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Frequent flyer: Ultra-long-haul flights

Qantas is testing routes from Sydney to New York and London — so what do we need to know about the feasibility and health implications of ultra-long-haul flights?

Published 1 Jan 2020, 06:00 GMT
Ultra-long-haul flights
Ultra-long-haul flights
Photograph by Getty

London to Sydney nonstop… is it on?
Long regarded as an aviation holy grail, nonstop flights between London and Sydney could soon become reality. Australian airline Qantas has been carrying out test flights from its Sydney HQ to both New York and London. The theory is that with new planes on the market capable of implausible distances, we could soon see direct routes. Official launches in 2022 or 2023 have been suggested.

Why hasn’t it happened yet? 
It was initially because no planes could manage the distance (it’s around 10,600 miles between Heathrow and Sydney), but now it’s more about being able to squeeze enough passengers, luggage and freight on board to stop fares being prohibitively expensive, while balancing the right amount of fuel. Put simply, no airline has found a way to make it pay.

Are there planes with these capabilities?
Aircraft that have been around for a while can manage fair old distances. Emirates, for example, on its Dubai to Auckland route,
uses an Airbus A380, which has a maximum range of 8,200 nautical miles. The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner can manage 7,635 nautical miles, although that can be pushed a bit further without a full passenger and cargo load; Qantas used the aircraft on its 8,750-nautical-mile test run to New York, but the plane was nowhere near capacity as it wouldn’t have the fuel to complete the journey otherwise. The Airbus A350-1000, meanwhile, can fly up to a range of 8,000 nautical miles, and the soon-to-be-launched Boeing 777-8 will be able to do 8,730 nautical miles. If Qantas does go ahead with a London to Sydney route, it’s likely to be with a tweaked version of one of these two.

Is there much demand for this?
The idea of spending 21 hours on a plane might not appeal, but few people enjoy layovers. Since Qantas launched its London to Perth route in 2018, flights have, on average, been 92% full, with business class at 94% full — proving there’s a market for nonstop journeys. The New York and London test flights involved research on how the journey could affect pilots, crew and customers, including monitoring pilot brain waves, melatonin levels and alertness, as well as exercise classes for passengers.

Is this better for the environment? 
No. Full fuel loads are the key to making this work, and the more fuel a plane is carrying over longer periods, the more fuel is burned keeping the plane up in the air.

Is there much demand for other long-haul routes?
This could be where the plan falls apart somewhat. Routes between Australia and Europe or the east coast of the US could do well for a handful of airlines, primarily Qantas. But if Boeing and Airbus are going to specifically design ultra-long-haul planes to cover the very longest routes, they’ll probably need more customers. And, at present, there are few potential routes of comparable length that would have sufficient demand for a nonstop flight. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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