In October 2019, Qantas Flight 7879 travelled 10,000 miles from New York to Sydney – in 19 hours and 16 minutes. It marked a peak in the age of “ultra-long-haul” flights; non-stop journeys that employ the longest routes physically possible, topping out at 20 hours of flight time. So what’s next? Are there any distance records left to break?
The Longest Flight Physically Possible
The longest point-to-point flight possible is from Quito (UIO) in Ecuador to Pekanbaru (PKU) in Indonesia, at around 12,420 miles. Any further and you’d end up going the long way round – which might be an impressive feat, but it won’t be particularly helpful.
It’s not exactly a popular route, so a business case for such a flight would be hard to make, but it would have scientific merit. If flown, it would be the longest commercial flight ever, so the first to make a widebody passenger journey between those points would be the last to break an ultra-long-haul record.
Technology needs to catch up to that challenge – because there’s not yet a passenger-rated airliner capable of making the trip. The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner that made the New York to Sydney flight has a quoted range of around 9,200 miles, which it surpassed by carrying far fewer passengers and crew. The aircraft landed with 70 minutes of fuel to spare – but that wouldn’t translate to a safe margin when travelling nearly 12,500 miles.
Both Airbus and Boeing are developing ultra-long-haul aircraft to cater for what could be a growing market; but the challenge is steep and relies on engine makers as much as it does airframers. Boeing’s 777X prototype is a clear frontrunner, but it’s still deep in the testing phase, where it has experienced numerous setbacks.
However, the technical challenges faced and overcome will usher in a generation of lighter, faster and more efficient airliners. Less fuel burned means lower costs and lower emissions – two areas where aviation has a poor reputation and would benefit from a positive conversation – but can ultra-long-haul really improve aviation’s impact on the climate?
Fuel and Weight
Ultra-long flights pose a distinct set of challenges. Fuel weight is the biggest issue: or rather, what can you sacrifice to replace with fuel and still turn a profit? New lightweight, more efficient engines are part of the solution, but a significant bulk of weight comes from the fuel itself – a fact highlighted by critics of empty ultra-long-haul test flights. Increasing fuel capacity means that cargo and passenger capacity has to be reduced, eating into profits further and adding to the carbon offsetting burden passed onto each passenger. It’s a delicate balancing act; but the payoff for all this research will eventually be improvements to shorter flights. By carrying out weight reductions and better managing fuel, all flights could end up greener – which is better for the environment and for ticket prices.
The Human Challenge
Sleep, crew rotation and extra space for quarters – these factors have to be considered, too. Passengers will experience extensive periods of confinement with limited movement. To study this, pilots on the New York to Sydney flight had brain monitoring equipment attached to them during the flight, to track sleep and rest periods, as well as performance on the flight deck.
Four pilots worked in staggered flight and rest shifts, with everyone on hand for takeoff and landing. Six cabin crew members each had a bunk of their own on the flight, and all 40 passengers were treated to a luxurious seating configuration to maximise comfort.
Passengers were tracked too, though not as rigorously as pilots and crew – who also had to provide urine samples. Passengers did have to log reaction times and keep a diary of exercise, sleep and meals both before and after the flight.
The results? We’ll have to wait and see – but anecdotally, it’s better as a passenger than most long-haul flights and a stark improvement on flying the route in two legs. The data collected could be applied industrywide, maximising crew and passenger comfort, while mitigating jetlag.
Are Ultra-long-haul Flights Just Publicity Stunts?
A record-breaking flight is guaranteed to make headlines, and the airline will win publicity from it – but passengers win, too. While a non-stop flight lasting 20 hours might not sound like a pleasant experience, there are distinct advantages to flying to your destination in one hit; it’s faster and less stressful than multiple legs, and could eventually be cheaper once the routes become mainstream.
The record-breaking Qantas flight wasn’t a money-maker; it was primarily a research opportunity, to test the viability of ultra-long-haul flights – particularly the effects on passengers and crew. It just so happens to be extremely newsworthy, especially when the flight’s classification doesn’t allow journalists to pay for the flight.
So while there’s clearly a publicity benefit in breaking records, the real beneficiaries are the passengers of the future – taking cheaper, more convenient flights, straight to their destination.
So, what’s next? The greatest challenge aviation now faces is removing fuel from the equation altogether. In a world gripped by climate action, electric vehicles are the only viable option left. As a society, we’ve almost arrived to the point where personal cars and public transport can be powered by the grid.
For aviation, the challenge is going to be much, much tougher – and we’ll be reporting on developments in EVs as they emerge.
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