On 14 November 2019, Qantas flight QF7879 took off from London to Sydney. But this was no ordinary flight. The Qantas Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner was flying an ultra long haul route of over 17,000km, taking almost 20 hours to complete.
This flight is part of Project Sunrise, a Qantas research flights programme to gather data about inflight passenger and crew health and wellbeing. Over such marathon flights, the human body undergoes changes affecting sleep patterns and appetite, among others. The data gathered will be used by Qantas to make their ultra long haul flights as comfortable as possible, while minimising disruption to the body clock upon landing.
These flights are not just about physiological research. If proven to be safe and comfortable, direct flights from London and New York to Sydney will connect the economic centres of Europe, America, and Australia. Qantas seems to think it makes commercial sense to run these non-stop flights regularly. Its CEO, Alan Joyce has said, “Between the research flights and what we’ve learned from two years of flying Perth to London, we have a lot of confidence in the market for direct services like New York and London to the east coast of Australia.”
“From the outset, we’ve been clear that Project Sunrise depends on a business case that works. We’ll only commit to this investment if we know it will generate the right return for our shareholders given the inherent commercial risks,” he added.
Tailoring the customer experience to such ultra long haul flights is tricky, but airlines with experience in running such flights seem to think that focusing on wellness is key. Singapore Airlines, which flies Singapore to New York non-stop, currently operates the longest regularly scheduled commercial flight in the world at close to 19 hours of flight time. The flight doesn’t have economy class – instead, only premium economy and business class is offered. The roomier seats mean customers have space to stretch, relax – and importantly, sleep to readjust the body clock.
The plane that Singapore Airlines has chosen to fly the route also reflects focus on passenger comfort in confined spaces. The Airbus A350-900ULR will offer customers a more comfortable travelling experience with features such as higher ceilings, larger windows, an extra wide body and lighting designed to reduce jetlag. Its carbon composite airframe also allows for improved air quality due to a more optimised cabin altitude and humidity levels.
The inflight menu is also skewed towards wellness, with healthy options that make you feel full for longer, minus the sugar and calories. Singapore Airlines has partnered with US-based Canyon Ranch, serving up meals like prawn ceviche with fresh fruit, citrus braised beef with white bean cassoulet, and French apple frangipane tart with ricotta cheese. Of course, local Singaporean options like chicken rice and satay are available as well, if you should so choose to have it.
Similarly, Qantas on its Project Sunrise flights offers customers a healthy menu, without alcohol (so as not to skew the biological research data). There was also an exercise instructor on board the research flights to ensure passengers got their dose of exercise, after being confined in a metal tube for close to 20 hours. The flight has also been designed to test the effect of specially timed food, drink, movement, lightning and sleep on the wellness of passengers, given that they will be experiencing two sunrises (hence the name Project Sunrise).
CEO Qantas International Alison Webster has said the new research is showing increased interest towards physical wellbeing, state of mind and personal time and space. Qantas’ five most frequent suggestions from customers for Project Sunrise are:
- Provide “sense of separation” experiences where passengers can be social but then “zone out” with either virtual reality relaxation zones, audio mindfulness experiences, or through the broader inflight entertainment.
- Spaces to do gentle exercise/stretches, promoting circulation and comfort.
- Wireless, noise cancelling headsets
- Innovative cabin designs across the entire aircraft, considering both seat and non-seat spaces to focus on a broad range of traveller needs including comfort, sleep, dining, entertainment and state of mind.
- An inflight cafe offering both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages including wine, fresh juices, herbal teas and tisanes and mocktails along with snacks including dips with vegetable sticks as well as “treat foods”.
With the new generation of jets allowing for greater fuel economy across ultra long range flights, it is likely that more and more carriers will elect to fly routes connecting Asia and Oceania to Europe and America. Qantas is expected to start ultra long haul flights to and from Sydney by 2022, pending new crew agreements. As for the customer experience, these flights are likely to be used by business flyers. The wellness programme onboard can potentially minimise jetlag, allowing these customers to hit the ground running and start work immediately. It will be interesting to see what the outcome of these flights will be once Qantas starts it for real, and the conditions passengers have to endure.