Qantas hopes its ultra-long-haul flights will go the distance

Flights mark first time a commercial airline has flown direct from New York to Sydney

Qantas Airways will begin testing the longest direct flights in the world next Friday, as the Australian airline aims to stretch the boundaries of technological innovation in a bid to woo premium passengers from rival carriers.

The flights will mark the first time a commercial airline has flown direct from New York to Sydney – a distance of more than 16,000km – and only the second time it has been between London and Sydney, a route of more than 17,000km that is expected to take up to 20 hours.

“This is one of the last big challenges of modern aviation,” said Sean Golding, a Qantas captain who will pilot the first New York-Sydney test flight. “It gives us the opportunity to connect cities without having to stop over, which saves passengers three or four hours.”

The test flights are part of “Project Sunrise”, a plan by Qantas to operate nonstop commercial flights from the east coast of Australia to London, New York, Paris, Frankfurt and destinations in Latin America and Africa, such as Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro.


It follows the launch of several other ultra-long-haul routes by rivals, which have been made possible by the development of a new generation of fuel-efficient and better-designed passenger jets by Boeing and Airbus.

Singapore Airlines flies the world's longest commercial route between New York and Singapore, a distance of 15,344km using Airbus A350-900ULR aircraft.

Qantas is using Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner planes for the test flights, which will carry only about 40 people for research purposes to enable the jet to fly a distance at the very edge of its range. It already uses the same Boeing aircraft on its Perth-London route, a 14,499km flight it launched last year, which can carry 236 passengers.

Alan Joyce, Qantas chief executive, said the flights would provide invaluable research data on the comfort and wellbeing of passengers and crew as the airline prepares to make a decision by the end of the year on whether to launch direct commercial services to New York and London by the end of 2022.

“The launch of ultra-long-haul flights enables Qantas to put itself at the forefront of the industry and defend its fortress hubs in Melbourne and Sydney from competitors, which operate stopover hubs in Singapore, Dubai and other parts of Asia,” said Chrystal Zhang, associate professor of aerospace at RMIT University in Melbourne.

She said time savings on ultra-long-haul flights are popular among business passengers, while families on leisure travel are attracted by the reduced hassle of having to change planes.

The emergence of Middle Eastern stopover hubs such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha over the past 15 years, and the more recent growth of Chinese carriers, has dramatically increased competition for Qantas on popular European routes, including the so-called “kangaroo route” from Australia to the UK first flown in the 1930s. More than 25 airlines now provide services to Europe from Australia.

Qantas challenged Airbus and Boeing two years ago to design jets capable of flying further than 17,000km, which requires 20 hours in the air.

The two manufacturers recently submitted “best and final” offers to provide the Project Sunrise aircraft, which they say can travel the distance while carrying a commercial payload. Airbus is offering a longer-range version of its A350-1000 while Boeing is pitching a version of its 777X plane.

John Strickland, an aviation analyst and founder of UK-based JLS Consulting, said both companies will be “pitching hard” for the prestige of a deal that will highlight the capabilities of their long-range aircraft.

However, some analysts note Boeing may be handicapped by delays. Work on its 777X-8 was recently put on hold as the manufacturer looks to overcome problems with the GE engine on its main 777X-9 variant.

The US aircraft maker also faces the challenge of fixing software problems on its 737 Max aircraft that caused two crashes and led to their grounding. But Boeing’s existing ultra-long-haul relationship with Qantas on the Perth-London route means it cannot be ruled out of the race for the prestigious contract.

Boeing said it looked forward to working with the airline “to reach new frontiers in commercial aviation”.

Despite Qantas’s aggressive push into ultra-long-haul flying, aviation analysts believe these services will remain limited and are unlikely to disrupt the global aviation market.

“This will probably remain a niche segment,” said Andrew Lobbenberg, an aviation analyst at HSBC in London. “Ultra-long-haul flying raises fuel consumption even with modern efficient aircraft,” he said.

Mr Lobbenberg also said crew costs are high, given the need for multiple pilots and onboard rest facilities. “Airlines will have small specialised sub-fleets of ultra-long-haul aircraft, which limits efficiency.”

Qantas has told Airbus and Boeing it does not want to buy a new generation of jets that can only fly a few ultra-long-haul routes. The airline wants to have the flexibility to use the jets on medium-range routes as well and is investigating whether manufacturers can provide seating in some sections that could be removed rapidly between flight turnrounds to provide an exercise area for the longer journeys.

“Ultra long haul is now technically viable but airlines will need the market dynamics to be right with enough demand from business and premium economy passengers,” said Brendan Sobie, an independent aviation analyst. “Stopover hubs will still have a cost advantage.”

Qantas has indicated that the launch of ultra-long-haul flights will depend on achieving new labour agreements with its pilots and reform to regulations on crew working hours. But the success of its Perth to London route, where flights are averaging 94 per cent full, has created an appetite within the company to embrace such routes.

“I don’t think any airline has as much experience as Qantas when it comes to long-range flying,” said Mr Joyce. “And that puts us in the box seat to pursue something like Project Sunrise. It’s final frontier stuff and, if we can make it stack up, it’s going to change how a lot of people travel.”

Passengers and crew on board Qantas’s three trial flights face a battery of tests measuring their response to being cooped up for almost 20 hours on an aircraft and how best to return their body clocks to normal.

“Jet lag makes you feel lousy and anything you can do that helps bring you back to the land of the living is important for long-haul flying,” said Marie Carroll, professor at the Charles Perkins Centre, a health research unit at the University of Sydney, which is collaborating with Qantas.

Researchers are analysing the role of sleep, dietetics and physical activity in reducing stress and enhancing passenger experience. They began gathering data from passengers seven days prior to Friday’s flight and will monitor them for two weeks after the flight.

During the test flights, passengers will wear devices on their wrists to measure movement and sleeping patterns. They will be directed to take exercise to mitigate the risk of deep vein thrombosis and have their sleep and alertness measured.

Qantas will adjust the schedule of its in-flight service and sleeping times for two of the three test flights to begin acclimatising passengers to their destination time as soon as they board in a bid to reduce jet lag. Menus will be tailored to either induce sleep or wake up guests at the appropriate times.

Under separate research conducted by Tracey Sletten, a sleep specialist at Monash University in Melbourne, Qantas crew will wear electroencephalograms in headbands to measure their alertness and sleeping patterns during rest periods.

“The main risks from fatigue are that it slows reaction times, reduces concentration levels and can affect decision making and communication,” said Ms Sletten. “But we haven’t seen any major concerns from research already conducted on the London-Perth route.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019