What it's like to ride the world's longest flight

  • Australian airline Qantas Airways tested two record-breaking flights from New York City to Sydney and London to Sydney.
  • I got to be one of the lucky passengers aboard the airline's first test from John F. Kennedy International Airport. At nearly 19 and a half hours long, the flight broke the record for the world's longest flight at the time.
  • With only 50 passengers onboard, the flight was a test to see how ultra-long flights affect passengers and crews.
  • As an experiment to minimize jet lag, passengers were kept to a strict sleeping and eating schedule and lights were set to Sydney time throughout the flight.
  • Pilots were outfitted with brain scanners and required to partake in urine tests to monitor fatigue.
  • Qantas hopes to bring these flights to regular service by 2023, but first, they have to find a plane that can technically make the flight and prove that people's bodies can withstand nearly 20 hours in the air.
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Following is a transcript of the video.


David Slotnick: I have never been on a flight where people are so excited to take off. Just 19 hours to go.

Back in October, I flew on a nearly 20-hour flight from New York to Sydney with Qantas Airways. But this wasn't your ordinary long-haul trip. There were only 50 people on board because this was a test flight to see how ultra-long flights affect passengers and pilots. But is bringing a flight like this to regular service possible? And would customers even want to be in the air that long without a break?

Normally if you're flying from New York to Sydney, you'll have to stop for a layover, which usually adds to jet lag and takes longer than a direct flight. So airlines have been working towards more convenient routes. Qantas Airways recently tested two flights: New York City to Sydney and London to Sydney. At nearly 19 1/2 hours long, they each set the record for the longest passenger flight in the world at the time.

The test flights were aboard a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner that only had about 40 passengers and 10 crew members on board. Because, technically, these planes couldn't make the distance with a full payload. They would've run out of fuel.


Sean Golding: We have two crews, four pilots in total. We'll have a team A and a team B, and we'll be swapping throughout the night to ensure that the pilots get adequate rest.

Slotnick: Pilots gave urine samples every four hours to test melatonin levels. They were also outfitted with an activity monitor, a light monitor, and an EEG headset to monitor their alertness.

Golding: There's a whole bunch of sensors in behind this strap here that are measuring our brain wave activity.

Slotnick: So, obviously, this was no ordinary flight. We were making aviation history.

Just getting ready to take off. 20 hours till Sydney.


Pilot: Qantas 7879, we really appreciate your help tonight, and this will be part of history, with linking these two great cities of New York and Sydney. And 19 hours and five minutes later we should be touching down in Sydney.

Slotnick: We were flying in business-class seats, but the Qantas team asked us to rotate through the coach cabin to balance out the weight on the plane. So I tried out the coach cabin, but obviously I preferred my business-class seat.

We've got about 18 hours and 17 minutes to go. So it's gonna be a slightly shorter flight than the 20 hours that was a possibility. That's really just 'cause the winds are working with us, the way that the captain was able to plan the flight. We're not expecting any bad weather, and that's gonna help us fly just a little bit faster.

If this had been a normal long-haul flight, the plane would have stayed on New York time throughout the flight, which typically makes it hard to adjust to a new time zone when you arrive. But on this flight, the plane and its passengers switched to Sydney time right away as part of an experiment to minimize jet lag.

Marie Carroll: Everything about the cabin lighting, everything about the food, will be designed either to keep people awake or to induce them to go to sleep. And so we're hoping that they're going to end up getting off the plane and be quite comfortable in Sydney time.


Slotnick: Throughout the flight, we had to follow a sleep schedule. But normally passengers wouldn't have had to do this.

Right now, the cabin lights are all bright, everybody's walking around taking pictures, and we're really just trying to, you know, power through and stay awake. To keep us from falling asleep, we were encouraged to get up and walk around. I went and checked out the crew quarters, where cabin crew members and pilots can take a nap between their shifts.

Then it was time to eat. This is the first meal. This is the one that's a little spicier: chocolate, chilies, peppers. The first meal was light, spicy, and flavorful, helping us stay wide awake. We weren't supposed to have any alcohol because it would make us sleepy.

After lunch, we were asked to stay awake for the next four hours until dinner. Some people watched movies, and others chose to keep moving, stretching, squatting, and even dancing.

Definitely starting to feel a bit tired. It is 3 o'clock in the morning, New York time. We're about to have our dinner and then after that the whole plane is gonna go to sleep.


The flight crew came and put mattress pads on each of the seats. Then it was time for a heavy dinner that would make us want to sleep.

Cabin lights are dimming. Define tly feeling tired. It's been almost 21 hours that I've been awake. Super excited to go to sleep.

At the touch of a button, the business-class seats folded flat into a bed. Then the flight attendants turned off the lights to match Sydney's nighttime. I passed out almost immediately and slept so hard.

I just slept for more than eight hours, which is the best I've ever slept on a plane. We have just under three hours to go.

In the morning, the lights were brought up slowly with a warm glow, copying Sydney's sunrise. Right away, we had breakfast. And before I knew it, we were coming in on Sydney. We landed at 7:43 a.m., 19 hours and 16 minutes after taking off from New York.


Even after crossing 15 time zones, I didn't feel jet lagged. And all the other passengers I spoke to felt the same. Qantas hasn't released the pilots' biometric data yet, but the pilots told me they felt great after the flight. 20 hours in the air wasn't as hard on my body as I thought it would be.

The new service flow really did help me adjust to Sydney time a lot faster than had I broken up the trip with a stop. But I really think getting up and moving, eating the right food, and sleeping on Sydney time is what made the flight easier. Plus, we got there a lot faster.

While I would totally take this flight again, I'll have to wait. Qantas says it won't actually start regular service until 2023. I flew it on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. However, Qantas picked the Airbus A350-1000 for the future routes.

But before Qantas starts flying, it has to convince investors that this'll make money and that passengers would actually wanna take this flight. Then they have to convince regulators that crews can work the long flight safely.

Right now, Singapore Airlines holds the record for the longest commercial flight: a 19-hour daily flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Singapore. But with its test flights through Project Sunrise, Qantas is getting closer to flying these routes as regular service and holding the record for the world's longest flight.


Alan Joyce: Project Sunrise is our attempt to overcome probably the last frontier in aviation. And that opens up just about every destination in the world we can fly nonstop to.

Slotnick: Shortly after my flight, Qantas flew another successful test flight from London to Sydney. It came in at 19 hours and 19 minutes, setting another record for the world's longest flight. But Qantas' CEO said that's not what it's about.

Joyce: We're not aiming to have the title of the world's longest flight. For us, it's about having the world's most convenient flights, to avoid stopovers, and that's what we're aiming for.