Whilst they sound very similar, non-stop and direct flights are not the same. As the name suggests, non-stop will fly between two cities without other stops, direct flights may have them. This dates back to a time when stops on flights were much more common than they are today. But the terminology remains the same – and is often confused.
To start with the simplest case, a non-stop flight is exactly what the name implies. It will fly between two airports, without any stops on the route.
This may seem obvious, and indeed the vast majority of flights today are non-stop. But this was not the case in the early days of flying. Prior to the jet aircraft of the 1950s, regular stops were very common.
In the US for example, regular transcontinental non-stop flights did not start until the mid-1950s (they were possible before that but not as common). Prior to that, two-stop flights (with the DC-2) had been offered since 1934 and one-stop (with the DC-4 and Lockheed Constellation) since 1934.
Non-stop transatlantic service was not regularly offered until 1958. British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) was the first airline to offer this, with a de Havilland Comet service between London and New York, soon joined by Pan American World Airways (Pan Am).
A direct flight refers to a flight between two cities, with a single flight number. A direct flight can involve one or more stops on the route. These can be to pick up or offload passengers, or just technical stops for refueling. In some cases, they can involve a change of aircraft.
Direct flights are an important part of airline operations and marketing. An airline may advertise, and sell, a flight between two cities – carrying a single flight number – but this does not need to be offered as a single non-stop flight. This is common in the US aviation market but can happen everywhere.
Many cases of both short and long haul direct flights operate today. It is less common internationally though (unless needed for technical refueling) as the airline may not be able to sell the sector outside its home country separately. Cathay Pacific, for example, offers several flights a day between Hong Kong and Singapore, all carry a single flight number but some of them make a stop in Bangkok (and the airline sells Bangkok to Singapore as well).
Many ultra-long routes may involve a stop (although more are becoming non-stop with newer aircraft). British Airways daily flight BA15 from London to Sydney, for example, involves a stop in Singapore, so it is direct but not non-stop.
Choosing direct or non-stop
These days, many shorter non-stop flights are not priced differently to direct ones. Cathay Pacific flights, for example, from Hong Kong to Singapore are not necessarily more expensive on the non-stop flights but are certainly preferable and worth spotting when booking.
With the increase in ultra-long flights though, some airlines are offering premium non-stop services, as was more common when such services started in the 1950s and 1960s. Singapore Airlines, for example, offers a non-stop Singapore to New York service on its Airbus A350-900ULR. This is a business and premium economy only service (thankfully, as it over 18 hours long). It also offers a lower-priced one-stop service via Frankfurt (with economy class).
Another term to bear in mind is ‘connecting’ flights. We include this here as a reminder just for completeness! A connecting flight involves a change in the flight number. Airlines may still sell these together (and provide a guarantee of connection) but will involve a change of flight and (usually) aircraft.
Would you like to share any thoughts or comments on direct vs non-stop flights? With many longer routes passengers may prefer to stop, or change planes, rather than stay on board for so long – are you one of them?