There is probably no firmer indication that the pandemic – or, at least, the public perception of it – is reaching some sort of endgame than the latest news from the world of aviation.

Earlier this month, Qantas announced that it is on the verge of breaking through what might be described as the final frontier of commercial air travel. It has named the plan, somewhat grandiosely, “Project Sunrise” – but this is not a lily that needs gilding.

This is the promise of something which has always been beyond the scope of existing technology, but now feels thrillingly close: non-stop flights between Sydney and London, as well as direct connections between London and Melbourne – and equally seamless services between both Australian cities and New York.

For all the fanfare that has accompanied the news, Qantas is only making vague reference to “late 2025” in terms of wheels on runways and wings over oceans. The announcement is more that the airline has placed an order with Airbus for the planes – 12 of them – which will begin leaping hemispheres in three or four years.

Haven’t we heard about “Project Sunrise” before?

Indeed. The term “Project Sunrise” popped up in November 2019, when Qantas completed a non-stop test flight between London and Sydney in 19 hours and 19 minutes.

Of course, the term “COVID-19” also popped up around then, and the remarkable achievement of unbroken motion between said two cities quickly faded into relative insignificance. But it was quite the achievement nonetheless, even with the caveat that the plane in question – a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner – would not have been able to reach its destination in normal conditions. To ensure it did, it was carrying only 50 people.

When it landed, it had fuel left for a further one hour and 45 minutes of travel; a buffer that would have been exhausted had the 787-9 been filled to its standard capacity of 290 passengers.

What type of aircraft will Qantas use?

Despite conducting its research using the Dreamliner, Qantas has commissioned Airbus to produce a dozen of its A350-1000 aircraft. This is not a new plane. The A350-1000 had its first test flight in November 2016, and entered commercial service as part of the Qatar Airways fleet in February 2018.

The existing version has a maximum range of 16,000 kilometres – which isn’t enough for a journey from London to Sydney without stopping on the way. Qantas’s incoming next-gen models will push the limit with a crafty extra fuel tank.

Will this be the world’s longest flight?

Yes. And it will break the previous record by a considerable chalk. At time of writing, the longest flight on – or, more appropriately, across – the planet is the regular service between Singapore and New York JFK operated by Singapore Airlines. This clocks in at 15,348 kilometres.

Although flight paths can vary (more on this below), the Qantas test flight from London to Sydney was measured at 17,751 kilometres. A direct connection between New York and Sydney would eclipse Singapore Airlines’ current wanderings as well.

Qantas also trialled this route in (October) 2019, arcing across the width of the American torso to California, then arrowing south-west across the Pacific, passing just below Hawaii en route to home soil. This particular jaunt amounted to 16,415 kilometres– in just over 19 hours.

Stretching for the big flight.

How much will direct London to Sydney flights cost?

As ever, the devil will be in the financial details, but soaring from London to Sydney without pausing is unlikely to be a low-cost experience. At least, not until market forces work their magic.

Qantas has – not wholly unsurprisingly, when we are more than three years away from the inaugural flight, and in the midst of stubbornly uncertain times – released any prices. But the service will guarantee its economic viability – and, crucially, that the aircraft will be able to complete the journey in one go – by paring back passenger numbers.

That means more space for premium travellers, and the bigger profit margins they provide. Qantas has explained that its ULR (Ultra-Long-Range) A350-1000s will have six first-class suites, each with a separate bed, a “recliner lounge chair” and a wardrobe.

There will also be 52 business suites (the largest passenger section by meterage), and a premium economy cabin of 40 seats. There will be an economy zone, accounting for the remaining 140 of the total 238 passengers – but how much it will cost to sit there is still a secret. For reference, a standard A350-1000 can have up to 410 seats.

What happens if the plane runs out of fuel?

It won’t. Airlines and their passengers fall out regularly over long delays, lost baggage, cancelled services and missed connections, but crashing your customers into the ground because you haven’t put enough gas in the tank is generally seen as a PR no-no. P

lanes always take off with a reasonable amount of “spare” fuel, in case of extreme weather, heavy headwinds, traffic congestion at the destination, or any other issues which might unduly delay an arrival – but airlines also have stop-gap airports on hand should the situation become dangerous.

Since 2013, and a commercial partnership with Emirates, Qantas’s standard Sydney-Heathrow flight has paused in Dubai on the way. It is likely that a similar arrangement will be built into the non-stop service, in case of emergencies.

What is the effect on the human body of 20 hours in a plane?

Being cooped up in a small space for that length of time isn’t ideal, and can only exacerbate the traditional health risks of long-haul flight (for example, the threat of deep-vein thrombosis).

Passengers will need to pay particular attention to the usual self-help measures – regular “breaks” to stretch and walk around the cabin, plenty of water etc.

Qantas has revealed that its next generation of London-bound planes will have “a dedicated Wellbeing Zone designed for movement, stretching and hydration” – which will make a difference, assuming it is available to all passengers. The published flatplan for the new A350-1000, which shows this relaxation area between the economy and premium economy compartments, suggests that it will be.

Food on board.

Is a non-stop flight “greener” than a service with stops?

Popular wisdom has it that a non-stop flight is better for the environment, as the greatest surge of fuel use is during departure. On this basis, one take-off means a lower level of emissions than two.

However, there are concerns that a flight of the distance of London to Sydney negates any such “benefits”. Dr Tony Webber – a former chief economist at Qantas, now based at the aviation school at the University of New South Wales – told The Guardian that non-stop UK-Australia flights may actually be less fuel efficient than those which pause en route.

“It’s true that reducing four movements – a take off and landing for each leg – means less fuel is burned,” he said. “But for a plane to stay in the air for 20 hours without refuelling means [it is] carrying an enormous amount of fuel. That extra fuel is extra weight, which in turn means you’ve got to burn more fuel overall to carry it. It’s a real inefficiency compared with flights that can carry less and refuel at a stop-over.”

A standard return flight to Sydney from London, with a break in Singapore, emits about 3500 kilograms of CO2 per passenger. Qantas says that its ULR A350-1000s will be 25 per cent more fuel-efficient than previous aircraft models.

Will the war between Russia and Ukraine make any difference?

Yes and no. Shortly after the war erupted, Remco Steenbergen, the chief financial officer of Lufthansa, said that Germany’s national carrier will need to raise flight prices to offset the extra cost of flying around Russian and Ukrainian airspace to reach the Far East.

Whether a similar diversion would increase the cost – but crucially, also the distance – of a direct Qantas service is unclear. The conflict would have made a difference to the 2019 test flight, which picked a path across Russia before turning south-east over Kazakhstan, China and the Philippines.

If Qantas retains its ties with Emirates and Dubai, including in its flight paths, it will be less of a problem. As will be the case for anyone settling into economy for 20 hours, it’s a matter of “wait and see”.

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