I’m Afraid of Flying, so I Flew the World’s Longest Flight—And Loved Every Minute

PHOTO: Singapore Airlines

Disclaimer: This is the true story of a travel editor who is terrified of flying. A mixture of duty to his field and a confrontation of fears caused him to volunteer to fly the longest flight in the world, from New York to Singapore during its inaugural week. These are his dispatches.

It begins. Well, it begins three days prior. The anxiety. Hello, old friend, you terrible bastard. It’s a part of me that I hate to admit, but a part I deal with. It always comes on the same: The sleeplessness, the constant pounding of the heart, the stomach that won’t stop churning, the trips to the bathroom to desperately release oneself northwardly or southwardly, depending on digestive wants. The constant nagging feeling that these days will surely be the last. The goodbye to my wife that reeks of finality. Let’s face it, it turns me into a mess. It makes me question my choice of profession. Why am I a travel editor?

The night before, I didn’t sleep. I was in some tiny hotel room in Midtown Manhattan. I don’t live in New York, I live in Los Angeles. I traveled to New York just for this flight. I hated that flight. And it was only five hours.

Singapore Airlines Flight Number SQ21 departs from Newark Airport. I got there three hours early, at 7:45 am. I was flying business class, so I sat in the lounge. New Jersey has an abominable law that mandates no drinking until 9 am. Only alcohol could stave off these jitters, but I drank coffee instead, which added to my woes. I was a mess. Finally, at 9, I had a mimosa. I had another. I started to feel better. I took a pill for the anxiety, which is not to be mixed with alcohol, but as they say, desperate times…

At 10:15 I headed to the plane. It felt like a gallows walk—I had been invited to a beheading and decided to show up.

And then I boarded and, as if by magic, everything seemed to change.

Boarding

Maybe it was the champagne, maybe the pill, or maybe—probably—it was the experience. Plus, I was flying business class and that ain’t bad.

The flight attendants, all painted and dressed in Singapore Air’s signature Pierre Balmain-designed sarongs smiled like angels and beckoned me to seat 24K, an isolated window seat, withdrawn from the rest of the passengers. Cloistered in a luxurious cocoon, I thought, OK, bucko, I can do this. I hate flying, let’s get that straight, but I love luxury. I’d always heard that Singapore Air’s premium cabins are legendary—and though so many legends disappoint (never meet your heroes, they say), the hype proved accurate. The seats were large (28 inches to be exact), the television screen seemingly even larger (18 inches to be exact). Plus, there was plenty of space for storage of a computer, iPad, and incidentals, and enough legroom that even Robert Wadlow wouldn’t complain. It was bigger and more comfortable than my Midtown hotel room, certainly better than many apartments I’ve lived in over the years. Hopped up as I was and sitting in these fine digs, I was OK. I was—dare it be said—happy. I wouldn’t die on this plane—rather, I would thrive!

And then the captain spoke.

He was nonchalant, which I suppose was calming—captains should always be nonchalant, bored even. This was routine and therefore dull. He said in the most casual of tones, “It’ll be a bit bumpy at first. But I’d say only the first five hours.” Five hours?! That’s the entirety of the flight time from LA to New York. Five hours?! But, wait, I thought. I’m not in that world. I don’t exist in the world of the transcontinental commuter flight, I exist here now, in this new, weird land that I volunteered to live in for seventeen and a half hours. And in this land that stretches half the entirety of the globe, five hours only account for a mere 28.5 percent of the journey. Time is different here. As we traveled through space, time would mean less and less.

Our Route

At 9,500 miles, the Singapore Airlines route is currently the longest in the world. It’s miraculous—the culmination of a century’s worth of pioneering and ingenuity. The Airbus 350 Ultra Long Range can theoretically travel more than 11,000 miles in a single go. And, if I could calm my mind and train my anxieties, I could appreciate this. I watched a video on my oversized screen that previewed the route. We were to head north-easterly, over Canada, toward the north pole, and wander down into the Russian territories, over the Middle East, India, into China and Malaysia, and finally to that small dot on the map, the fast-forward-to-the-future country of Singapore.

Here came the anxiety. But then the flight attendant, smile on her face, asked if I wanted a drink. God bless you, flight attendant. Gin, please! I was better. We took off and I drank.

Seventeen-and-a-Half Hours to Go

Blame the drink, blame the pill, blame the experience of a lifetime, but somehow those first three hours flew by (sorry for that pun) without my noticing their progression—as though I’d existed in a fugue state. We departed Newark and I stared at Manhattan, I set up Wi-Fi on my computer (it’s complimentary for business class for up to 30MBs, after which it costs $22 for another 200MB) and, as Singapore Air has in-flight cell service—though it’s pricey at $0.50 per text—I sent my wife a message.

Then came dinner: sautéed prawns on a quinoa salad, sous-vide beef with wild mushroom crème sauce, a salted butter caramel cake. Singapore Air’s menu is crafted by eight highly respected chefs, among them Georges Blanc, Suzanne Goin, and Carlo Cracco (who, I must admit, I’m not a fan of).

 

1. Sautéed prawns on a quinoa salad 2. Sous-vide beef with wild mushroom crème sauce

 

Let’s talk about this food for a minute. I’ve traveled on planes for the sole purpose of eating their food (which, I’ll admit, is stupid for my anxious mind—but an assignment is an assignment, and if nothing, I’m a professional). I’ve eaten enough business-class food to know that it’s not all the same. Some are particularly good (Austrian Airlines) and some are particularly bad (I won’t name and shame)—most, however, are somewhere in the middle. But, hey, it’s usually better than economy class and it’s definitely better than paying 15 bucks for a stale sandwich on Spirit.

I’m happy to say that Singapore Airlines food is definitely on the Austrian Airlines side of the spectrum.

And even though the turbulence came along as I dined, within that giant contraption in the sky, the bumping felt more like rocking, and instead of it boiling over my anxiety, I found it to be curiously soothing.

Fourteen-and-a-Half Hours to Go

Although Singapore Airlines has a vast selection of programming on their in-flight entertainment (1,200 hours worth–enough for 68 trips aboard the longest flight in the world), there wasn’t a single thing that I really wanted to watch. Don’t blame the airline, blame Hollywood. But I’d come prepared.

Like so many travelers to far-away lands, I always turn to Anthony Bourdain for advice. I’d downloaded three episodes of him eating his way through Singapore—one from No Reservations, another from The Layover, and a third from Parts Unknown, which played only a year ago. And even though I was still sad and pissed about his death, those old shows still had a way of giving me the sort of anticipatory excitement that any kid has before their birthday. I guess that’s just the magic of Bourdain.

And with his help, not only was I calm but damn excited for Singapore. Adventure was calling and I was being flung 9,500 miles to answer it.

Twelve Hours to Go

Now that adventure was on my gin-fueled brain, I wrote emails to my wife and to my parents, pretending that I was an old captain, far from home, on a ship in the middle of a vast sea, wandering into unchartered territory, surrounded by mermaids and monsters. I was surrounded not by magic creatures, but snoring passengers. But, hey, I had 30MBs of Wi-Fi to burn and firing off emails seemed like a pretty good way to spend that stash.

Eleven-and-a-Half Hours to Go

The lights were dimmed and I alone was awake. Business class had all gone off to the Land of Nod. It should be noted that this flight is comprised solely of business and premium-economy classes. If you’re spending 17-and-a-half hours in space, Singapore Air will ensure your comfort.

It was time for some shut-eye myself. I hit the lay-flat button. It didn’t work. It couldn’t be broken—these planes were fresh off the assembly line! I called for one of the remarkably chipper flight attendants. She told me that it was necessary for her to make the bed for me. What a rube I was! I stretched my legs and when I returned, it was as though the turndown service for the Waldorf had come through these aisles.

I tucked myself in and encountered a mildly peculiar situation. It’s necessary for one to sleep at an angle—the location for one’s feet is placed not directly in front, but (depending on where you are on the plane) to either one’s left or right, yet, it was remarkably comfortable. Earbuds in, I listened to the Kinks and danced in my bed for the whole of Village Green Preservation Society. (Fodor’s editors have a habit of dancing on planes.) There was enough privacy that I felt like I could dance without anyone watching. There are other business classes that aren’t so accommodating of privacy—I’m looking at you, British Airways!—but here in this wonderful land, I shimmied happily while strapped to my bed, and finally fell asleep.

Six Hours to Go

When I woke, we were over Pakistan. I looked at myself in the mirror—each seat comes with a mirror tucked into a cabinet—I was a haggard mess. The flight attendants, however, still had smiles glued to their faces. My head hurt, but a bottle of water had been placed beside me during my slumber—they really do think of everything. Not ten minutes later, I was given three canapés: smoked haddock, cucumber salad with Cajun chicken, and roasted pumpkin. Then came a lovely little three-course meal that started with—and I was quite surprised by this—a fennel and orange cured salmon trout, followed by seared lamb loin with cabernet sauce, and lastly, a pineapple mousse.

 

1. Fennel and orange cured salmon trout 2. Seared lamb loin with cabernet sauce

 

About that orange cured salmon trout: Fish on a plane could very easily provoke a bathroom queue longer than the wingspan of the Spruce Goose. And there had been not only one, but three servings of seafood on this plane. But up here, on this plane, I saw nothing but clean plates.

Four Hours to Go

Well, it had been 13 and a half hours and I was happy. The jitters mostly fled my body somewhere over the Labrador Sea and was gone for good by the time the North Sea came into sight. I’d been wined and dined, entertained and rocked to sleep, but dammit, I hadn’t written a word.

So, in a bit of a stupor, I cranked out these two thousand words and used up the rest of that 30MB on thesaurus.com.

The Last Hour

How weird to feel this way—I wasn’t anxious. But I wasn’t happy, either. I wasn’t even drunk. I was sad. We were over Thailand, heading for Malaysia, and I didn’t want it to end. It had been almost 17 hours and I didn’t want to leave. I had nested here. This was my home. I wanted my wife and dogs to move in with me. I wanted more time to sleep, to eat, to think, to dream, to write. What I discovered in this small moving island in the sky was a tranquility that I never find in a plane—I rarely encounter it on the ground. My mind didn’t collapse into catastrophic thinking but rested within wonderment and the anticipation of adventure.

So, when we finally landed at Changi Airport at 4:30 pm the following day, I was not only excited to eat and explore my way through Singapore, but I also couldn’t wait to hitch a ride back and experience the world’s longest flight all over again.