Qantas Project Sunrise: Non-stop London to Sydney test flight takes off

Think the idea of super-long haul travel with no stopover sounds like hell? Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is in firm disagreement – and so, it seems, are thousands of his satisfied customers.

According to the airline, Qantas's near-18-hour Perth-London route, launched in March 2018, is going gangbusters. And the west coast service's success has given the airline reason to believe people are ready to fly for an hour or two more, non-stop from the east coast.

Speaking in London Wednesday, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce declared Perth-London to be "probably the most successful route we've launched in our 99 years. It's got a 95 per cent seat (load) factor on average. It's got the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any route on our network. It's very unusual for an airline to have the highest satisfaction on the longest route on its network overall."

Joyce said that satisfaction was across the board, from corporates in business class to families flying economy, giving the airline confidence that ultra-long haul from Sydney or Melbourne to London or New York would appeal to a broad passenger base.

See also: Airline review: Qantas economy class Perth to London non-stop

Mr Joyce was speaking at a media briefing on QF7879, the second flight in the airline's Project Sunrise research program, which departed Heathrow at 5.53am on Thursday London time and will arrive in Sydney almost 20 hours later.

The first Project Sunrise research flight operated between New York and Sydney non-stop four weeks ago. A third research flight, repeating the New York-Sydney route, will take place in December.

The London flight will carry about 50 passengers and crew in order to give the 787-9 the range required for the 17,800 km flight. The flight is more than 1500 kilometers further than New York to Sydney, but will be a similar duration (about 19 hours, 30 minutes) due to tail winds.

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A re-purposing of delivery flights for three new 787 Dreamliner aircraft, which would otherwise have flown empty from Boeing's factory near Seattle to Australia, the Project Sunrise journeys carry researchers from the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre as well as the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC) who work with a small, select group of passengers to modify their sleep and behaviour patterns with exercise, food and light exposure, as well as monitoring their responses and collecting data on their wellbeing while also doing the same for the crew.

The aim is to inform future service and product design, with a view to increasing wellbeing and comfort during travel on long-haul flights and reducing jet lag for passengers, as well as optimising rest and alertness for crew.

Critics have tried to dismiss the Project Sunrise program as a PR stunt, coming as Qantas enters its centenary year, the 99th birthday sharing the date with QF7879's November 16 arrival into Sydney, where the milestone will be celebrated with a party attended by 1000 employees.

But Mr Joyce was firm on the commercial intent, reiterating the airline was to make its decision on viability of the ultra-long haul flights by the end of 2020. This is dependent on a number of factors, including reaching agreement with pilots over conditions and remuneration, and with regulators who would need to change rules to allow flight crew the extended hours necessary.

Another key decision is on aircraft servicing the routes; Airbus and Boeing are vying for the potential business, with a variation of either the Airbus A350 or Boeing 777 to be the aircraft of choice.

Though it's a significant event, the Project Sunrise London-Sydney flight is not the first time Qantas has flown the route non-stop. That occurred in 1989, on a passenger-free 747-400.

But for an airline which had "pushed the boundaries of possibility" for nearly 100 years, Mr Joyce said overcoming "the last frontier of aviation" by regularly flying customers on these non-stop routes would be a fitting feat for its centenary year, especially coupled with the airline's new commitment to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The writer travelled to London as a guest of Qantas.

See also: How a Qantas jumbo made a record-breaking non-stop London flight in 1989

See also: Qantas plans to launch non-stop Chicago flights by April

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