As ‘Project Sunrise’ research flight takes to the skies, we ask is ultra-long travel really just pushing passengers too far?

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The airline industry has a history of records from fastest flight to longest flight, the highest to the biggest, there’s a list as long as an A340-600 of impressive stats and figures that celebrate the innovation and scientific advancements in the airline industry. For a sector celebrating a centenary this year its amazing how far the passenger experience and airframes have developed in such a short period of time.

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When you compare this to the car which has had a 30-something-year head start, the advancements in aviation far exceed that of an automobile and its infamous combustion engine. But, today sees the airline industry courting the idea of pushing passenger experience to the limit with some of the longest flights in the world. Qantas is now toying with the idea of removing the historic ‘Kangaroo route’ with it’s infamous hops across the globe to a direct-East Coast Australia to Europe and East Coast USA option.

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QF7879 currently flying one of the future ultra-long-haul flights

Project Sunrise by Qantas is weighing up whether the aviation industry would be able to support a direct flight from some of the world’s major city hubs – crossing over half the globe to the Australasia region. These are some of the most travelled routes, and highly lucrative. The recent Perth to London flights by Qantas are seeing some healthy load factors which showcase an appetite for this direct country to country route, however the flight is competing with an existing SYD-SIN-LHR itinerary right now. Therefore, the pricing from Qantas has to balance both routes’ fares and this might be giving the carriers’ direct option an unfair advantage.

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Could Qantas opt for Premium Economy as a minimum for such a lengthy trip?

While we usually feature the business class experience, it’s suffice to say that reviews of the Perth – London route are much more favourable in Business Class than economy, where passengers seem to enter some kind of delirious state. Weirdly, there is a report of one passenger who managed to never leave his seat for the entire trip. We’ve dubbed this passenger ‘Bladder of steel’.

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Could this really be a home to passengers for over 20 hours?

But in economy, could a direct flight, which crosses the unimaginable 19-hour mark be one step too far? Would passengers be willing to sit in a seat for 19 hours, with just the same old blockbuster movies for company? How can the airline change the passenger experience to give passengers a bit of respite for a seat that was never designed for a route of that length.

It’s interesting to see that Qantas is using the 787 for this current route. It’s their only aircraft capable of making the route currently (with payload restrictions) but it also features the carrier’s tightest economy width with their 3 x 3 x 3 economy class. While passengers in Business Class will probably say that while a tiresome trip, is manageable, those in economy have probably already broken into a brawl over the queue for the toilet.

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In comparison, the SYD-SIN-LHR flight on the A380 offers large social spaces and the same seat comfort as well as a stopover. 

While airlines will always promote such a route as a game-changer, there needs to be a limit to the amount of PR spin, and more a focus on what this does to the body, and not only of the passenger, but the crew, who are being put to the limit of human endurance. Will a crew member who has been on duty for over 20 hours be able to be as responsive as one who has flown just 12? Of course, there will be crew breaks, but their body is subject to the same (if not more) stress during the course of the flight. One almost expects the breakfast service to be a tense affair where heaven forbid they’ve run out of the most popular option. Even worse on the cockpit would be a CAT III landing at Heathrow, or a go-around last minute when the crew are fatigued.

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Concorde served a purpose, designed with specific passenger needs in mind

This concept is a little bit reflective of the Concorde project, which served a purpose connecting the two most important business centres many years ago, before the age of teleconferencing. The project, only affordable to a small elite group, served a purpose, connecting New York and London / Paris when time was as valuable as the cash it bought.

Now, technology (as well as 9/11) ground an early halt to the project, where the most important meetings could be hosted virtually. While the new project sunrise will potentially shave 1 or 2 hours from the quickest connecting option, in reality who needs to really arrive 2 hours earlier for the sake of convenience, especially when consumer habits dictate they expect to have to connect. Delta offers a connecting flight currently at 21hrs 50 minutes, just 1hr 30 difference from the direct option just landing as we write this.

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The Jewel in Singapore’s Changi is an example of how airports are becoming destinations in themselves

The connection itself has suddenly become a commodity which airlines have historically tried to remove from the passenger experience. However in comparison to the much lauded future option, those in economy could relish the opportunity to stretch their legs, grab some fresh (or airport conditioned) air and even enjoy a 2 or 3-day stop over in some of the most exotic places in the world. Whether that’s Hawaii to East Coast USA, or Singapore, Dubai, Qatar, Bangkok or even Taiwan on the way to Europe (to name just a few).

Could it be that the invention of a direct flight will actually change passenger preference to enjoy a stop over on the way? On such long flights, could it also be that frequent flyer programmes will have to change too – no longer benefiting passengers with extra tier points or miles from taking two connecting flights instead of one more expensive direct one?

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Back in 1989 a 747 flew a direct flight between London and Sydney, albeit without any passengers.

While Qantas are monitoring the crew on this test flight – dubbed QF7879 – to measure the fatigue placed on both crew and passengers, there will be an element of adrenalin from the crew operating such an innovative flight, which has to be taken in to consideration too. To offer a truly fair examination on the effects of the body which includes the jet lag element, the trip should be repeated several times, also at several times of year.

Interestingly, if the flight was operated just the day before, a large East Coast storm would have added hours upon hours of delay to the departure, which is something the airline has to consider, especially when the airframe is being pushed to the limits of endurance at two very congested airports – Heathrow and JFK.

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On Singapore’s longest flight from EWR to SIN, the lowest cabin available is Premium Economy 

While we may sound dubious, that’s far from the case. What we would like to see is a reimagined passenger experience for these very special flights. Singapore Airlines already opted against an economy cabin on their longest EWR-SIN flight, with just Business Class and Premium Economy on their A350 aircraft operating the route.

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Qantas already offers Yoga classes in its Perth lounge prior to the longest flight it currently flies commercially. 

Could it be that Qantas will become the only airline to offer an economy class bar? Or what about a social stretching area, maybe even an in-flight Yoga class, or showers in economy? While the latter is probably a no-go due to the weight implications of carrying so much water, it does raise the question, what suddenly becomes the most important passenger experience touch point to a passenger on the longest route in the world.

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Could Emirates’ First Class showers become a standard offering on Project Sunrise in every cabin?

Or will Qantas, like Singapore Airlines admit that even this flight is too much for an economy passenger. After all, there are no less than 40 crew operating this test flight. Combined with the extra weight of full tanks, the passenger is going to bear the brunt of the additional cost for the convenience of such a momentous direct flight. Now that raises the question, would any passenger pay more to save just 5% of the total flight time. Something that could be undone by a simple traffic jam on those inferior automobiles from the airport to their final destination?

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Only time will tell if Project Sunrise will become a reality, or like any sunrise, finally become a sunset, and be sent to bed, as human endurance just wasn’t as strong as the technological endurance that the industry is able to provide. We would love to know what your thoughts are, based on travelling in economy, if a 19+ hour direct flight is more preferable to a connecting flight? And whether this is a flight of fancy, or a solution to a problem that we fear, may not exist in the first place.

One comment

  1. Brad

    i couldn’t sit in an economy seat for that long a time. Its too much. I find even 10 hour business class flights to be taxing. I think this will have to wait until a new mode of transport is created or planes are powered to fly ultra supersonic speeds. I am sure something is on the horizon.

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