Qantas’ Research Flight Travels 115% Of Range With Undercrowded Cabin

Long-haul flights can be a real pain when you’re trying to get around the world. Typically, they’re achieved by including a stop along the way, with the layover forcing passengers to deplane and kill time before continuing the flight. As planes have improved over the years, airlines have begun to introduce more direct flights where possible, negating this frustration.

Australian flag carrier Qantas are at the forefront of this push, recently attempting a direct flight from New York to Sydney. This required careful planning and preparation, and the research flight is intended to be a trial run ahead of future commercial operations. How did they keep the plane — and the passengers — in the air for this extremely long haul? The short answer is that they cheated with no cargo and by pampering their 85% empty passenger cabin. Yet they plan to leverage what they learn to begin operating 10,000+ mile non-stop passenger flights — besting the current record by 10% — as soon as four years from now.

Breaking A Record

Qantas chose a Boeing 787-9 for the special ultra-long-range mission.

The aircraft chosen for the flight was a Boeing 787-9, fresh from the Seattle plant where the planes are built. The test flight would act as both research for Qantas’s future long-range operations, as well as serving to deliver the plane to its new owner. Normally, the 787-9 has a range of 8800 miles, carrying 280 passengers in a typical three-class arrangement.

With the distance from New York to Sydney coming in closer to 10,100 miles, sacrifices were made to reach the longer distance. The research flight, dubbed Project Sunrise, would carry just 40 passengers, along with 10 crew, including 4 on-duty pilots. These limits were in place in order to reduce the takeoff weight of the aircraft, thus reducing the fuel use and improving range. The plane also carried no cargo, and tanks were topped off before flight with 101,000 kg of fuel. The plane was expected to land with approximately 6000 kg remaining, giving 90 minutes flight time for contingencies.

Human factors were key to the ultra-long-haul operation, too. With an estimated flight time of over 19 hours, crews would need to run shifts far in excess of typical requirements. Special considerations were made to rotations, in order to ensure fatigue did not have a negative impact on crew performance. All pilots were on duty for take off and landing, sharing a series of 5 1/2 and 2 1/2 hour shifts throughout the duration of the flight. Crew were fitted with EEGs to measure brain activity, along with light monitors and physical activity monitors to determine the effects of the extended operation on the body.

Exercise was used in conjunction with lighting and a special menu to help passengers adjust as quickly as possible to the Sydney time zone.

Additionally, several passengers were included in experiments to assess the impact of jet-lag when flying direct almost halfway around the world. Cabin lighting was carefully controlled to help adjust circadian rhythms as quickly as possible. Even the meals were specially prepared, with the first course featuring spicy, stimulating cuisine aimed to help flyers stay awake, while the second course featured carbohydrate-rich comfort foods to lull passengers to sleep. A special exercise regime was also included, featuring a rousing Macarena at 2AM. It’s likely this will deter some flyers, this writer included, but jet lag remains a very real problem. The difference between science and tomfoolery is writing it down, and the flight’s researchers collected data in spades. The crew went so far as to collect urine samples every four hours to measure melatonin levels, while participants’ reflexes were tested using an iPad app at intervals during the journey. Additionally, many were asked to keep sleep and activity diaries both before and after the flight for further analysis.

Smooth Sailing… If You Have Lie-Flat Seats and a Workout Area

With the utmost attention paid to every detail, it’s no surprise the flight was success. Departing at 9:30 pm from New York, the flight designated QF7879 landed at Kingsford Smith Airport, Sydney at 7:43 AM, 19 hours and sixteen minutes later. [David Slotnick] reported feeling remarkably well rested compared to a more typical long-haul flight, noting that the journey saved 3 hours and crediting the rigorous anti-jet lag regime. Meanwhile, TIME Magazine’s [Angas Whitley] noted that switching immediately to the Sydney timezone required commitment and strength of will, but that he would choose the direct flight over a layover in future, where possible.

The crew of QF7879 celebrates landing the first Project Sunrise research flight.

While the flight was successful as a research project, it’s likely it will be quite some time before the route is operational commercially. Project Sunrise had just 40 passengers, whom all flew in business class, complete with lay-flat seating to assist with rest. Additionally, the galley had the services of a dedicated chef for the duration of the flight, and a team of researchers attempting to make the journey as painless as possible. These luxuries cost money, and with the vast majority of the plane’s seats empty, such a flight is a long way from being commercially viable. It’s also important to contemplate the difference in experience that would be had flying over 19 hours in coach, with much reduced legroom, amenities, and no provision to sleep lying down.

Looking to the future, Qantas aims to be flying these routes with real customers by 2023. This will be enabled through new aircraft, with the Airbus A350 or Boeing 777X touted as potential candidates. To ease the struggle of such a long flight in economy seats, the airline is exploring the creation of a “common area” for passengers to exercise. This will be combined with the lessons learned from Project Sunrise, which will guide decisions around catering, lighting, and crew going forward. While the technology may not be quite there yet, it’s an exciting look at what’s just around the corner in commercial aviation.

34 thoughts on “Qantas’ Research Flight Travels 115% Of Range With Undercrowded Cabin

    1. I just flew from Dulles (DC) to Tokyo, which was a 13hr shift. The jet lag wasn’t bad going over, but it about killed me coming home. Not sure why, but it’s always worse coming back for some reason.

  1. “The difference between science and tomfoolery is writing it down” – I just got done explaining this to some trainees today, although the way you’ve put it was a bit more concise than mine ;-)

  2. “…with the first course featuring spicy, stimulating cuisine aimed to help flyers stay awake…”

    I hope they have awesome restrooms and plenty of them. The last thing I want to experience is 19+ hours of queueing up for a toilet after a spicy meal. (c:

  3. Thanks for pointjng out what so many of the breathless news articles (marketing pieces) glossed over – this was a handful of passengers, in business class with lay-flat beds. There is very little resemblance between this pjnlicity stunt and most long-haul flights. Just another gimmick for rich people.

      1. But it’s also a test run. They don’t want to overload the plane, and do we know tgese were paying passengers?

        They are checking feasibility, to gather data for implementing a regular flight.

        Early passenger flights required a lot of effort, arranging stopovers and later risky flights as they stretched the distance. No luxuries there. It got better as planes got better, and way more people per airplane.

        They coukd bring back dirigibles, slow but faster tyan shios, and surely energy efficient. Luxuriius, but not many passengers. Greta could use one now, needing to get back to Europe.

  4. Our daughter and family live in the London and we live in Sydney Australia. We visit hopefully each year on flights that take between 23-29 hours in cattle class.
    A 19 hour flight would be so much better. Would want a bit more leg room and seat width like we get in the Sydney to Hong Kong leg (9 seats across) rather than the Hong Kong to London leg (10 seats across and less leg room). Would like an area where we could walk around instead of the aisles.
    The airline would save time, landing and takeoff fees, and fuel with a direct fees. Perhaps that could go towards a little more space for cattle class. As long as there is little increase in costs (we need to save our pennies for the annual flights) we would definitely go for these long flights.
    We remember back when travelling regularly to LA became a direct flight compared to a terrible Honolulu stopover.
    Bring on the single Europe flights :)

    1. Layovers actually help to save lots of fuel. Because you burn a disproportionate amount of fuel during the first portion of a leg to lift all the fuel you need for the rest of the leg. And that math gets exponentially more expensive the longer the leg.

      1. I’ve done the melbourne/london 24 hour flight (or so) via singapore about 50 times over the years. In the early days I didn’t get off the plane in singapore – now they make you do that – and I used to sleep for the majority of the flight…

        So a direct flight would be much much better, and I can’t see what they are ‘worried’ about..

        1. Yep its this which is the killer.
          Wake everyone up from the festering slumber, kick them off the plane.
          Dont tell the first timers tht if they take drinks or food off with them they wont be allowed to take them back on again !!
          Pass everyone into the gate, out the gate and into security to go back into the same gate again.
          Let the arguments start with those that brought water with them.
          Generally piss off 400 people.

          This, when the stop is for fuel and it’s not a desitination stop.
          Fix this problem and the layout flights wont be so much of a big deal AND some much time would be saved by leaving folks on the plane.

          The toilets are bad enough after a 16hr flight. Some carriers dont clean them either during that stop over, just all loo roll.
          After 20hrs+ there is going to be a smell swamp leaking out of some.
          Espeically depending on what part of the world the flight started in will be a huge factor in state of toilets.

      2. I highly doubt that it saves anything at all. Do you have numbers?
        Though it’s true it burns a bit more when heavy, and can’t get to the optimum cruising altitude when fully loaded, I doubt landing, taxiing, refueling, then fighting your way back up to altitude through dense air really saves anything, especially when you take airport fees into account.

        1. Exactly! Take off burns the most fuel, taking off twice surely would burn more than if the fuel tank was half full each time, no? I guess the cost would depend on where the stopover was (for taxes and other charges). Cabin crew rates would be higher and probably the same with pilots for longer flights, but how often do they change the crew during re-fuels? There are a lot of monetary factors other than fuel costs.

          1. That’s a good Wikipedia article. I wish it had specific numbers on that particular claim though (that it is more fuel-efficient to make a refueling stop for distances less than 3000 nm). The following figure in the article implies that tripling the range from 2500 nm to 7500 nm uses an average of 6.4% more fuel per nm, yet the previous figure implies the taxi-out fuel cost is around 20% of the total fuel burn (which seems really unlikely)

            Other sources (like imply the taxi fuel burn is more like 1% of the fuel capacity of the plane. (A chunk of that might even just be the APU?)

            Airbus 320 data indicates the cruise burn rate is ca. 20% higher with full tanks vs near-empty.
            Boeing 737 data indicates that climb-out phase (~20 minutes) uses the same amount of fuel as one hour of cruise, but covers only a quarter the distance. This is obviously partly compensated by the descent, which is at idle for 20 minutes or so.

            It’s clearly not a trivial question. It seems clear that in some cases flying with part-empty tanks and refueling halfway will save a small amount of fuel (provided a refueling stop happens to be in the right place).

            It does beg the question though: If you’re planning to stop for fuel anyway, why the heck did you pick an oversize plane to fly the route in the first place? You could have used a smaller plane with smaller tanks and less dead weight of airframe!

  5. I flew Dallas-Sydney on what (at the time) was the longest scheduled commercial flight, on Qantas’ spankin’ new A380. Billed as 17 hrs, it was actually 18.5 hrs in-seat time. This flight was insignificantly longer, but I do hope what they learn from the research will improve comfort and quality.

    My last trip to Oz I improved dramatically simply by not going through either Dallas or LAX(eeww), but Vancouver instead. The 16 hour flight is pretty much the same, but the total absence of the TSA and CBP on the trip improved the quality and enjoyment immensely.

    1. Extra cost for the fuel burned by the tanker plane to haul the fuel out to top up the tanks of the other plane. The only airliner type aircraft to do in air refueling are the two planes that serve as Air Force One and Air Force Two.

      Any fixed wing aircraft with the US President aboard operates under the Air Force One call sign. If the VP is aboard but the President is not, the call sign is Air Force two. There are other call signs for when members of the P or VP families are aboard without the P or VP.

      For helicopters the call sign is Marine One etc.

    1. It’s not the climate change itself that has to be denied, but any human influence on the climate. The climate-hysterics want not less than attack our lifestyle. That is not acceptable, be there this “Greta”‘s PR stunts and sailing trips or not.

  6. My own experience:

    BNE-SNG Qantas ~8hrs. Depart BNE ~8am, arrive SNG, expect up to 5 hrs wait for the next leg. 5 hours at SNG Changi is not a problem. There’s shopping, restaurants, a cinema, and even a foot therapy salon where little fish nibble away the stress from your lower legs.

    Depart SNG, ~13 hrs, arrive LHR somewhat jet-lagged, but more of a “weary traveller”, rather than “jet-lagged zombie”

    I’ve done it in economy, and I’ve done it in premium economy. Never going back to economy unless I have no other option. I’ve never had anything to complain about Qantas food, drink, or service.

  7. It isn’t as bad as the lies from Virgin Galactic where they never passed the karman line yet claim they have been in space, however it is still an ethically questionable thing to do, and no surprise given that their CEO has form when it comes to poor ethics.

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