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How will we fly tomorrow? Will it be in a windowless aircraft cabin with LED lighting that mimics the time of day outside, amber sunsets that segue into starry night skies?
With entertainment delivered over virtual reality headsets, including flight tracker systems that skim the mountains, deserts and cities of the world below us, a la Google Earth? Will our flights be powered by ramjet or scramjet engines, will they run on biofuel sourced from algae? Supersonic? Hypersonic? Sub-orbital flight, solar powered planes, drone airliners – these sound like science fiction yet they could all become fixtures of the aviation industry by 2050, according to gurus who divine the future of passenger flight.
But, something not as far away is about to be delivered that would once have seemed like science fiction: a non-stop flight between Australia and Britain. The big red kangaroo on the Qantas tail is about to put those wings to full use and make the leap from Australia to Britain in a single bound.
Timelapse: Watch Qantas' first Dreamliner get built
See the 15-day build time on Qantas' first Boeing 787 Dreamliner compressed into just two minutes. Video: Boeing
In March next year Qantas will begin operating a daily non-stop flight between Perth and London. Depart Perth at 6.50pm, wake up in London at 5.10am the next day, with the matter, of course, of first having to get to the West Australian capital, should you live on the east coast like the vast bulk of the nation's population.
It has been possible to fly marathon distances for some time, at considerable cost to carriers from fuel expenses. But what is different on this occasion is the new aircraft that can travel huge distances with a full payload, providing airlines the opportunity to fly super long-haul routes. Qantas is one of several airlines making the most of this new technology. These new aircraft and the globe-spanning routes they bring have special relevance for Australians, for whom the tyranny of long-distance air travel is a fact of life.
Yet with longer routes come challenges, and for economy-class passengers comfort heads the list. What's the passenger experience going to be on these new routes, what are the aircraft that will get us to the world's far-flung places, and what does the future hold?
IN FOR THE SUPER LONG HAUL: WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOU
A Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner rolls out. Photo: Source: Qantas
Plenty of Australian travellers have experienced the 14½-hour marathon between one of our east coast cities and the Middle East hubs and if you're sitting in economy the discomfort naturally worsens as the flight grinds on. The first 10 hours are bearable, the next two are pretty awful and the final two, well, they are teeth-gritting murder.
Flight time for the new QF9 non-stop service from Perth to London is scheduled at 17 hours 20 minutes. That's at the leading edge of the world's longest flights. The current record-holder is Qatar Airways flight from Auckland to Doha at 18 hours 20 minutes, aboard a Boeing 777-200LR.
The aircraft Qantas will be using for the Perth-London non-stop flights is the much-vaunted Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Qantas has configured its economy cabin to seat nine across in a 3-3-3 configuration with a seat pitch of 81.3 centimetres. With a full passenger complement of 236, this is relatively light for this aircraft type. Air France flies its 787-9s with 256 passengers, Virgin Atlantic with 264.
Another plus is that pressure is higher in the Dreamliner's carbon fibre reinforced polymer hull than in a traditional cabin, which means more air to breathe and higher humidity, and a more comfortable flight.
Scheduled flight time for the QF9 service from Melbourne to London via Perth is 45 minutes less than the quickest QF flight Melbourne to London via Singapore. Total price for a flight from Melbourne to London aboard QF9, departing on the notional date of June 1, 2018, and returning on June 22, is $1567. That's competitive with the flight from Melbourne to London via Singapore.
But here's a curious fact. Inputting exactly the same dates for travel from Perth to London and back, and taking exactly the same QF9/QF10 flights, the total sale fare price is $1600. It costs $33 more to fly return from Perth to London than from Melbourne to London. Go figure.
And Alan Joyce, the chief executive of Qantas, has bigger things in mind, namely non-stop flights from east coast Australia's big three capitals to New York, Paris and Rio de Janeiro by 2022. The holy grail is a non-stop flight on the so-called Kangaroo Route from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to London. That's a stretch even for the Airbus A350-900ULR (ultra-long range), the aircraft Singapore Airlines will use when it begins its Singapore-New York flights in 2018 and will become the world's longest flight.
To make the east coast-London flights a reality, Joyce needs to persuade Airbus or Boeing to build an even longer range aircraft for the 21-hour-30 minute Sydney-London flight. Airbus created its Airbus 350-900ULR specifically at the urging of Singapore Airlines when it needed a long-legged aircraft for its new Singapore-New York flight so maybe this is not out of the question. However, the human body might need some re-engineering to cope with economy-class travel at 20-hours plus.
"The actual head of Airbus said, 'it's a bit like the space race to me, it's a bit like getting to the moon'," Joyce says. "We are getting very close ... to getting the technology that will allow us to operate routes that we [previously] could only have imagined."
Non-stop flights from Australia to Europe will affect the numbers passing through hub-city airports including Singapore, Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi, but nothing to worry those giants. More than 83 million passengers passed through Dubai Airport in 2016, close to 60 million for Singapore's Changi. The numbers that Qantas' non-stop flights out of Australia will subtract from those totals is a small drop in very big buckets.
TAKING FLIGHT: THE AIRCRAFT AND WHY EVERYTHING, AND NOTHING, HAS CHANGED
A Concord on display in Sinsheim, Germany. Photo: Shutterstock
Aircraft speeds have not changed much since the dawn of the jet age. The De Havilland Comet, the world's earliest jet engine commercial passenger aircraft, which first carried passengers 65 years ago, flew at just more than 800km/h.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner flies at 903km/h. Concorde was the world's brief flirtation with supersonic speed and it was heady while it lasted but noise, emissions and high cost meant it was never going to be widely embraced.
What has changed is the range of modern aircraft. While the Comet took five stops to travel from London to Johannesburg, for today's aircraft it's a non-stop flight. Some of these aircraft can circle the globe and return to base with just one refuelling stop but these days the range of commercial aircraft increases in only small increments.
The Airbus A340-500, which has a range 16,670 kilometres, entered service in 2004. Boeing's ultra long range 777-200LR, with a range of 17,445 kilometres, has been around since 2006. It will have taken 12 years for that record to be bettered when the Airbus A350-900ULR, with a range of almost 18,000 kilometres, takes its first passengers from Singapore to New York in 2018.
Longer flights are possible but fuel requirements affect the number of passengers an aircraft can carry. When Qantas took delivery of its first 747-400 in 1989, the aircraft flew non-stop from London to Sydney in just more than 20 hours, but beside the flight crew of five, there were just two cabin crew and 16 passengers. Today's marathon runners are not four-engine giants such as Boeing's 747 and the Airbus A380 but twin-engine aircraft.
One factor that has limited the ability of twin-engine aircraft to fly long over-water distances far from diversionary airports in the past has been their ETOPS (Extended Twin Operations) certification. This is the flying time aircraft are allowed to operate from the nearest emergency airport with one engine out of action. Both the Airbus A350-900 ULR and the Boeing 777-200LR have extended ETOPS certification, almost six hours in the case of the Boeing and slightly longer for the Airbus.
Flights of 17 hours-plus put the spotlight on passenger comfort, but the uncomfortable fact is that airlines need to cram as many bodies as possible into their economy seats to make their fares competitive, and the competition is cut-throat.
Airlines configure their aircraft cabins to their individual requirements. They design the cabins, usually in conjunction with specialist designers, and buy their seats from third-party manufacturers such as Recaro. The 3-3-3 seating that Qantas has adopted for its economy class cabin on its 787-9 Dreamliners is par for that aircraft. Even low-cost carrier Scoot uses the same layout. One exception is Japan Airlines – it uses a roomier 2-4-2 configuration.
JET LAG: WHAT'S BEING DONE TO BEAT LONG-HAUL FLYING'S PERENNIAL BURDEN
Barring an extended layover, whether you fly from your origin to your destination on a non-stop flight or a one-stop isn't going to change jet lag, you're still crossing the same number of time zones and that's what causes jet lag.
In the interests of delivering a better in-flight experience, on the looming Perth-London route in particular, Qantas is partnering with the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre to investigate in-flight health. The project involves fitting a group of volunteer Qantas customers with wearable technology to measure how travel affects overall wellbeing.
Qantas and CPC have already worked together to influence cabin lighting scenarios, cabin temperature, meal timing and recipe development for the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.
A healthier in-flight experience means a more relaxed and rested you that finally staggers off the plane at the other end. You're probably also better equipped to cope with jet lag, but there is only so much that cabin lighting, temperature, food service and the other variables within the airline's remit can do to help you overcome jet lag, although flying business class gives you an edge.
The bright light of day is known to be crucial in resetting our circadian clock but when you cross numerous time zones that doesn't happen straight away. Researchers have identified two brain chemicals that inhibit the ability of light to reset the brain's clock.
While there are some drugs that interfere with those chemicals and increase the effectiveness of light exposure, these are not viable jet-lag treatments since they come with unpleasant side effects. One that shows promise is serotonin. Small studies have suggested that several drugs that act on the serotonin system including 5-HTP, often sold as a nutritional supplement, might speed up recovery from jet lag.
Another big variable is you. Your state of health, what you eat and drink before, during and after your flight, exposure to daylight and the times you choose to sleep at your destination are part of the package that determines how quickly you will adapt to a new time zone.
FUTURE-SHOCK: BEYOND NON-STOP LONG-HAUL
Aircraft manufacturers are breathing new life into passenger supersonic flight, a concept that died with the last Concorde flight in 2003. Boeing and Airbus have both flagged interest and another serious contender is Boom, working to develop a supersonic aircraft, flying 2½ times faster than current airliners.
In 2018 Boom is planning to test fly its XB-1 Supersonic Demonstrator, a one-third scale version of the Boom passenger aircraft. Australian flyers, who face some of the longest flights to get to popular destinations in Europe and the Americas, would be among the major beneficiaries.
"The interest from companies to build supersonic aircraft indicates that there is a market," says Dr Dries Verstraete, senior lecturer in aerospace design and propulsion at the University of Sydney. "The most notable one (for transport aircraft) is Boom. They are still building their first scaled demonstrator (will allegedly fly next year) and have already over 70 orders."
A SpaceX Falcon lifts off from Kennedy Space Centre. Photo: AP
SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk has bravely proposed the idea of using rockets for long-distance travel, using SpaceX's forthcoming mega-rocket to hoist a massive spaceship into orbit around the Earth that could then land at launch pads near major hub cities.
The sort of times it would take to travel aboard such a system, travelling at speeds up to 29,000km/h, are mind-bending; Hong Kong to Singapore in 22 minutes, London to Dubai or New York in 29 minutes, Los Angeles to Toronto in 24 minutes. This is a leap into science fiction for the moment, with significant engineering and environmental hurdles.
But, according to Bertrand Piccard, psychiatrist and pilot of Solar Impulse, the first solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the Earth, fuel may be the greatest impediment to ultra long-haul flight. "We deeply believe that we can achieve impossible and incredible things with renewable energy like flying around the world with no fuel," he says. "If you want to fly longer you need to get rid of fuel."
Yet there is also scope to speed up the time that passengers spend at airports before they board aircraft. The goal of the Fast Travel Program, conceived by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), is to offer 80 per cent of global passengers a "complete range of relevant self-service options throughout their journey by 2020".
This could include anything from being identified using facial recognition when entering the airport to real-time tracking of baggage, all of which should help the passenger get through the airport as quickly as possible.
What of the theory that fully automated passenger jets – that is, pilot-less planes – may one day by achievable? That brings us to the joke about who really sits in the cockpit. There's the pilot and a dog. The job of the pilot is to feed the dog. The dog's job is to bite the pilot if he/she touches anything. Autopilots are wondrous devices. They are essentially high-functioning computers that make flying the aircraft easier and more efficient. For many airlines, standard procedure is to use autopilot for much of the flight.
But autopilots are just tools. They have to be told what to do, by a human operator who is sitting at controls with the capacity to override the autopilot, and that person is the pilot. Would an autopilot be capable of the quick thinking that Captain Chesley Sullenberger did when he landed his stricken aircraft on New York City's Hudson River, saving the lives of all onboard? Probably not, which is part of the reason that two pilots – and no dog – are going to be sitting in the cockpit forever.
TERMINAL VELOCITY: UNVEILING THE AIRPORT OF THE FUTURE
The current international terminal processing experience of waiting in one queue for check-in, another for immigration and another for security could be shortened to one single process. The key is smart terminal automation that uses a combination of biometrics, pre-authorised access clearance and wearable technology to provide information about each passenger.
Some of the physical functions that are currently in-terminal, such as baggage processing, could be decentralised using remote collection points, providing a smaller terminal footprint that can be flexibly configured to meet changing requirements.
Current baggage processing using barcode readers is labour-intensive and provides no visibility for the passenger. RFID bag tagging is cheap and readily available, allowing passengers to track their baggage via sensors embedded at every stage of handling.
Solutions that allow for baggage pickup and delivery have the potential to reduce the infrastructure required at the terminal building for bag check-in and reclaim. Uber solutions that already exist in other service areas are highly applicable in this context.
Risk-based security screening could eliminate the need for screening for the majority of passengers. With the consent of eligible travellers, big data could be used to assess individual intent and capability for harm, thus mitigating the need to screen those passengers deemed safe. An example of this is the Trusted Traveller Program, in use in the US.
FIVE AIRLINE INNOVATIONS WE'D LIKE TO SEE
DECREASING RELIANCE ON FOSSIL FUELS
When will the airline industry look to alternative energy sources?
The number of air travellers grows year by year, and so too do the greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft engines that play a part in the world's changing climate. Qantas is one of several airlines looking at biofuels to power its jet engines and Virgin boss Richard Branson has been flirting with the concept for several years.
MORE BANDWIDTH FOR IN-FLIGHT WI-FI
The NBN-based satellite system that Qantas uses to deliver in-flight Wi-Fi is a winner but it's only available on its domestic routes. Several international carriers that serve Australian ports offer global coverage but data speeds can slow to a crawl when multiple users log in.
IN-FLIGHT VIRTUAL REALITY
This is the new frontier in in-flight entertainment, and it probably won't be too long before it gets rolled out, at least in premier classes. Qantas has already trialled VR headsets for its first-class passengers on selected routes, to an enthusiastic audience.
CLEANER ONBOARD TOILETS
Boeing has unveiled a toilet that uses ultraviolet light to zap germs. Activation occurs when the toilet isn't in use, and takes just seconds to flood the toilet seat, sink and counter top with germ-busting UV light. Airbus, meanwhile, has developed anti-bacterial surfaces for its toilets.
FACIAL RECOGNITION AT BOARDING GATES
Biometric imaging technology is the fast, secure way to ensure that the person boarding the aircraft is the same as the one with his name on the ticket and also the same person who checked into the flight.
FIVE AIRLINE INNOVATIONS WE DON'T WANT TO SEE
MORE ANCILLARY CHARGES
You might find a rock-bottom airfare but add on the extra cost of checked baggage, seat selection and whatever else you might consider a basic necessity and it doesn't seem like a bargain any more. Already, major US carriers don't allow you to use the overhead lockers or choose a seat if you travel on one of their "basic economy" fares.
THE SHRINKING BATHROOM
Some airlines are removing toilets to squeeze a few more seats into their economy cabins while aircraft manufacturers are under pressure from airlines to reduce the size of their toilets, and they're doing it. But at least the Ryanair proposal to charge passengers for using the toilet never eventuated.
Global warming comes with more extreme weather events, more frequent and severe storms and scaldingly hot days, all of which play merry hell with airline schedules. Expect more weather-related flight delays.
ECONOMY SEAT NOVELTIES
Bench seats, half-stand-up seats, bicycle seats, standing-room cabins – the bottom feeders of the airline industry are constantly looking for ingenious ways to cram yet more bodies onto aircraft. Thankfully, regulations that require an aircraft cabin to be fully evacuated in 90 seconds have blunted some of the more outlandish suggestions.
French airline-seat manufacturer Zodiac came out with its "economy class cabin hexagon" – essentially a rear-facing seat in the middle of three economy seats. The rationale, you might think, is that it frees up space at the shoulder and arm area. Except that the Zodiac prototype omitted arm rests because its rationale was to squeeze in yet more passengers.
THE EVOLUTION OF LONG-HAUL FLIGHTS
Qantas begins service from Brisbane to Singapore to connect with Imperial Airways flights to London. There were 31 stops, the journey took 12 days and, at 20,525 kilometres, this was by far the world's longest air service.
Pan Am's Boeing 314 flying boat Yankee Clipper makes the first scheduled commercial trans-Atlantic flight, brought to an end by World War II.
Qantas begins the Double Sunrise flight, a weekly 5650-kilometre, 28-hour flight between Perth and Ceylon, aboard a Catalina flying boat.
Qantas begins the Kangaroo Route, flying from Sydney to London aboard a Lockheed Constellation with stops in Darwin, Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, Cairo and Tripoli.
A TWA Lockheed Starliner flies the 8640-kilometre inaugural London-San Francisco polar route in 23 hours 19 minutes.
Qantas begins an around-the–world service using Super Constellation aircraft flying in an easterly direction to girdle the Earth.
BOAC introduces De Havilland Comets on the London-New York route, the first jet-engine passenger aircraft to operate on the trans-Atlantic route.
Qantas introduces Boeing 707s on its two-stop Sydney-San Francisco route.
Qantas begins operating Boeing 747s on the Kangaroo Route, reducing the flight to London to a two-stop service.
Pan Am sets a world record for its 10,854 kilometre New York City-Tokyo Boeing 747SP service, followed by Sydney-San Francisco at 11,937 kilometres
El Al's first flight from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles, 12,189 kilometres.
Continental Airlines launches a 13,578-kilometre non-stop service from Newark to Hong Kong. A few days later, United Airlines pips it by three kilometres with its JFK-Hong Kong service.
Singapore Airlines begins a 15,344-kilometre great circle route between Singapore and Newark, lasting about 18 hours.
Qantas is due to begin non-stop flights from Perth to London, making the Kangaroo Route a non-stop service for the first time.
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