COLLABORATION

Australian researchers to study human endurance for world’s longest flight

SOURCE: Shutterstock
Can the human body withstand 19 hours of plane ride?

In a first for commercial aviation, Australian university researchers will be boarding three 19-hour test flights this October to December to study the viability of Qantas’ plan to operate the world’s longest flight.

Whilst aboard, they will study passenger and crew mental and physical health and wellbeing patterns, all of which will help the Australian flag carrier provide the best possible conditions to ensure a safe and comfortable journey for future passengers.

The three flights are part of the planning for Project Sunrise, Qantas’ goal to operate regular, non-stop commercial flights from Australia’s east coast (Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) to London and New York. 

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According to a press release on the research, the flights will use new Boeing 787-9s and reroute their planned delivery flights.

This means instead of flying empty from Seattle to Australia, the aircraft will simulate two Project Sunrise routes: two flights will fly from New York to Sydney, while the third will take London-Sydney.

Depending on wind and weather conditions, the flights will take about 19 hours each, making them the world’s longest flight route. The current longest flight is Singapore Airlines’ Singapore-Newark route, which covers a distance of 9,534 miles and takes 18 hours, 30 minutes.

Whilst the New York-Sydney route will be the world’s first-ever flight by a commercial aircraft, the London-Sydney flight will be the second. Qantas first flew the latter route in 1989 to mark the entry into service of the Boeing 747-400 aircraft. Aboard that jetliner was 23 people and minimal internal fit-out to allow for the range.

For these upcoming test flights, there will be 40 people aboard each jetliner, including crew. Carbon emissions from the flights will be fully offset, in keeping with Qantas’ carbon offset scheme. As the flights are purely for research, no seats will be sold.

Those participating will be researchers from Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre and Monash University, a collaboration forged in conjunction with the Australian government’s Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Alertness, Safety and Productivity.

Others in the cabin, most of them Qantas staff, will be fitted with wearable technology devices and will take part in specific experiences at varying stages of the flights.

Medical experts and scientists from the Charles Perkins Centre will monitor their sleep patterns, food and beverage consumption, lighting, physical movement and inflight entertainment to assess the impact of the ultra-long-haul flight on their health, wellbeing and body clock. 

Qantas world's longest flight
Researchers will look at sleep patterns during the 19-hour flights. Source: Shutterstock

Monash University researchers, on the other hand, will monitor crew alertness levels before, during and after the flights by recording melatonin levels. The pilots will each wear an EEG (electroencephalogram) device that tracks brain wave patterns and monitors alertness. 

According to Qantas, the purpose of the research is to understand the best work and rest patterns for the pilots to ensure better sustainability for ultra-long-haul travel. For the passengers, the research will help inform cabin design, among other amenities to be provided during the flight.

“Ultra-long haul flying presents a lot of common sense questions about the comfort and wellbeing of passengers and crew. These flights are going to provide invaluable data to help answer them,” said Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce.

“For customers, the key will be minimising jet lag and creating an environment where they are looking forward to a restful, enjoyable flight. For crew, it’s about using scientific research to determine the best opportunities to promote alertness when they are on duty and maximise rest during their downtime on these flights.”

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Qantas has already researched passenger sleep strategies on its direct Perth-London route. Some of these findings will be further assessed during these dedicated research flights. In addition to all that, customer feedback on food choices, separate stretching and wellbeing zones, and entertainment options will also tested during the research.

Findings on crew wellbeing will be shared with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to inform regulatory requirements for ultra-long-haul flights.

Project Sunrise pilot alertness study
The pilots will each wear an EEG device that tracks brain wave patterns and monitors alertness. Source: Shutterstock

According to the release, both Boeing and Airbus have pitched aircraft for Project Sunrise flights but a final decision will only be made by yearend. 

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“There’s plenty of enthusiasm for Sunrise, but it’s not a foregone conclusion.  This is ultimately a business decision and the economics have to stack up,” Joyce said.

“Flying non-stop from the East Coast of Australia to London and New York is truly the final frontier in aviation, so we’re determined to do all the groundwork to get this right.

“No airline has done this kind of dedicated research before and we’ll be using the results to help shape the cabin design, inflight service and crew roster patterns for Project Sunrise. We’ll also be looking at how we can use it to improve our existing long-haul flights,” he added.