There is probably no firmer indication that the pandemic – or, at least, the public perception of it – is reaching some sort of endgame than the latest news from the world of aviation. Where, for most of the last two years, the majority of air-travel-related headlines have been pessimistic – which airlines are in financial trouble; which types of aircraft have been grounded – we are suddenly in a moment when the heavens seem to be clear, the horizon open, and concepts like newer, longer and better are back in the conversation.
What are we talking about specifically? Why, nothing less than the holy grail of journeys through the skies. Earlier this month, Australia’s national carrier Qantas announced that it is on the verge of breaking through what might be described as the final frontier of commercial air travel. It has named the plan, somewhat grandiosely, “Project Sunrise” – but this is not a lily that needs gilding. This is the promise of something which has always been beyond the scope of existing technology, but now feels thrillingly close. Non-stop flights between Sydney and London, as well as direct connections between London and Melbourne – and equally seamless services between both Australian cities and New York.
What, where, how and when? All good questions. Most of which will be answered below.
When can we expect non-stop London-Sydney flights to come into operation?
Not for a while, admittedly. For all the fanfare that has accompanied the news, Qantas is only making vague reference to “late 2025” in terms of wheels on runways and wings over oceans. The announcement is more that the airline has placed an order with Airbus for the planes – 12 of them – which will begin leaping hemispheres in three or four years.
Haven’t we heard something along these lines before?
Indeed. The term “Project Sunrise” popped up in November 2019, when Qantas completed a non-stop test flight between London and Sydney in 19 hours and 19 minutes. Of course, the term “Covid-19” also popped up around then, and the remarkable achievement of unbroken motion between said two cities quickly faded into relative insignificance. But it was quite the achievement nonetheless, even with the caveat that the plane in question – a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner – would not have been able to reach its destination in normal conditions. To ensure it did, it was carrying only 50 people. When it landed, it had fuel left for a further one hour and 45 minutes of travel; a buffer that would have been exhausted had the 787-9 been filled to its standard capacity of 290 passengers.
The 2nd @Qantas #ProjectSunrise flight has just departed London for Sydney. #QF7879 is planned to take 19 hr 18 min.
Takeoff weight: 231,920 kg
Fuel: 100,000 kg (not quite full tanks)
Flight plan: 49 waypoints between London and Sydney
Follow live at https://t.co/4vYakqDAjm pic.twitter.com/00EcmmorUi
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) November 14, 2019
What type of aircraft will be used?
Despite conducting its research using the Dreamliner, Qantas has commissioned Airbus to produce a dozen of its A350-1000 aircraft. This is not a new plane. The A350-1000 had its first test flight in November 2016, and entered commercial service as part of the Qatar Airways fleet in February 2018. The existing version has a maximum range of 10,004 miles – which isn’t enough for a journey from London to Sydney without stopping on the way. Qantas’s incoming next-gen models will push the limit with a crafty extra fuel tank.
Will this be the world’s longest flight?
Yes. And it will break the previous record by a considerable chalk. At time of writing, the longest flight on – or, more appropriately, across – the planet is the regular service between Singapore and New York JFK operated by Singapore Airlines. This clocks in at 9,537 miles. Although flight paths can vary (more on this below), the Qantas test flight from London to Sydney was measured at 11,030 miles. A direct connection between New York and Sydney would eclipse Singapore Airlines’s current wanderings as well. Qantas also trialled this route in (October) 2019, arcing across the width of the American torso to California, then arrowing south-west across the Pacific, passing just below Hawaii en route to home soil. This particular jaunt amounted to 10,200 miles – in just over 19 hours.
How much will it cost?
Good question. As ever, the devil will be in the financial details, but soaring from London to Sydney without pausing is unlikely to be a low-cost experience. At least, not until market forces work their magic. Qantas has – not wholly unsurprisingly, when we are more than three years away from the inaugural flight, and in the midst of stubbornly uncertain times – released any prices. But the service will guarantee its economic viability – and, crucially, that the aircraft will be able to complete the journey in one go – by paring back passenger numbers. That means more space for premium travellers, and the bigger profit margins they provide.
Qantas has explained that its ULR (Ultra-Long-Range) A350-1000s will have six first-class suites, each with a separate bed, a “recliner lounge chair” and a wardrobe. There will also be 52 business suites (the largest passenger section by meterage), and a premium economy cabin of 40 seats. There will be an economy zone, accounting for the remaining 140 of the total 238 passengers – but how much it will cost to sit there is still a secret. For reference, a standard A350-1000 can have up to 410 seats.
Doesn’t Qantas already fly non-stop between the UK and Australia?
Another good question. Yes, it does. Or will do again shortly, when its direct link between Perth and Heathrow resumes operations. This no-less-groundbreaking endeavour was launched in March 2018 – again, to noisy fanfare. Inevitably, as with much of the Qantas schedule, it has taken a Covid-related sabbatical, but it will be back in the air on May 23.
However, it is a tribute to the sheer size of the Australian landmass that a direct flight between the country’s only major city on the Indian Ocean and London is not quite the rare feat that the non-stop Heathrow-Sydney service will be. Perth’s position way out west (as the capital of Western Australia) shortens the distance to “just” 9,009 miles – and an in-air time of about 18 hours. Qantas has been able to run the route using Boeing 787s.
However, the announcement of the non-stop London-Sydney service has cast doubt over the necessity for a direct equivalent from Perth. Ben Harvey – a broadcaster and journalist for The West Australian – offered a forthright and somewhat indelicate opinion on the matter earlier this week. “There’s gonna be f*** all Londoners who want to come to Perth instead of Sydney,” he ventured. “The Poms have two choices. Fly to Perth, and then go four or five hours on a flight to the east coast, because that’s where the cool stuff is. Or fly direct to the cool stuff.” Qantas’s accounts team are unlikely to phrase it so roughly, or in words that disparage Perth so unfairly, but this thought may be percolating.
What happens if the plane runs out of fuel?
It won’t. Airlines and their passengers fall out regularly over long delays, lost baggage, cancelled services and missed connections, but crashing your customers into the ground because you haven’t put enough gas in the tank is generally seen as a PR no-no. Planes always take off with a reasonable amount of “spare” fuel, in case of extreme weather, heavy head-winds, traffic congestion at the destination, or any other issues which might unduly delay an arrival – but airlines also have stop-gap airports on hand should the situation become dangerous. Since 2013, and a commercial partnership with Emirates, Qantas’s standard Sydney-Heathrow flight has paused in Dubai on the way. It is likely that a similar arrangement will be built into the non-stop service, in case of emergencies.
What is the effect on the human body of 20 hours in a plane?
Ah yes, the good questions keep coming. In short, being cooped up in a small space for that length of time isn’t ideal, and can only exacerbate the traditional health risks of long-haul flight (for example, the threat of deep-vein thrombosis). Qantas has said that seats on its London-bound A350-1000s will be pitched at 33 inches in economy (and 40 inches in premium economy), which is marginally bigger than normal (the industry standard tends to be 31-32 inches). But anyone opting for such a long journey will need to pay particular attention to the usual self-help measures – regular “breaks” to stretch and walk around the cabin, plenty of water etc. Qantas has also revealed that its next generation of London-bound planes will have “a dedicated Wellbeing Zone designed for movement, stretching and hydration” – which will make a difference, assuming it is available to all passengers. The published flatplan for the new A350-1000, which shows this relaxation area between the economy and premium economy compartments, suggests that it will be.
Of course, it is not only the impact on passengers which needs to be considered. Asked about her experience after she had landed, Captain Helen Trennery – who piloted the test flight between London and Sydney in November 2019 – had a few suggestions regarding the safety of future ultra-long-haul flights. She said she would be comfortable with flying the non-stop London-Sydney route, but recommended that pilots only take on such jobs once a month, as “they will be very, very long flights, and fatiguing over the long term.”
— Qantas (@Qantas) November 14, 2019
Is a non-stop flight “greener” than a service with stops?
Popular wisdom has it that a non-stop flight is better for the environment, as the greatest surge of fuel use is during departure. On this basis, one take-off means a lower level of emissions than two. However, there are concerns that a flight of the distance of London to Sydney negates any such “benefits”. Speaking to The Guardian earlier this week, Dr Tony Webber – a former chief economist at Qantas, now based at the aviation school at the University of New South Wales – argued that non-stop UK-Australia flights may actually be less fuel efficient than those which pause en route. “It’s true that reducing four movements – a take off and landing for each leg – means less fuel is burned,” he said. “But for a plane to stay in the air for 20 hours without refuelling means [it is] carrying an enormous amount of fuel. That extra fuel is extra weight, which in turn means you’ve got to burn more fuel overall to carry it. It’s a real inefficiency compared with flights that can carry less and refuel at a stop-over.” A standard return flight to Sydney from London, with a break in Singapore, emits around 3,500kg of CO2 per passenger. Qantas says that its ULR A350-1000s will be 25 per cent more fuel-efficient than previous aircraft models.
Will the war between Russia and Ukraine make any difference?
The nervous answer is that if this appalling conflict is still rumbling on when Qantas’s “late 2025” launch date comes into view, the planet will surely have far more serious issues to contend with than the viability of non-stop flights between London and Sydney.
The technical answer is “yes and no”. Shortly after the war erupted, Remco Steenbergen, the chief financial officer of Lufthansa, said that Germany’s national carrier will need to raise flight prices to offset the extra cost of flying around Russian and Ukrainian airspace to reach the Far East. Whether a similar diversion would increase the cost – but crucially, also the distance – of a direct Qantas service is unclear. The conflict would have made a difference to the 2019 test flight, which picked a path across Russia, before turning south-east over Kazakhstan, China and the Philippines. If Qantas retains its ties with Emirates and Dubai, including in its flight paths, it will be less of a problem. As will be the case for anyone settling into economy for 20 hours, it’s a matter of “wait and see”.
A brief history of the world’s longest commercial flight
December 17 1903: 37 metres
The Wright brothers’ changed the world 119 years ago, but, at first, only for 12 seconds.
1914: 17 miles
The planet’s first commercial air service was a short hop on a small section of Florida’s west coast, between St Petersburg and Tampa – operated by forward-thinking early aviator Tony Jannus and his “flying boat”, as “The St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line”. For all its rewriting of the travel rules, it was only a partial success. It lasted four months.
1934: 746 miles
Pan American Airways, founded in 1927, makes a big splash in the burgeoning world of continental air-boat travel. Using its new Sikorsky S-42 plane, it adds a record-breaking Brazilian leg – between Recife and Sao Luiz – to its overall route between Miami and Rio.
1936: 2,405 miles
Pan Am again, with the first long leap into the Pacific; a Martin M-130 flying boat, carrying just seven passengers – crossing from San Francisco to Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.
1943: 3,512 miles
Qantas enters the fray with its “Double Sunrise” service between Perth and Koggala in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) – part of the preservation of the air-link to Britain during the war.
1952: 3,854 miles
Pan Am re-takes the record with a service between Honolulu and Tokyo – using the state-of-the-art Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, with its twin passenger decks and pressurised cabin.
1957: 5,593 miles
Pan Am’s rival Trans World Airlines (TWA) ups the ante by flying a Lockheed L-1649A Starliner from LA to Heathrow via the North Pole, on September 29 – a trip of 5,456 miles. It ups it again on October 3 via a 5,593-mile odyssey from San Francisco to Paris.
1961: 5,677 miles
Israel’s El Al sets a new benchmark with a connection between Tel Aviv and New York.
1967: 6,253 miles
Aerolineas Argentinas goes big with a non-stop flight between Buenos Aires and Madrid.
1976: 7,417 miles
Pan Am inaugurates the first non-stop service between North America and Australia, connecting San Francisco with Sydney across 13 hours of flying time – and a lot of ocean. It will break it again, at a squeak, with a 7,488-mile Los Angeles-Sydney service in 1982.
1991: 7,968 miles
South African Airways connects New York and Johannesburg without pausing for petrol.
December 1991: A new world
The formal dissolution of the Soviet Union opens up the skies above Russia, ushering in a new era of long-haul flights, as technological leaps continue to facilitate greater distance.
2020: 9,765 miles
Air Tahiti Nui is forced to think laterally as Covid-19 strikes. With the US border closed, it is denied its standard stop-off in Los Angeles, so starts flying its route between Papeete and Paris directly. The service only operates in the March and April, before the world grinds to a halt, but this is enough to eclipse the then- (and once again current-) world record – the Singapore Airlines odyssey between Singapore and New York (9,537 miles).