Is there a difference between a nonstop flight and a direct flight? If you ask the average person, they’d probably assume there isn’t. Meanwhile if you ask a frequent flyer, they probably do know the difference. I wanted to take a closer look at this topic — let’s first talk about nonstop flights, and then we’ll talk about direct flights.
What is a nonstop flight?
A nonstop flight is exactly what you think it is — it’s a single flight that takes off and lands once. The flight doesn’t make a stop on the way. In other words, if you fly without a stop from Tampa to Chicago, or from New York to Tokyo, or from Los Angeles to Paris, those are all nonstop flights. Pretty simple, right?
What is a direct flight?
You’d think that a direct flight would be the same thing as a nonstop flight. After all, the word “direct” is defined as “moving from one place to another by the shortest way without changing direction or stopping.” For whatever reason, airlines decided to redefine the word altogether.
A direct flight is a single flight number that includes one or more stops along the way. When you book a direct flight:
- You have the same flight number for the entire journey
- You generally have the same aircraft for the entire journey, so there’s no risk of misconnecting
- You may or may not have to get off the plane at the connecting airport, as it depends on the specific airline and airport
- For us mileage geeks, you typically only earn miles for the distance between the origin and destination, and not for the connecting airport (this only matters for frequent flyer programs that credit miles based on distance flown rather than dollars spent)
This differs from a standard connecting itinerary, where you typically have two or more flights with different flight numbers, operated by different aircraft, with the risk of misconnecting.
For example, Singapore Airlines flies between Los Angeles and Singapore. The airline has up to two daily nonstop flights, which operate between the two airports without making any stops, and take around 17hr10min. Then the airline also has a “direct” flight, which operates via Tokyo with the same flight number the whole way, and takes 19hr55min. Passengers do have to get off the plane in Tokyo.
Southwest Airlines is also known for its direct flights, though in the case of Southwest, you can stay onboard during any stops. For example, flying between Tampa and Baltimore, there are some flights with connecting itineraries, and some with “direct” flights, where you have the same flight number and aircraft all the way through. The below example shows a direct flight through Providence.
What’s the point of airlines operating direct flights with one or more stops?
- They’re typically operated either because the economics are better of making a stop along the way, or due to general limitations with how far an aircraft could fly; for example, Qantas operates from Sydney to London via Singapore with a direct flight, which is because there’s not currently an aircraft that can operate that route nonstop
- Direct flights are often used as a marketing technique, both to make consumers feel like an itinerary is efficient, and also to give them the peace of mind of knowing that they won’t misconnect
Are nonstop flights also direct?
Here’s a topic that tends to divide avgeeks. Is it wrong to refer to a nonstop flight as direct? If you ask me, it isn’t wrong. After all, a nonstop flight is basically the very definition of “direct,” which is to move without changing direction or stopping. Yet that’s not how the term is generally used in the airline industry, where direct has a completely different meaning.
So if you ask me:
- Technically it’s not wrong to refer to a nonstop flight as being direct, since it meets the very definition of the word
- However, it’s more precise to refer to a nonstop flight as nonstop rather than direct, given the other meaning of direct; and if you’re talking to people who know a lot about the airline industry, referring to a nonstop flight as direct will perhaps make you seem a bit less knowledgable
Nonstop and direct flights aren’t the same thing, at least as the airline industry views it. A nonstop flight goes between two places without stopping, while a direct flight goes between two places with one or more stops.
Unlike a standard connecting itinerary, though, a direct flight is typically operated by the same aircraft the entire way through, limiting the inconvenience of having to change planes and minimizing the risk of misconnecting.
What’s your take on the nonstop vs. direct flight distinction?