Qantas is about to test the world's longest nonstop flight, taking passengers from New York to Australia in 20 hours
- Qantas is testing the new world's longest flight, New York to Sydney, on Friday. Business Insider will be on board and reporting from the test flight.
- The flight, at nearly 10,000 miles and 20 hours long, presents a number of potential challenges, including how to keep passengers comfortable, and how to keep 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, Australia, a route that no airline has been able to do without stopping. At 20 hours, it will be the world's longest flight, surpassing Singapore Airlines' nonstop flight to New York's Newark airport.Business Insider will be on board the New York-to-Sydney test flight dubbed "Project Sunrise," and reporting from the air.Advertisement
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 today than ever before, with better fuel efficiency, longer ranges, and computer-aided logistical planning. But as the duration of 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 currently in development from Airbus and Boeing will have that capability - Qantas has said that it will decide by the end of 2019 which one it will use, and 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, and then flying it to New York to position for the trial run. To give the plane the range required for the nonstop, Qantas will only have about 50 people on board, including this reporter.The test flight will serve as a data-gathering mission for Qantas, 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 [engagement] to assess impact on health, well-being, and body clock," the airline said.Advertisement
Scientists from Monash University will also work with the pilots to monitor "crew melatonin levels before, during and after the flights." Pilots will also "wear an EEG (electroencephalogram) device that tracks brain wave patterns and monitors alertness."
The challenges of flying for 20 straight hours
While the technological component will 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, taxiing, and waiting for runways. 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 - will likely be amplified by the longer flight time.Advertisement
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 prove to 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.Advertisement
There are also concerns for the crew. Pilots and cabin crew 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 passenger view - can be sub-par.
Qantas would need permission from Australia's aviation regulator in order to fly the route, as cabin crew will need to be on-duty for more than 20 hours - even with extra crew on board to facilitate rest periods - and the airline will need a new deal with pilots.
The upsides of a nonstop can make the challenges worth overcoming.But there are also numerous potential upsides.Advertisement
Flying from New York to Sydney currently takes nearly 24 hours in the best-case, including one stop, although flight times can also reach 40 hours with a longer layover. Qantas currently flies the route with an approximately 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 prove to be useful for passengers.Since Qantas will likely 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. Plus, modern long-haul planes, which are up to 20% more fuel efficient than previous generations, can help keep costs down.Advertisement
There's already precedent for the upsides. Singapore Airlines re-launched its direct flight to New York in 2018 - it's currently the world's longest flight - and has seen a positive response. The flight, which otherwise took at least 21 hours with a stop, is scheduled at 18-and-a-half hours direct.Advertisement
"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," a spokesperson for the airline said. "Many of our passengers travel between the U.S. 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 currently 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 non-stop 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 travelling particularly between New York and Singapore, it seems like a connection is time wasted."Advertisement
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 the long-haul route.
Qantas' longest route - nonstop between London and Perth, which runs about 17 hours - has also seen 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."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.Advertisement
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 that Qantas can expect similar outcomes.However, the challenges are certainly formidable. The findings of the first test flights should provide useful information about how to make sure that passengers are comfortable - even though the mostly-empty cabin will not perfectly replicate real-world conditions - and how pilots and crew 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.Advertisement
Similarly, delays in aircraft development may force Qantas to push its hopeful launch date further back. The date of entry into service of Boeing's 777X aircraft is uncertain. Qantas has also said that it will only launch the flights if it can get a favorable price for the planes, regardless of whether it goes with the Boeing or Airbus option."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."Advertisement
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