- Qantas just completed the first nonstop flight between New York and Sydney, designated “Project Sunrise,” and Business Insider was on board.
- The flight – which lasted 19 hours and 16 minutes and covered almost 10,000 miles – was a research flight, as Qantas staff and scientists studied how to help passengers and crew stay adequately comfortable and rested on an ultra-long-haul flight.
- Researchers closely monitored pilots and flight attendants and tested a new cabin-service flow meant to help minimise jet lag.
- It was a fascinating and enlightening experience, and it left me feeling great for a morning in Sydney. Read on to see what it was like to be on board this first test flight.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
I’ve just spent a day in the air.
No, not just a day travelling, heading to airports, dealing with buses and terminals, and making connections. But nearly a full day in a pressured metal tube alternating between roughly 34,000 and 42,000 feet above the Earth, most of that above the Pacific Ocean.
The Australian airline Qantas ran a test flight for its “Project Sunrise” initiative, a program to launch regular commercial service from Sydney to New York and Sydney to London.
The flights, at about 9,900 and 10,500 nautical miles, represent the farthest – and the longest, in terms of time – nonstop flights today. While a nonstop flight from London to Sydney has been achieved once, 30 years ago, it hardly counts: It was flown with an empty 747 that had no seats, and it barely had enough fuel to make it. The New York-Sydney route had never been done without a stop in Los Angeles.
When it landed, the flight, designated QF7879, became the longest commercial flight in the world, surpassing Singapore Airlines’ regular commercial service between Singapore and New York, though next month’s test of the London-Sydney flight is set to surpass this one.
Aeroplanes and airlines are more technically advanced now than ever before, with better fuel efficiency, longer ranges, and computer-aided logistical planning. But as some flights get longer, the question is whether passengers and flight crews can tolerate more hours in the air without a layover to break things up.
Qantas used this flight – and plans to do the same for the London route – to research how pilots, cabin crews, and passengers cope with the long flight. In particular, data gathered from monitoring the pilots and flight attendants will be used to help Qantas make a case to Australian aviation regulators that it’s safe to have crews work in shifts for potentially 20 hours or more.
The airline also tested a redesigned cabin service, meant to help passengers minimise the effects of jet lag as they cross 15 time zones, and reduce the magnitude with which an ultra-long-haul flight can exacerbate those symptoms. Cabin lighting, meal services, and food options were tailored to help passengers and crew either feel more awake or be more attuned to nighttime.
This flight also doubled as a delivery of a new Boeing 787-9 from Boeing’s Seattle plant. There were only 10 crew members, including four on-duty pilots, and 40 passengers, including several Qantas frequent flyers participating in the research study, off-duty Qantas employees, researchers, and journalists, including this reporter.
The flight with a full load of passengers and cargo is not currently possible, as the heavier load would reduce the plane’s fuel range.
Two planes in development from Airbus and Boeing would be capable of flying these routes. Qantas will decide by the end of 2019 which one it will use, and it expects to start commercial service as early as 2023, said Alan Joyce, Qantas’ CEO. The airline had previously hoped to launch service by 2022.
Because of the low passenger load, each person was allocated a business-class seat that could convert into a bed. Passengers were also encouraged to spend some time in the coach cabin to balance the plane.
Though the flight would obviously be a different experience in coach with a full plane, Joyce discussed several options to make an ultra-long-haul flight in coach more comfortable.
Regardless, the nearly 20-hour trek in business class, with the redesigned cabin service, was a notably different experience compared with other long-haul flights I’ve flown in premium cabins, including first and business class.
Aside from that, it was truly a unique experience. After all, it’s not every flight that you see an airline CEO doing calisthenics in his pajamas.
While it’s Business Insider’s policy not to accept free travel, we could not pay for the New York-to-Sydney trip because it was classified as a “ferry flight,” for which US Department of Transportation regulations prevent the airline from accepting money for fares. Business Insider did pay for the return flight with the airline.
From takeoff to landing, plus before and after, here’s what the 19-hour-and-16-minute flight was like.
The world’s longest flight started somewhere much more ordinary: a bus, chartered to take passengers and staff from a hotel in Times Square, where several Qantas employees were staying, to JFK Airport. In a portent of the long flight ahead, traffic getting to the airport was a virtual standstill.
Qantas flies from JFK’s Terminal 8, which principally houses the airline’s Oneworld alliance member American Airlines. For this flight, there was a dedicated check-in counter.
There was also a special touch on the boarding pass.
We headed through security to a cordoned-off area in the American Airlines lounge as we waited for our boarding time.
Soon enough, we went down to Gate 12 and got the first glimpse of our home for the next day: a brand-new Boeing 787-9, registration VH-ZNI, delivered to Qantas from Boeing’s factory in Seattle just a few days before.
Here we go!
The business-class cabin on Qantas’ 787-9s is split into two sections: a larger cabin to the left of the boarding door, and a smaller “mini cabin” with just three rows to the right. I was in the smaller cabin.
Here’s my seat, 11E.
Each of Qantas’ business-class seats has a small side table and is consequently staggered, meaning some seats have the table between the seat and the aisle, and others — like mine — are directly against the aisle and have the table on the inside. On some planes, this can feel a lot less private and make sleeping a bit harder, though it certainly wasn’t an issue on this flight. More on that later.
Each seat had a pair of headphones …
… which used a proprietary three-prong plug that worked with the airline’s in-flight entertainment system. Each seat also had a USB port and a universal power outlet …
… and a small storage area near the floor.
There was also a storage area in a cubby under the seat in front of me. When the seat is turned into bed mode, this serves as the end of the bed. There’s plenty of room for your feet.
As we took our seats, flight attendants came around handing out Qantas’ iconic business-class pajamas.
This set was printed specifically for the Project Sunrise flights.
They also distributed amenity kits …
… stocked with in-flight essentials.
As we settled in, the cabin manager gave his unique preflight announcement.
This may not have been a normal commercial flight, but many of the same rules applied, including the mandatory safety demonstration.
But aside from those formalities, this was very much not a normal flight. For instance, we got to see and access some things that most passengers don’t even know exist, like the pilot’s crew rest.
Because the main purpose of this flight was to study how pilots and cabin crew could remain properly rested and alert during ultra-long-haul flights, the four pilots, in conjunction with the researchers, worked out a customised work schedule.
The pilot in charge, Capt. Sean Golding, described the shift period for the four pilots, who worked in two shifts.
“The whole crew will be on for the first hour and a half, then I’ll take a 2-1/2-hour break,” Golding said. “I’ll work for the next 5 1/2 hours, sleep for the next 5 1/2, work the next 2 1/2, and we’ll all be on for the final approach and landing.”
He added: “Sometimes I sleep better on the long-haul flights than I do at home.”
To objectively measure the pilots’ alertness and adaptability to the long flight, each was outfitted with an EEG headset to measure brain activity …
… an activity monitor …
… and a light monitor.
The pilots also gave urine samples every four hours, including before and after the flights, so their melatonin levels could be assessed.
Passengers taking part in the research study wore slightly different activity monitors and kept a journal logging their exercise, sleep, and meals in the days leading up to the flight. They will continue these in the days immediately after.
Passengers and crew also completed a reaction-time test on an iPad at regular intervals.
We also took a look at the flight attendants’ break area. Unlike the pilots’ crew rest, which had only two bunks, the flight-attendant area had six — one for each member of the cabin crew.
After a surprisingly short taxi to the runway, we were in the air at exactly 9:27 p.m. ET.
Another unique feature of this flight — aside from the fact that it had only 40 passengers on a plane that could fit more than 200 — was that the moment we took off, we began operating on our destination’s time zone rather than our origin’s.
This was part of the anti-jet-lag study involving several passengers. It was 12:30 p.m. Sydney time, so we had to stay up for at least a few more hours. The lights came up, and I took advantage of the chance to explore the rest of the plane.
Just behind the business-class mini cabin were a few rows of Qantas’ premium economy. I spent some time in the seats and was very impressed.
Some airlines’ premium-economy products are basically the same as coach, just with slightly larger seats and slightly better food.
These seats, though, were much different from a standard economy seat. One Qantas employee described them as “more of a level below the full business class, rather than a small improvement on coach” – and after spending some time in the seat, I think that’s a fair assessment.
A crucial aspect is the leg rest, which shockingly few premium-economy products offer.
When it’s extended and the seat is reclined, it’s actually quite comfortable. There’s a net beyond the leg rest that serves as a comfortable footrest.
There’s a decent amount of legroom, or pitch, as well. Even when the seat in front of you is reclined, it does so at an angle where there’s still plenty of room for your knees.
The economy cabin is closer to the standard product you’d expect, but it has a few little tweaks that help make a long flight more bearable — though 20 hours in one of these seats would certainly be tough.
Joyce, who was aboard the flight, said that although the eventual flight would have an economy cabin – unlike Singapore Airlines’ 18-hour Singapore-New York flight, which is operated by a plane with just premium economy and business class – the airline was looking at ways to make it bearable for an ultra-long-haul flight.
Some options, he said, included spacing the seats out to offer more legroom, as well as pulling out some seats to create a communal area for passengers to spend time during the flight. They could sit and chat, stretch, or simply stand up for a few minutes to keep the blood moving.
Carl Petch, one of the passengers involved in the research study, said that an area like that would be crucial for making it through the ultra-long-haul flight in coach.
“You’d need a communal area to walk around, or do work, or something,” he said. “You can’t just sit for 20 straight hours.”
Having fewer seats seems cost-prohibitive, but it may be a necessity. A low-density configuration will likely be required to boost the plane’s fuel range so it can reach its destination without stopping to refuel.
Joyce also said there were consistently positive ratings from passengers on the airline’s nonstop flight between Perth and London, which at over 17 hours is only a little shorter than the Project Sunrise flights.
Economy seats have about 32 inches of pitch, which is on the higher side of standard for long-haul aeroplanes.
Economy seats also have an adapted version of the premium-economy footrest, which was definitely an improvement.
The flight menu offered a description of the full service schedule.
Here’s the full “flight plan.”
And here’s the full menu …
… along with a description of the rationale for the food options.
For the first course — essentially a late lunch, Sydney time — I had the spicy tomato and saffron soup with Gruyère croutons. It was fabulous, not too spicy, but enough so that it was flavorful, and it definitely helped me wake up. Reminder: The flight began operating on Sydney time (noon-ish) after we took off from JFK just before 9:30 p.m. ET, so this New Yorker was feeling ready for bed.
For the main course, I had the chicken breast with Spanish rice, kale, tomatillo sauce, and pepita salsa. This was genuinely phenomenal. I was blown away by how tasty it was.
I was also genuinely impressed that the chef and cabin crew could put together something so tasty in such a small, cramped galley — even though much of it, obviously, was prepared before the flight.
Here are the individual ovens used to prepare everyone’s dishes …
… and the order sheet the crew used to keep track of everyone’s orders.
The tiny little galley was a flurry of activity — basically a fully functional kitchen in the sky.
A little after the first meal, Marie Carroll, the researcher leading the passenger jet-lag study, brought all the participants to the empty rear galley for a short group exercise, including stretches and squats.
Carroll described moving during a flight as a crucial part of mitigating jet-lag symptoms after ultra-long-haul flights. Eventually, other passengers and crew members came over to participate, so the group moved into the aisles.
Even Joyce, Qantas’ CEO, joined in the exercises. It turned into something of a party, with Carroll playing the “Macarena” over the PA system and leading a dance. Truly a unique experience.
This would obviously be impossible on a normal flight, though Joyce said the communal area he envisions on future ultra-long-haul flights could offer short guided stretching and exercise videos on monitors.
After the exercise party, I was getting quite tired. After all, it was 2 in the morning back in New York, and I had been up since a little before 7 a.m. However, following Carroll’s advice — and not wanting to miss anything — I powered through, starting to process photos from earlier in the flight on my laptop.
At about 3:30 a.m. New York time, or 6:30 p.m. Sydney time, the flight attendants took our orders for the second meal — “dinner” — and came through to fit mattress pads onto our seats. “That way, you can go to sleep as soon as dinner’s finished,” they said.
I started with a small bowl of the roasted-sweet-potato soup with nutmeg crème fraîche. Like the first meal, it was fantastic and flavorful, but definitely more of a sleep-inducing comfort food.
The chicken sandwich with Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and herb mayo also hit the spot.
But the dessert, panna cotta trifle with raspberries and toasted almonds, was the star. I devoured it.
Finally, it was bedtime. A handy button on the seat’s control panel turned the chair into a bed in about 30 seconds.
There was plenty of space in the footwell to be able to turn over comfortably, and the mattress pad made it quite comfortable.
I slept for an astonishing eight hours and 30 minutes, my best-ever sleep on a plane, even in first or business class. I woke up once or twice because of turbulence or to use the lavatory, but I was still blown away by how well I slept, even considering how tired I was by that point.
For those lucky enough to be in first or business class, this strikes me as the ultimate advantage of an ultra-long-haul nonstop flight, compared with one with a stop: There’s more time to settle in and eventually sleep without interruption.
Nick Mole, a participant in the passenger research study, expressed a similar sentiment toward the end of the flight.
Mole often flies in business class but said that he generally feels better-rested after an ultra-long-haul direct flight rather than one with a connection, including Qantas’ service to New York via Los Angeles.
“I feel better than I usually do,” he told me. “The timing and service helped, and I got some good, uninterrupted sleep.”
Daniel Brescia, another passenger, agreed.
“I’m curious to see how the jet lag feels in a day or two though,” he added.
A few minutes after I woke up, warm-toned lighting gradually enveloped the cabin. It was almost time for sunrise for this Project Sunrise flight.
Gradually, I — and everyone else — stirred and woke, and the cabin crew kicked into action with breakfast. They kindly took our orders earlier in the flight, so that they could get breakfast ready right after we arose.
I started with the wild-berry granola, a cold-pressed green juice, and, most importantly, a coffee.
For my main, I had the egg-bacon-and-herb tart (basically a quiche) with caramelised-onion relish. Like everything else I ate during the flight, it was perfect.
By the time we finished breakfast, the sun was fully up, and it was time to prepare for the end of our journey.
We entered Australian airspace at just around 5 a.m. Sydney time.
Capt. Lisa Norman, the pilot who took delivery of the plane and flew it to New York for the Project Sunrise flight, said that Australian air-traffic control sent a text message to the flight crew as it entered the airspace: “Good morning. Hope everyone is still feeling fresh and comfortable.”
The pilots replied: “Sunrise is dawning on Research Flight 1. Feeling good and fresh. Thanks.”
It was pretty incredible to see the long journey coming to an end.
As we approached the Australian coast, Golding the pilot in charge, came over the PA to point out a small speck to our right: QF12, the Qantas flight that goes from New York to Sydney but stops in Los Angeles on the way.
QF12 would land three minutes after us – despite leaving New York three hours earlier.
Golding also said that based on the approach pattern we were given, there would be great views of Sydney Harbour on the left side of the plane. Because the flight was mostly empty, those of us seated on the right and in the centre were able to grab spare window seats on the left.
And wow, was he telling the truth. As we approached, we got incredible views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge …
… and more views as we looped around to line up with the runway.
We landed at 7:43 a.m. Sydney time, 19 hours and 16 minutes after leaving runway 31L at JFK.
It was certainly the most festive disembarkation I’ve experienced. Here’s the entire flight crew, plus the passenger study participants.
Here’s what I thought after more than 19 hours in the air.
I felt better after this flight than I’ve ever felt after a long-haul flight, including those on which I was lucky enough to sit in a first- or business-class cabin with a lie-flat seat. On 15-hour flights to Seoul and Tokyo, I’ve landed feeling utterly exhausted, while on shorter seven- or eight-hour flights to Europe, by the time I manage to digest, relax, and fall asleep, it’s practically already time to land.
For obvious reasons, I won’t bother comparing the Project Sunrise experience with ultra-long-haul flights when I’ve been in coach. The longest I’ve ever done there was about 18 hours, though that included an hourlong refuelling stop when we could stretch our legs. Also, I was a kid back then.
I think Qantas is on to something with this technique of immediately switching time zones, tailoring lighting, meal options, and service flow around sleep, and promoting healthy actions like stretching, staying awake until evening in the destination’s time zone, and suggesting limiting alcohol before the second meal.
There’s also something undeniably pleasant about being able to fly somewhere direct, especially when it saves as much as three hours, as we did compared with the QF12 flight.
However, I simply can’t imagine a flight this long in economy with the existing configuration and a full load of passengers. Joyce’s discussion of adding pitch and a communal area makes me optimistic; this is something Qantas will have to figure out if it wants to offer a full three- or four-cabin configuration when the nonstop New York-to-Sydney route officially goes into service.