Australian Airline Qantas is running tests on a planned direct flight between Sydney, Australia and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. If it happens, it’ll be the longest commercial flight in the world, a marvel of aviation engineering and — based on early reports — an absolute nightmare.
The flight covers 16,254km and takes 19 hours and 30 minutes in a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. That’s about 800km and 45 minutes longer than the current long-haul route champion, Singapore Airlines’ flight from Singapore to Newark.
There are all kinds of problems that come with sitting still in a lower-pressure, lower-humidity, louder environment than humans are accustomed to. As Qantas runs tests to find out how to mitigate those issues, they invited some journalists aboard to see what that kind of flight is like. A Bloomberg reporter on board notes the airline’s attempt to reduce jet lag issues:
Our plane has just left JFK International Airport, and it’s already become a flying laboratory. Since the goal is to adapt to our destination’s time zone as fast as possible, we click into the Sydney clock right off the bat. That means no snoozing. The lights stay up and we’re under instructions to stay awake for at least six hours — until it’s evening in Australia.
This immediately causes trouble for some passengers.
Down one side of the business-class section, six Qantas frequent flyers are following a pre-planned schedule for eating and drinking (including limiting alcohol), exercise and sleep. They wear movement and light readers on their wrists and have been asked to log their activities; they’ve already been under observation for a few days and will be monitored for 21 days in total. Most of them are bingeing on movies or reading books, but one of them is dozing within minutes. To be fair, I feel his pain. It may be the middle of the day in Sydney, but my body is telling me it’s pushing midnight back in New York.
Of course, long-haul flights with crazy time changes are nothing new. And 19 hours and 30 minutes isn’t substantially different from the 18 hours and 45 minute flight already in service today. The big problem, though, is that while the Bloomberg reporter says he felt fine and other passengers were able to sleep and eat good food and be generally happy, that won’t be the experience for most people on board:
The plane’s 40 passengers, including media, are all in business class: With so few passengers, nobody needs to travel economy. In an interview, Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce tells me the real Project Sunrise flights — if they go ahead — will have more legroom in economy than standard planes, and there will be some space at the back of the aircraft for stretching.
So unlike the guys “testing” this flight in lie-flat seats with gourmet meals, most people will be sitting upright with a bit more legroom than usual on this day-long flight. That’s a significant distance from Singapore’s flight to New York, which only offers business class and premium economy.
To make an encomy section possible, they need a new plane. Part of the reason that Singapore doesn’t have economy is that if you had a typical seating configuration on the A350 operating the route, there would be too many passengers and too much luggage. With the amount of fuel required to travel 16,093km, an A350ULR carrying a full passenger load would be over the airframe’s maximum take-off weight.
The 787-9 that Qantas is using for the test flights also can’t do the job as it currently stands, which is why so few passengers can be on board. They’re even carrying lighter weight foods, according to Bloomberg.
Increased legroom and a stretching area will certainly thin out the weight a bit, but there’s not much they can do to make this not awful. The one time I got to fly international business class, I realised at the end of the day I was still in a tube for 9 hours and still desperately wanted to be done with it by the end of the flight. I can’t imagine over twice as long in an upright seat.
But Qantas is undeterred in its “Project Sunrise,” which aims to connect Sydney directly to New York and, eventually, London. Ultimately, there’s no way that flying between New York or London and Sydney won’t suck. The airline is betting that this’ll suck less than two 10-hour flights with a chance to get delayed or stuck with a long layover.