The first flights for Qantas‘s Project Sunrise will depart far sooner than expected. As the carrier continues to evaluate options for serving London and New York City nonstop from its Sydney home it will run a trio of test flights later this year. The flights represent the first time a commercial aircraft will fly nonstop from New York City to Sydney and only the second time from London to Sydney.
The flights will all be operated by the 787-9, an aircraft that is not in contention to fly the trips when they finally launch. It does not have the necessary range to make the trip regularly, but the test flights will carry only 40 on board, helping to extend the range. Qantas intends to use new aircraft deliveries from Boeing to make the trip. Rather than flying straight from the factory to Sydney the planes will be positioned, with the appropriate test crew, to London and New York for the test flights.
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.– Qantas CEO Alan Joyce
Planning for ULTRA long-haul flying
What happens when crew or passengers spend 20 hours in the air? To date that question remains unanswered. Qantas hopes that these initial test flights will begin to build some answers that can help shape what future of such services. On the passenger front the carrier is keen to understand what makes a restful, enjoyable flight. For crew the challenges are more acute. The operations must deliver an environment where safety is not compromised. CEO Alan Joyce is keen to be a leader on this front noting that “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.” He also expects that lessons learned could help optimize the existing long-haul services.
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.– Qantas CEO Alan Joyce
Qantas partnered with a pair of academic research institutions to develop the monitoring protocols related to the flights.
Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre will lead the research work for the passengers in the cabin. Those travelers – Qantas employees, so don’t get your hopes up – will be fitted with wearable devices to monitor various factors related to wellbeing. Scientists will monitor sleeping patterns, physical movement, food and beverage consumption and entertainment system usage as part of their assessment. This is not the first research the carrier has performed related to passenger wellness on board. The Perth-London route was used for collecting data on passenger sleep strategies. Some of that data will also apply to the new program.
Monash University, in conjunction with CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity, is leading the research for the pilot group on board. Pilots will have their brain waves monitored via an EEG (electroencephalogram) throughout the trip. In addition their melatonin levels will be measures throughout the trip. The goal of the research is to establish data related optimal work and rest patterns for pilots operating long haul services. The results of the research will be shared with regulators to ensure that the new services can run without crew-related risks.
No guarantees for Project Sunrise
Qantas has proposals in hand from Boeing and Airbus regarding the A350 and 777X models proposed for the services. The carrier will evaluate them in conjunction with many other considerations, including these test results, to determine how the program will proceed. And while human factors related to the success of the new flights are important, they are not the final factor that will decide the future of Project Sunrise; money is. And while there’s no doubt that dedicated stretching areas or even the much hyped below-deck modules could deliver more comfort on board, the economics of such remain far from proven.
Joyce is not shy about that factor noting, “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.”
What aircraft will meet the route’s demands by the target timeline of 2022-2023? Airbus is expected to offer a modified version of its A350-1000, similar to the A350-900ULR Singapore Airlines operates on its nonstop flights to North America. Boeing’s next generation 777-8 was expected to compete given its range and capacity. Alas, issues with the GE engines are slowing developments on the 777X line and other challenges at Boeing are also affecting the new type. As a result the 777-8 is being “mothballed” and deliveries will not be available in time. for Project Sunrise.
Reports now suggest that Boeing will offer the larger 777-9 for Qantas, taking advantage of cancellations from Etihad in order to free up earlier delivery slots and meet the program timeline. The aircraft would carry additional fuel tanks to extend their range sufficiently for the routes. When the -8 model is finally available with the proper range and capacity the -9s would have the extra tanks removed and be used to replace the carrier’s A380s, making the initial investment a feasible expense.