On 19 October last year, Qantas Airways completed the first non-stop commercial airline flight from New York to Sydney, taking 19 hours 16 minutes.

    This included research on crew and passenger wellbeing for the airline’s Project Sunrise.

    Project Sunrise is aimed at operating regular, non-stop commercial flights from the east coast of Australia (Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) to London and New York, saving four hours on current one-stop services. This was the first of three flights over three months that will use new Boeing 787-9s and re-route their planned delivery flights.

    Instead of flying empty from Seattle to Australia, the aircraft will simulate two Project Sunrise routes – London and New York to Sydney.

    The purpose is to conduct scientific research on passengers and crew on an ultra-long haul flight, with the aim of increasing health and wellness, minimising jetlag and identifying optimum crew rest and work periods.

    To meet the Project Sunrise requirements, Airbus and Boeing have pitched variants of the A350 and 777X respectively, with the range to operate flights on a commercial basis.

    These pitches, together with findings from the research flights and other streams of work, will form part of a business case being developed by Qantas to inform a final yes/no decision on Project Sunrise expected by the end of this year.

    If approved, flights would start in 2022/23.

    Record-breaking flight

    The 787-9 aircraft for the first flight was positioned to New York after being delivered from the Boeing factory in Seattle. For the record-breaking flight, the take-off weight was 233,000kg (maximum take-off weight is 254,000kg) of which 101,000kg was fuel, ie the same amount of fuel that Qantas loads for Perth to London flights, currently its longest non-stop service to date at 17 hours 20 minutes, also operated on a 787-9.

    All carbon emissions from this flight, and two additional research flights from New York and London to Sydney in November and December, will be offset.

    However, to meet the range requirements, a reduced payload was required, with restricted baggage, no cargo and only 49 passengers and crew on board. Part of the load was 1,500kg of galley equipment, trolleys and catering supplies. The optimum flight path was calculated to minimise flight time, which involved months of flight planning, including running daily plans to establish wind and weather patterns.

    In fact, this was altered during the flight using real time information and to underline the benefits of ultra-long haul flights, the aircraft took off three hours after the regular, one-stop New York to Sydney service via Los Angeles and arrived a few minutes ahead.

    University partnership

    The passenger research was carried out in partnership with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.

    Six Qantas frequent flyer volunteers kept a daily log for a week prior to the flight, during the flight and for two weeks after the flight, noting how they felt throughout the study. They were fitted with wearable device technology to track movement and light exposure. They also completed a test on an iPad, similar to a game of ‘Whack a Mole’, to gauge reaction time and attention.

    The aircraft took off from New York at 21.27pm, at a time when, traditionally, dinner would be served and the lights dimmed for sleep. On this flight, lunch was served and the lights were kept on for the first six hours, to match the time of day in Sydney. Specific times were also allocated to the volunteers for out-of-seat movement and activities.

    Flight and cabin crew were also part of the research in partnership with the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC), to examine sleep cycles and alertness levels during extended flight duty in order to establish optimum crew work and rest patterns.

    Four pilots and six cabin crew were involved in the data collection, wearing activity monitors and completing sleep diaries and rest and alertness logs.

    The pilots wore EEG equipment for the duration of the flight to track brain activity and monitor alertness during their ‘on’ times and sleep during their rest periods, supplemented by cameras in the cockpit to record alertness cues and operational activities. They also provided urine samples before, during and after the flight to track melatonin levels to establish individual body clock timing.

    The findings on crew wellbeing will be shared with the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority to help inform regulatory requirements associated with ultra-long-haul flights over 20 hours.

    Second trial

    On 14 November, the airline carried out the second Project Sunrise flight, this time from London Heathrow to Sydney. It carried around 50 passengers and crew in order to give the 787-9 the range required for the 17,800 km flight, which took 19 hours and 19 minutes. While the distance travelled was 1,550km further than the first flight, prevailing tail winds meant it was just three minutes longer.

    Researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre as well as the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC) were again on board the non-stop Dreamliner flight to collect passenger and crew data. While the flight is over 1,500 kilometres further than New York to Sydney, the duration is expected to be similar.

    Acceleration of effort

    All carbon emissions from the research flights will be offset.

    Qantas recently announced an acceleration of its efforts to reduce its broader carbon footprint, including effectively doubling current levels of flight offsetting, capping carbon emissions from 2020 onwards and totally eliminating net emissions by the year 2050.

    Passengers boarded the flight at 06:00 London time. After take-off, they were offered a range of high glycaemic index supper options such as chicken broth with macaroni or a steak sandwich, along with a glass of wine and a milk-based panna cotta dessert.

    This was part of the plan to encourage them to sleep at 10:00 London time to help avoid light, and reset their body clock to Sydney time. Cabin lighting and temperature, stretching and meditation also play key roles in the research.

    The aircraft was painted in a special colour scheme to mark the centenary of the very first London to Sydney flight, which took 28 days. It landed on the 99th anniversary of the founding of Qantas.