- Qantas is testing the new world’s longest flight, New York to Sydney, on Friday. Business Insider will be on board, reporting from the test flight.
- The flight, at nearly 10,000 miles and 20 hours long, presents several potential challenges, including how to keep passengers comfortable and pilots and cabin crew rested and alert.
- Qantas has said it hopes to launch the route – and a direct between Sydney and London – by 2022.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Australian airline Qantas is preparing to run its first nonstop test flight from New York City to Sydney, a route that no airline has been able to do without stopping. At 20 hours, it would be the world’s longest flight, surpassing Singapore Airlines’ nonstop flight to Newark airport near New York.
Business Insider will be on board the New York-to-Sydney test flight, dubbed “Project Sunrise,” on Friday, reporting from the air.
Qantas also plans to test a nonstop flight from London to Sydney in the coming months. That route would be about 500 miles longer, adding up to an hour of flight time.
Airplanes and airlines are more technically advanced than ever before, with better fuel efficiency, longer ranges, and computer-aided logistical planning. But as some flights get longer, the question is whether passengers and flight crews can tolerate more hours in the air without a layover to break things up.
Right now, a commercially viable direct flight between Sydney and New York or London isn’t possible. No commercial aircraft has the range to fly the nearly 10,000 miles with a full passenger and cargo load.
Two planes in development from Airbus and Boeing would have that capability. Qantas has said that it will decide by the end of 2019 which one it will use and that it expects to start commercial service as early as 2022.
For the test flight, the airline is using a brand-new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. It’s taking delivery of the jet from Boeing’s factory in Seattle, then flying it to New York to position for the trial run. To give the plane the range required for the nonstop flight, Qantas will have only about 50 people on board, including this reporter.
Qantas said the test flight would serve as a data-gathering mission, with a team of researchers from Sydney University on board and on the ground monitoring passengers’ “sleep patterns, food and beverage consumption, lighting, physical movement and in-flight entertainment to assess impact on health, well-being and body clock.”
It said that scientists from Monash University would monitor “crew melatonin levels before, during and after the flights” and that pilots would “wear an EEG (electroencephalogram) device that tracks brain wave patterns and monitors alertness.”
The challenges of flying for 20 hours straight
While the technical component of such a flight would be possible once Boeing and Airbus complete their ultra-long-haul jets, the toll on the human body and brain is a legitimate concern.
Nearly 20 hours in the air is a long time, particularly when you add time spent waiting for boarding to finish, for taxiing, and for runway availability. Even the best plane-sleepers can have trouble feeling rested, and landing 15 time zones away from the departure city can be disorienting. Meanwhile, the side effects of dry cabin air and the mild, usually harmless hypoxia that comes from being in a pressurized airplane cabin – dry skin, headaches, dehydration – are likely to be amplified by the longer flight time.
That’s aside from the perennial concern about blood clots in leg tissue, known as deep vein thrombosis, that can form after long periods of sitting still as blood pools in the lower extremities. While this is a risk on shorter flights as well, more time in the air without moving around can be problematic.
Jet lag, of course, is also an issue. While that would exist regardless of flight route – 15 time zones is a lot to cross – symptoms can be exacerbated by the discomfort of an ultra-long-haul flight.
There are also concerns for the crew. Pilots and cabin crew members are prohibited from working past a certain number of hours, meaning Qantas will need to bring extra crew members to allow pilots and flight attendants to rest. However, the quality of rest (there are typically small crew quarters with beds hidden from passengers’ view) can be subpar.
Qantas would need permission from Australia’s aviation regulator to fly the route, as cabin crew members would need to be on duty for more than 20 hours – even with extras on board to facilitate rest periods – and the airline would need a new deal with pilots.
The upsides of a nonstop flight can make the challenges worth overcoming
But there are also numerous potential upsides.
Flying from New York to Sydney now takes nearly 24 hours in the best case, with one stop, though flight times can also reach 40 hours with a longer layover. Qantas flies the route with about a 90-minute stop in Los Angeles.
Shaving four or five hours off that flight time can be crucial for business travelers who need to maximize time on the ground. Not having to stop and change planes could be useful for passengers.
Since Qantas is likely to price the flights for business travelers whose companies are willing to pay a premium to save a few hours, there’s a lot of profit potential. And modern long-haul planes, which are up to 20% more fuel-efficient than previous generations, can help keep costs down.
There’s already precedent for the upsides. Last year, Singapore Airlines relaunched its direct flight to New York, currently the world’s longest flight, and has seen a positive response. The direct flight, which otherwise took at least 21 hours with a stop, is scheduled at 18 1/2 hours.
Singapore has operated ultra-long-haul flights for more than 10 years, even before relaunching the New York flight, and has found that passengers simply prefer to save time.
“The convenience of bypassing intermediate points, as well as the opportunity for a longer window of uninterrupted sleep, are two of the principal benefits these flights deliver,” an airline representative said. “Many of our passengers travel between the US and Singapore (or beyond) one or more times per month, so the time savings becomes a critical business tool.”
Jade Lynch, the head of marketing for FCM Travel Solutions Asia, is based in Singapore but frequently travels back to New York, where she lived previously. (Disclosure: Jade is a friend of mine.) She’s found the nonstop flight indispensable.
“The added time of stopping somewhere and breaking the journey up just isn’t worth it to me,” she said. “I get more time on the ground when I fly direct, and when I factor in the time difference and losing time when traveling particularly between New York and Singapore, it seems like a connection is time wasted.”
Singapore flies an Airbus A350-900ULR on the route, outfitted with only business class and premium-economy seats – no cramped seating in regular coach. Qantas has not announced whether it plans to configure its planes similarly on its long-haul route.
Qantas’ longest route right now – nonstop between London and Perth, about 17 hours – has also seen a positive response since launching in 2018. Flights are 94% full, on average, with more than 155,000 passengers flying the route in its first year, the airline said.
“There were a lot of expectations around this flight, both within Qantas and the broader community, and frankly it’s exceeded them,” said Alan Joyce, Qantas’ CEO.
Will it actually happen?
Qantas has been teasing the nonstop flights for years and is clearly excited about the prospect. Plus, Singapore’s success suggests Qantas can expect similar outcomes.
But the challenges are certainly formidable. The first test flights should provide useful information about how to make sure passengers are comfortable – even though the mostly empty cabin will not perfectly replicate real-world conditions – and how to ensure that pilots and crew members can remain rested and alert enough to perform the flights. Based on the results, Qantas can begin to work on the regulatory and labor hurdles.
Of course, economics remain a challenge as well. Fluctuating fuel prices and environmental concerns will also play a role, along with customer response.
Similarly, delays in aircraft development may force Qantas to push its hopeful launch date further back; it’s unclear when Boeing’s 777X aircraft will enter service. Qantas has also said it will launch the flights only if it can get a favorable price for the planes, regardless of whether it goes with Boeing or Airbus.
“There’s plenty of enthusiasm for Sunrise, but it’s not a foregone conclusion,” Joyce said in an August statement announcing the test flights. “This is ultimately a business decision and the economics have to stack up.”