the same route. (With far fewer flights, Virgin Atlantic is pushing its acclaimed Club House business lounge to Heathrow as part of its brand advantage in pure style.)

But now in New York, BA has returned to the Boeing 777, the oldest jumbo jet in its fleet, averaging around 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 altitude. It’s not so noticeable on the shorter flights between the East Coast and London, but it’s starting to show up on the longer routes where the 777 shares the airline’s gates with the newer jets, like Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where the flight can take up to 11 hours.

United flies even older jets on long routes. For example, it offers four new flights a week from Newark to Dubrovnik, one of the most economical European destinations due to the spectacular Dalmatian seaside resorts. These are flown by Boeing 767s with an average age of 24, and the 4,500-mile flight takes over nine hours. In the 1980s, the 767 pioneered long-haul flights over the Atlantic when doing so with just two engines was controversial (three- or four-engine jets were considered safer) and now all wide-body aircraft except the A380 are twinjets, but those early 767s, dilapidated as the cabins are, are not only tired but, compared to newer jets, they are notorious polluters.

Some budget airlines are flying latest-generation jets over 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 essentially taken the place of Norwegian Airlines, which stopped flying in the Atlantic during the pandemic because it opened too many routes too quickly and ran out of money. Norse is more cautious as it seeks to offer a cost-effective alternative to traditional airline fares. Given the strains on all air and airport services this summer, Norse is as likely to be judged on its reliability as its prices.

But people who can buy maximum comfort will always do so, and they like to live in their own rarefied air. This has never been truer than in air travel. The private jet crowd can fly on a new Gulfstream G700 with a cabin altitude of just 2,900 feet while the butler pours a glass of Dom Pérignon.

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