SYDNEY – A plane belonging to Australian flag carrier Qantas is set to take off on Friday from New York to Sydney for a test flight lasting nearly 20 hours without layovers – the world’s longest – to study the impact of such a lengthy journey on the health of passengers and crew.
The flight, which is scheduled to depart at 9 pm local time (1 am GMT) from the American megalopolis, is the first of three planned test flights involving the new Boeing 757-9s aircraft which are set to cover new direct routes between Sydney and London and New York City.
Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement that the airline was “excited to be taking existing research strategies to the next level by conducting interactive onboard research using rigorous scientific protocols.”
The planes will become mobile research labs, where six volunteer passengers – out of a total of 50, including crew members – will be subjected to experiments seeking to better understand ways to reduce the impact of jet lag.
The volunteers are expected to follow a rigorous plan to modulate their sleep, food and drink intake and physical movements.
“Usually with night flights, passengers are provided with dinner shortly after take-off and then lights are turned off. But this may not necessarily be the best way to help reset a passenger’s body clock to the destination time zone,” Joyce explained.
The study, which is the first of its kind in the world, will be conducted by scientists from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre as well as researchers from the government’s Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity, who will monitor the sleep cycles and alertness levels of the pilots and cabin crew.
According to the airline, four pilots and six members of the crew will be involved in the data collection by wearing activity monitors and completing sleep diaries, as well as filling out rest and alertness logs. Pilots will also provide researchers with urine samples from before, during and after the flight, which will track melatonin levels to establish individual body clock timing.
In addition, cameras will be mounted in the cockpit for the flight duration to record alertness cues and operational activities.
The tests are part of Project Sunrise, Qantas’ planned new direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to London and New York, which the airline wants to implement by 2022.
“Project Sunrise is pushing the boundaries even further. We know we need to think harder about crew and passenger wellbeing when you’re airborne for almost 20 hours, and that’s why this research is so important,” Joyce said.
The test flight will come over a month after the president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, Mark Sedgwick, published an op-ed underlining the need to view all flights through the prism of safety when it comes to ultra long-range flying’s impact on pilots.
“From a pilot’s perspective, the key issue would be making sure that at the end of the flight, the crew was alert and capable of functioning with optimal performance,” Sedgwick wrote.
A previous study by Qantas and the University of Sydney showed that 54 percent of passengers surveyed used earplugs or noise-canceling headsets to help them sleep on long-haul flights.
In addition, about 38 percent drank alcohol to aid their sleep while 24 percent actively avoided consuming booze onboard.
“Drinking more than a few glasses of alcohol will make jet lag worse,” said Dr Yu Sun Bin, a specialist sleep researcher from the CPC, when presenting these findings. “It might make us fall asleep faster but (beyond a certain point) it also disrupts the quality of sleep and causes dehydration.”
The NYC-to-Sydney flight is expected to last some 19 hours-and-a-half, covering a distance of about 17,000 kilometers (10,560 miles).
Since 2018, Qantas has been offering a direct flight between London and Australia’s fourth-largest city, Perth, located on the country’s west coast. The carrier has used data collected from those flights to obtain further insights into the impact of long-distance air travel on humans.
“Every time a new aircraft has allowed us to fly for longer, people naturally ask about the comfort factor,” Joyce said. “The fact that the longest flight on our network today, Perth to London, also has our highest customer satisfaction rating shows that you can design an ultra-long service that passengers enjoy. Plus, it has the added benefit of getting you to your destination several hours faster, door-to-door.”
At present, the world’s longest direct flight is offered by Singapore Airlines, which links the Southeast Asian city-state with Newark, New Jersey in 18.5 hours.