There have been so many advances in aviation in the past couple of decades that there are almost no routes between major world cities a modern airliner cannot fly. Sydney to New York and London are two of those routes. But perhaps not for long.
Qantas has challenged Airbus and Boeing to accomplish something that’s never been done: Deliver an aircraft capable of flying nonstop from Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne to New York and London filled with passengers and cargo.
If one of the manufacturers can meet the airline’s demands, as should be possible, Qantas could start new ultra long-haul routes by 2022. In an announcement made Friday in Australia, Qantas estimated flights from Sydney — its biggest hub — would take roughly 20 hours and 20 minutes to London and a little more than 18 hours to New York.
These Australia routes are a rarity in modern aviation. A couple of decades ago, it was impossible to fly nonstop between many of the world’s largest cities. But over time, Boeing and Airbus developed aircraft that could handle routes never thought viable, including Los Angeles to Singapore, an almost 18-hour flight United Airlines will begin flying in October using a Boeing 787. Qatar Airways now flies the longest route, a nonstop from Auckland to Doha, also about 18 hours.
But routes from Australia to Europe and eastern North America still test the limits of the world’s modern airliners. In March, Qantas will begin flying from Perth, Australia to London, the first regularly scheduled nonstop flight between Australia and the UK. The Perth-London segment, the longer of the two directions, will take 17 hours 20 minutes.
The new 787 route is a major advance, but it’s not perfect. Most travelers want to go nonstop from London to Sydney. They don’t want to stop in Perth much more than they want to connect in Singapore or Dubai, two common transfer points.
As for New York, many Qantas customers get there by flying through Los Angeles. Each day, Qantas dispatches a Boeing 747 from Los Angeles to New York, allowing customers to stay with Qantas for the entire journey. Qantas also flies from Sydney to San Francisco, as well as Dallas, a route it started in 2011 after studying it for years. For now, though, Dallas is about as far as a Qantas jet can go.
It’s no secret the two next-generation jets identified by Qantas could fly nonstop to New York and London, though it’s unclear whether they would enable an airline to do it profitably. One option is the Boeing 777X, a longer-range version of an airplane introduced in 1995. Another is a longer-range version of the A350, an aircraft that started flying in 2015.
With some tweaks, both could probably meet Qantas’ standards, though perhaps not with as many seats as the airline might like, Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst with Leeham News and Comment, wrote in a May post.
“The question is not if it’s possible,” he said. “It’s about how many passengers can be carried for the two jets and if it’s economic at the seat count.”
Some customers may not love spending 20 hours on an airplane. But in a fact sheet accompanying the announcement, Qantas promised passengers would be happy with the new service. It said its research shows travelers complain most not about the flight, but the airport experience, calling it “often one of the most stressful parts of the journey, particularly where a connecting flight is involved.”
Qantas also reminded customers it has an ongoing research project with an institute at the University of Sydney to examine nutrition, sleep cycles and physical movement aboard aircraft.
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Photo credit: Qantas is using a new Boeing 787-9 for its Perth-London flights, which begin next year. But the aircraft cannot fly to Sydney nonstop, so Qantas is looking for an airplane that can. Qantas