After Qantas completed a recent test trip in advance of the launch of the world’s longest nonstop flight linking New York and Sydney, new attention was given to the development of aircraft that can manage long distances comfortably and the management of passengers and crew to get through these lengthy flights without health concerns.

Qantas may soon get the title for running the world’s longest nonstop flight — a total of 10,200 miles — between New York and Sydney. The flight would edge out current frontrunner, Singapore Airlines, which offers an 18.5-hour nonstop flight between Newark Liberty and Singapore Changi that clocks in a 9,534 miles.

The flight, which took off from New York JFK, ran 19 hours and 16 minutes but carried only 50 passengers and no cargo. It used a Boeing 787-9 aircraft, but the carrier, with the full weight of passengers, cargo and fuel, was not designed for the job.

The new aircraft will enter normal commercial service with Qantas. For the long-haul job, however, the A350 and 777X are throwing their hats into the ring in testing that Qantas is calling “Project Sunrise.” In these tests, which will see another test run of the 10,563-mile nonstop London to Sydney route in November and then another JFK-SYD test in December, researchers are not only watching the performance of aircraft but also the health of pilots and passengers.

Tests ranged from monitoring pilot brain waves, melatonin levels and alertness through to exercise classes for passengers.

“This is a really significant first for aviation. Hopefully, it’s a preview of a regular service that will speed up how people travel from one side of the globe to the other,” said Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce, following the completion of a JFK-SYD test last week.

“We know ultra-long flights pose some extra challenges but that’s been true every time technology has allowed us to fly further. The research we’re doing should give us better strategies for improving comfort and well-being along the way.”

Four pilots will be on rotation throughout the flight. Two additional pilots will be in the cabin, having flown the aircraft to New York. Flight will travel at 85% of the speed of sound, which is around 577 miles per hour. Cruising altitude will start at 36,000 feet for the first few hours. Then, as the aircraft weight reduces with fuel burn, the cruising altitude will increase to 40,000 feet.

The research is part of a greater vision by Qantas to launch commercial flights between the east coast of Australia (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) and New York and London. The direct flights would save passengers up to four hours in total travel time and follow the successful 17-hour, 9,000-mile Perth-London route, which started in March 2018 and is the only nonstop link between Australia and Europe.

If all goes well, the new long-haul route is looking at a 2022-23 launch window.

Image: Qantas

Battling Distances and Jet Lag

Meanwhile, studies of passengers travelling on these long-haul Qantas flights has revealed the tricks travelers are currently using to help minimize jet lag.

The research is part of ongoing studies the airline is conducting with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre (CPC) to identify scientifically backed methods to reduce fatigue. The findings will be used to inform future service and product design aimed at increasing health and comfort during travel.

The initial study findings showed 54% of people surveyed used ear plugs or noise cancelling headsets to help them sleep on long haul flights. Thirty-eight percent drank alcohol to aid their sky slumber and 10% used sleeping tablets.

Thirty-nine percent chose healthy food when they arrived at their destination to help with recovery. The study also revealed what passengers aren’t doing, with less than half of travelers (47%) surveyed not making a conscious effort to venture out into the sunshine upon arrival — a proven way to overcome jet lag.

Specialist sleep researcher Dr. Yu Sun Bin, who is part of the CPC team, said while most people actively try to reduce their jet lag, the study with Qantas shows they are not doing what is most effective.

“We know that going outdoors for sunlight at the destination is one of the most important strategies for syncing the body clock, but only 47% of passengers made the effort to do it,” she said. “Drinking more than a few glasses of alcohol will make jet lag worse. It might make us fall asleep faster but beyond a certain point, it also disrupts the quality of sleep and causes dehydration.”

The detailed in-flight studies were conducted across almost 500 passengers travelling on Qantas international flights longer than nine hours. The aim is to establish a baseline to help researchers and the national carrier design new in-flight strategies to promote in-flight well-being and reduce jet lag.

Among the new strategies already implemented for customers travelling on Qantas’ longest flight — Perth to London — are light therapy in the Perth Transit Lounge to help passenger acclimatize to the time zone, outdoor areas in both the lounge and terminal to provide exposure to natural light and a Wellbeing Studio in the lounge to encourage passengers to stretch.

Qantas is also working with sleep researchers from the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC) who will carry out research on pilots and cabin crew.

“Every time a new aircraft has allowed us to fly for longer, people naturally ask about the comfort factor. The fact that the longest flight on our network today, Perth to London, also has our highest customer satisfaction rating shows that you can design an ultra-long service that passengers enjoy. Plus it has the added benefit of getting you to your destination several hours faster, door to door,” said Joyce.

“Project Sunrise is pushing the boundaries even further. We know we need to think harder about crew and passenger well-being when you’re airborne for almost 20 hours, and that’s why this research is so important. A lot of what we’ll be doing is world-first. We’ll be fitting pilots with equipment to monitor their brain patterns when they’re on the flight deck and when they’re resting.”