Would You Fly For 20 Hours Straight?

October 23, 2019

With its eye firmly on the future, Qantas, on Sunday, completed the world’s longest non-stop flight from New York to Sydney, the first time a commercial airline has flown directly between the two cities.

The journey took 19 hours and 16 minutes (in the air) and was the first of three “test flights”  aimed at improving passengers’ health and wellbeing on such ultra long haul trips and ensure pilots are able to beat fatigue and fly them safely.

Qantas also plans to test a nonstop flight from London to Sydney in the coming months. That route would be about 500 miles longer, adding up to an hour of flight time.

Qantas used the New York-Sydney flight – and plans to do the same for the London flight – to conduct research into how pilots, cabin crews, and passengers coped with the long flight time, as well as to test efforts to minimise the impact of jetlag as passengers across 15 time zones. Easing the pain of jetlag is a priority of the study. 

The flight – a repurposed delivery flight of a new Boeing 787-9, from Boeing’s Seattle plant – only had 40 passengers and 10 crew, including four on-duty pilots. 

Passengers included several Qantas frequent flyers participating in the research study, off-duty Qantas employees, researchers, and media.

The flight with a full load of passengers and cargo is not currently possible – the heavier load would reduce the plane’s range.

Aeroplanes and airlines are more technically advanced than ever before, with better fuel efficiency, longer ranges, and computer-aided logistical planning. 

But as some flights get longer, the question is whether passengers and flight crews can tolerate more hours in the air without a layover to break things up.

Two planes in development from Airbus and Boeing would have that capability. Qantas has said that it will decide by the end of 2019 which one it will use and that it expects to start commercial service as early as 2023, Alan Joyce, Qantas’ CEO, said. 

Due to the low passenger load, each passenger was allocated a business class seat that could convert into a bed, although passengers were encouraged to spend time in the coach cabin in order to balance the plane.

“I feel better than I usually do,” Nick Mole, one of the passengers in the research study, said about 17 hours into the flight. 

Mr. Mole often flies in business class, but said that he feels better rested after an ultra-long-haul direct flight, rather than one with a connection, including Qantas’ service to New York via Los Angeles.

“I’m not sure I’d want to do 20 hours in the back of the plane, though,” he added.

Qantas flight 7879 lands at Sydney Airport on Sunday morning after flying 19 hours and 16 minutes from New York.

Five and a half hours into the flight, passenger Laurie Kozlovic said he was feeling wide awake and comfortable.

“I’d normally watch a movie and have a glass of wine and my meal and then go straight to sleep,” Mr Mole said.

The 50-year-old travels overseas often for his work for an environment services firm and is one of six passengers who were due to fly home from New York at the weekend but agreed to be human guinea pigs on Qantas’ test flights instead.

“I think the lighting has had a reasonable effect… and the exercise was great; I came back from that feeling fairly invigorated,” he said.

They are all elements implemented by researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre to see if they improve passengers’ mood, health and wellbeing.

Passengers taking part in the study completed alertness tests on iPads four times a day before, during and after the flight to measure how the flight affected them.

With a priority of the study being how to find ways to combat the pain of jetlag, the crew, on take-off from JFK Airport at 9pm Friday New York time, tried to trick the passengers’ bodies into operating at Sydney time where it was already midday Saturday.

The cabin lights remained bright for the first six hours to keep passengers awake, and the first meal served two hours into the flight were spicy and light to invigorate the body (spiced tomato soup, green papaya salad, Jiangxi style fish). Alcohol wasn’t recommended.

An hour after the first meal, an in-flight exercise session was held in the rear galley led by Professor Marie Carroll, from Charles Perkins Centre, clearly invigorating participants.

Professor Carroll said the routines – completed four times through the flight – were aimed at improving metabolic health and maintain proper circulation to combat the risk of deep vein 

The primary flight crew, which also took part in extensive testing, including brain-wave measurements and melatonin analyses, also ate the adapted meals and worked on a custom tailored shift schedule.

The pilot-in-charge, Captain Sean Golding, described the shift period for the four pilots, who worked in two shifts:

“The whole crew will be on for the first hour-and-a-half. Then, I’ll take a two-and-a-half hour break,” said Captain Golding.

I’ll work for the next five-and-a-half hours, sleep for the next five-and-a-half, work the next two-and-a-half, and we’ll all be on for the final approach and landing.

“Sometimes, I sleep better on the long-haul flights than I do at home.” 

Qantas said it will use the findings from the study to improve passengers’ experiences on all long-haul flights. On the proposed new ultra-long haul fight, it’s promised to install bigger seats and dedicated stretching areas for economy passengers.

“Some of these ideas will vary overtime,”Mr Joyce said.

“We’ll be asking people what they think of it, what worked what didn’t work.”  

It will be all about choice… but it makes a difference when we have the scientific evidence to prove what’s working,” he says.

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