by Holly ROBERTSON
A plane and its passengers are set to test the mental and physical limits of long-haul aviation when Qantas operates the first direct flight by a commercial airline from New York to Sydney this weekend.
In the first of three “ultra long-haul” test flights planned by Australia’s national flag carrier this year, researchers will monitor the effects on passengers of the 19-hour non-stop journey.
Up to 40 passengers and crew — most of them Qantas employees — will be on board the Boeing 787-9 when it departs New York on Friday. The plane is scheduled to arrive Down Under Sunday morning.
Passenger numbers have been restricted to minimise the weight on board and give the plane sufficient fuel range to travel approximately 16,000 kilometres (about 9,500 miles) without re-fuelling, heading west over the Pacific.
No other airline has ever achieved the feat, which Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has called the “final frontier in aviation”.
Scientists from two Australian universities will be on board to monitor passengers’ sleep patterns, melatonin levels, and food consumption.
Pilots will also wear a device that tracks their brain waves and alertness.
With a 15-hour time difference between New York and Sydney, the impact of jetlag will be closely watched.
“We know from the basic science of circadian rhythms that a bigger time difference between departure and arrival locations, and travelling east rather than west, tends to mean people feel more jetlag,” University of Sydney professor Stephen Simpson told AFP.
“But people seem to be wildly different when it comes to the experience of jetlag -– and we need more research on what contributes to jetlag and travel fatigue, so we can try and reduce the impact of long-haul flights.”
Qantas last year introduced the first direct service from the western Australian city of Perth to London, with the 17-hour journey one of the longest passenger flights in the world.
As well as the New York-Sydney route, Qantas will test a service from London to Sydney in the coming months.
The airline is considering launching commercial services on the marathon routes — if the economics stack up.
A decision will be made on the validity of the flights at the end of the year. Joyce has said it is “ultimately a business decision”.
Another hurdle could come from within the organisation.
Qantas pilots have raised concerns about the impact of ultra long-range flying on safety standards.
The Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA), which represents Qantas pilots, said the exploratory flights “will produce a limited set of data that will not adequately replicate real-world flying conditions”.
AIPA safety director Shane Loney has called for a “scientific long-term study” into the impacts on crew.
“Pilots are concerned about being able to get enough quality rest during ultra long-range flights to maintain peak performance and we believe significant caution should be exercised in the initial operations to make sure there are no unintended consequences,” he said.
A Qantas spokesperson said the test flights are “just one part of the work we are doing to assess how to the operate these flights safely”.
Both Airbus and Boeing have pitched aircraft for the Qantas ultra long-haul routes. Joyce has said it is not a “foregone conclusion” which company will be chosen.
The longest non-stop passenger flight touched down in Australia Sunday morning after more than 19 hours in the air, a milestone journey from New York that Qantas hopes to parlay into commercial success.
Qantas flight QF7879 took 19 hours and 16 minutes to fly direct from New York to Sydney in the first of three “ultra long-haul” journeys planned by the airline this year.
The national flag carrier is operating the test flights — which also include one from London to Sydney — as it weighs a rollout of regular services on marathon routes from the United States and Britain to Australia.
Just 49 people travelled on the Boeing 787-9 to minimise the weight on board and give the plane sufficient fuel range to travel more than 16,000 kilometres (9,500 miles) without re-fuelling.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce called it “a really historic moment” for both the airline and world aviation.
“This is the first of three test flights that’s going to come up with recommendations about how we manage pilot fatigue (and) how we actually manage passenger jetlag,” he told reporters after arriving in Sydney.
“After 19 hours on this flight, I think we’ve gotten this right. It feels like we’ve been on a flight a lot shorter than that.”
Qantas partnered with two Australian universities to monitor how jetlag affected the health of passengers and crew members as they crossed multiple time zones.
After boarding the flight, passengers set their watches to Sydney time and were kept awake until night fell in eastern Australia with lighting, exercise, caffeine and a spicy meal.
Six hours later, they were served a high-carbohydrate meal, told to avoid screens, and the lights were dimmed to encourage them to sleep through the night.
Professor Marie Carroll, a researcher from Sydney University who conducted the experiment, told AFP that she expected the innovative approach would result in “absolutely minimal” jetlag.
“I expect that they will have a normal day today and a normal night’s sleep tonight,” she said, adding that she felt “amazingly good” considering the flight time.
“It’s all an experiment to see if airlines can adjust their schedule of food, beverages, exercise and lighting to be in sync with the destination time.”
The four pilots on board — who rotated between flying duties — also wore devices that tracked their brain waves and alertness.
The Australian and International Pilots Association, which represents Qantas pilots, has raised concerns about whether pilots will get enough quality rest during ultra long-range flights to maintain peak performance.
It has called for a “scientific long-term study” into the impacts on crews.
The airline says the test journeys are just one facet of the work it is doing to ensure the flights are operated safely.
Qantas last year introduced the first direct service from the western Australian city of Perth to London, with the 17-hour journey one of the longest passenger flights in the world. – AFP