The epic logistics behind Qantas’s new 20-hour non-stop flight

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Masochists rejoice: this week, the first step to you being able to fly non-stop from London or New York to Sydney, an expected 20-hour journey, will take place. On October 18, Australian airline Qantas is trialling test flights between the destinations, which will see passengers travel up to 17,000 kilometres to Australia’s biggest city. The journeys will push the measuring stick a little further beyond the current longest non-stop flight in the world, a 15,344 kilometre flight between New York and Singapore, operated by Singapore Airlines.

Qantas is testing the route as part of a plan to introduce more “ultra-long haul” flights to connect Australia more directly with the rest of the world.

Enabling such long flight times requires a total overhaul of the aeroplane to make sure it works – and a raft of tweaks inside the cabin to try and make such a long journey tolerable.

“Passenger boredom is rather separate from the technical aspects of what you do,” says Loughborough University aviation expert David Gleave. Modern planes such as the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, which Qantas will be using for its test flights, are relatively light, with large wings and fuel tanks. But they need to be augmented with extra fuel tanks underneath the wings and in some of the cargo areas. Supplementary fuel tanks to ensure the plane doesn’t need to refuel can even be placed in the tail.

Not all that fuel will be used, though: adding one tonne of fuel in London and flying a plane for 20 hours will result in a 60 per cent loss of that fuel simply through carrying the extra weight of the fuel. “Most of the fuel you add in London or New York will have gone by the time you get to Sydney,” Gleave explains.

For years, both Airbus (used by Singapore Airlines for its ultra-long haul flight between New York and Singapore) and Boeing (which is used by Qantas for this test flight) have sought to reduce fuel burn – the rate at which they go through fuel. “New tech means lighter engines and more efficient planes,” says Gleave. As well as reducing the weight of the plane, and therefore making it cheaper to run, a lower fuel burn rate also helps mitigate one of the major concerns around air travel nowadays: its impact on the climate.

At the same time, cutting the number of passengers able to take the flight helps smooth the journey. According to Gleave, every ten passengers equates to one tonne of weight. Fewer passengers means less money coming in, though – so Qantas is likely to reconfigure its cabins, if such an ultra-long haul flight eventually goes into service, to allow for more business class and premium economy passengers. “Some airlines make more money from their premium economy passengers than they do from their business class passengers, because they pay quite a premium on economy, half the business class rate, but take up less than half the floorspace,” says Gleave.

Still, this isn’t an economic decision from the airline, Gleave reckons. “It’s much more expensive to fly the plane direct [to Sydney] than it is to stop,” he says. The associated costs with that extra distance are not cancelled out by the gains in new custom. “It’s just a unique selling point.”

Such long flight times come with their own challenges. As well as having to track out a flight route that works all year round, regardless of seasons and weather – a hard task given the flight time and the margin of error required – there’s passenger health and wellbeing to consider. “We know from basic science of circadian rhythms that a bigger time difference between departure and arrival locations, and travelling east rather than west, tends to mean people feel more jetlag,” says Stephen Simpson, academic director of the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, which is working with Qantas to investigate the impact on passengers. The researchers are monitoring the passengers, made up mostly of Qantas employees, who will take Friday’s flight to try and better understand what contributes to jetlag and travel fatigue so they can reduce its impact. No more than 40 people will be on the flight at one time – including crew and “passengers”.

The partnership has already proved fruitful: in 2018, the Centre helped Qantas develop menus for its 14,499 kilometre route between London and Perth that it was hoped would mitigate against the worst effects of jetlag. The menu limited the times in which some ingredients such as chilli were served in meals to assist the body’s natural rhythms, and serving a hot chocolate drink laced with tryptophan, an amino acid designed to trigger the body’s sleep cycle.

The passengers on the test flights to Sydney will be given wearables to monitor the impact of travelling on their mental state, anxiety, immune function, sleep patterns and recovery from jetlag. Those on this week’s flights have had data collected in the weeks running up to the flight, and will be monitored during and after their journeys.

On the plane itself, Qantas and the Charles Perkins Centre are trying a number of different tricks to try and make the flight as easy for passengers as possible. As well as another new menu to try and reduce jetlag, the group has worked with industrial designer David Caon to change the lighting in the cabin. “It provides short wavelength light at high intensity – mimicking daylight – at the optimal time to help shift the clock towards destination time, while lengthening wavelengths and dimming intensity at other times when to stimulate clock shifting would make jetlag worse,” says Simpson. One thing there won’t be: mandated exercises or walks to stave off deep vein thrombosis. You can sit still for 20 hours if you really, really wish.

While the focus of the research is on the passengers, there are crewing challenges when it comes to serving such a long flight. Two sets of flight crew will likely be needed to tackle the flight as pilots can’t fly for 20 hours alone – though double-crewing is already standard for any flights between 14 and 16 hours. “Cabin crew you can rotate slightly differently from the flight crew, but nevertheless, there is a maximum amount of time that you can have on shift that needs to be negotiated with the EU as well as aviation authority medics,” says Gleave.

For Boeing, it’s a boon – but not necessarily financially. “I don’t think manufacturers are going to sell an extra 200 aeroplanes because of it,” says Gleave. “It’s fairly niche, but it’s one of those things you can boast you’ve done.”

Once the test flights are carried out in the coming three months, Qantas will decide whether or not to pursue them as a viable route for all passengers. And with that, the long-haul race will likely be over. Any farther-flung destinations between the UK and Australia can be quicker to fly the other way round, and there are few other popular tourist destinations worldwide so far apart as London or New York and Sydney. “Realistically most other things are within the 14-hour range of planes out there at the moment,” says Gleave.

But even if the science proves feasible, Qantas may well decide it’s a dream not worth pursuing. Without a high proportion of business class and premium economy passengers travelling on the route, the economics of a non-stop flight to the other side of the world just won’t add up.

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