Qantas To Test 19-Hour Flights Between Sydney And New York, A First For Commercial Airlines

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A Qantas commercial plane takes off at Sydney Airport on March 14, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
A Qantas commercial plane takes off at Sydney Airport on March 14, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Australia's Qantas Airways is testing direct flights from New York and London to Sydney, with flight times lasting 19 hours. No commercial airline has ever flown direct from New York to Australia.

The airline is calling the test flights "Project Sunrise," which are scheduled to begin in October. They're hoping to learn more about how to make such a long flight bearable for those aboard.

“It'll certainly be an endurance test not only for the passengers, but for the flight crews, says Captain Larry Rooney, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

Passengers on the Qantas test flights will be fitted with wearable technology to measure their melatonin levels, and the pilots will wear EEGs to track brainwave patterns. Rooney says he is most concerned about those onboard developing hypoxia because of the long exposure to dry air and the altitude.

“The typical cabin of an aircraft would be equivalent to Denver plus 1,000 feet or so,” he says. “But for an extended period of time, rather than the 10 hours that would be pretty commonplace today, to extend it to double that amount of time, I think that that would be something that the people would be looking at.”

Interview Highlights 

On how many pilots would be needed for these long flights

“That would be a huge component as well, and I mean, it's uncharted territory at this point. As flights get progressively longer, the airlines have to staff with additional pilots, and that's for several reasons. The importance is that the most alert crew is the crew that lands the airplane at the destination. In order to do that as flights get longer and longer in length, they keep adding additional crew members, so that there's always somebody that is able to get rest. And again, the goal is to make sure that the most-rested pilot is the one that completes the landing at the end of this long endurance flight. We have added additional crew members and additional crews, but to get to the length of flights that we're talking now, ... it's uncharted territory as to how the regulators would require those airplanes to be staffed.”

On how airlines can make passengers more comfortable on long flights

“I can't speak for an individual carrier because I'm sure that each of them would use the accoutrements that they provide on the airplanes as a technique in order to get sales, I would think. But this would be something that a passenger would have to prepare for as well. Because of the long endurance, the way that a passenger would would treat a flight to this length in order to be as comfortable as possible on the arrival, certain things would, you know, as far as their habits, alcohol would be one that would certainly would want to be much lower in intake when a flight is of that length because of the dehydration issues that normally occur on flights of extreme lengths.

“The ability for a passenger to get up and move, too. As we keep cramming more and more people into the airplanes, the ability for them to have free space and to be able to move around becomes more and more restrictive. It's my understanding though that the flights today, the ones that have been these ultra ultra long flights have not been packed with economy class seats. They're more where they're business class or better so that the passengers that are traveling on these extreme long flights have the ability to move around more than they would if it was a domestic 737, let's say.”

On the technology that makes longer flights possible

“As technology increases, the airplanes are getting lighter because of the composites that they're now able to build into the design. The engines become more efficient, and as such, they have longer durations that they can obtain because the fuel feeds the engines for longer since they're not quite as thirsty as they used to be. And with that, you're starting to see now these ultra long flights that are taking place because of the abilities for the airplanes to do it. I think where we have to really look at this is the human machine — the interaction with the human machine — because of the technology increases, we have to ensure that the human machine is up to the challenge as well.”

On how much fuel it would take to complete one of these long trips 

“I would suspect it's all that the airplane would hold. But yeah, it would be to the absolute limit. You're talking a 20-hour flight. As what that would be in pounds, I'm not sure what the fuel burn of that particular airplane is because they're all slightly different.”

On how much further you could push these planes to travel 

“Actually, the plan would determine the ability for the flight to operate. The regulators do require airplanes to have a certain amount of reserve fuel available to them when they arrive at the destination. The flight crew, the captain and the dispatcher who are responsible for the flight, would have to discuss whether or not that particular flight, that particular [routing], the weather that they would be facing on the arrival would allow that flight to operate nonstop. There's many times where flights that could maybe go nonstop if all the conditions were right, would have to make a technical stop for fuel somewhere in route just because they couldn't push it to that extent if they needed to pad the fuel reserves for contingencies, for weather, for delays that could happen. So these are all things that go into the flight planning phase, and this would be no different for an ultra long flight.”

On how these flights represent the next frontier in aviation 

“They're the next frontier in aviation because there'll always be another frontier in aviation. I think that ... we've learned that over the years from looking back to the 1920s to where we are today, I think we're constantly improving and trying to get better technologies. Certainly what we fly with today, our cockpits are worlds apart from what I started with 35 years ago. So there's many many changes ... and I think we'll continue to see these changes as we go forward.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 30, 2019.

Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.



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