You’re stuffed into a cramped airline chair with almost no leg room, only halfway into a 12-hour long-distance flight and already feeling stir-crazy.
No drink, snack, movie, book or music seems to help — it’s a nightmare, and you just have to stick it out.
Now what if we said that an airline actually wants to stretch those flights even longer — into 20 hour marathons across the globe.
Enter Australia’s national carrier Qantas.
The well-known carrier from Down Under announced it will begin test flights for three ultra-long haul services that are set to become the world’s longest non-stop commercial routes, Xinhua reported.
Scheduled for October, November and December, Project Sunrise will see Boeing 787-9s fly direct out of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne on Australia’s east coast to London and New York.
In order to gain more insight into crew and passenger wellbeing, Qantas partnered with two leading Australian universities.
They were tasked with monitoring passenger’s sleeping patterns, food and beverage consumption, lighting, physical movement and inflight entertainment. To get a better understanding of how long distance travel can affect a person’s body clock, the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre will equip around 40 airline staff onboard and test flights with wearable technology sensors.
Meanwhile, Monash University researchers will examine pilots and crews’ melatonin levels before, during and after the flights to measure their “alertness.”
“Ultra-long haul flying presents a lot of common sense questions about the comfort and wellbeing of passengers and crew. These flights are going to provide invaluable data to help answer them,” Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce said.
“For customers, the key will be minimizing jet lag and creating an environment where they are looking forward to a restful, enjoyable flight.
“For crew, it’s about using scientific research to determine the best opportunities to promote alertness when they are on duty and maximize rest during their down time on these flights.”
Describing the new routes from the east coast of Australia to London and New York as the final frontier in aviation, Joyce added that the airline must get all the groundwork right before the service begins.
“No airline has done this kind of dedicated research before and we’ll be using the results to help shape the cabin design, inflight service and crew roster patterns for Project Sunrise,” Joyce said. “We’ll also be looking at how we can use it to improve our existing long-haul flights.”
Qantas has been planning these trips for a while, and it once considered offering amenities like bunks, beds, and even a gym on the nearly day-long flight, although that plan was nixed back in June in favor of offering an area for passengers to stretch their legs, The Verge reported.
The announcement also comes on the heels of the company’s full-year profit report.
Although Qantas reported a record AUS$17.9 billion (US$12.1 billion) revenue to the Australian Securities Exchange, the airline’s underlying pre-tax profit was hit hard by rising fuel costs, landing at AUS$1.3 billion (US$880 million).
Although 20 hours may seem long for a commercial airline flight crew, US military pilots have been pulling ultra-long shifts on a regular basis, Defense News reported.
B-52 pilots, for example, not only have to manage the pressure of weapons drops and mid-air refuelling, they also have to manage nap times with co-pilots during daylong-plus flights that can stretch from US bases to Japan and back, the report said.
“After you do a few [long-duration flights], anything under 20 hours doesn’t seem like a big deal,” said Capt. Chris “Thunder” Beck, a former B-52 pilot who recently graduated from B-2 pilot training school.
“My personal record is 33 hours for my longest duration, but you just really got to take it from a big-picture standpoint, what you’re trying to achieve — you and your crew — and that’s what you have to focus on. It helps the time go by,” he said.
Beck said he tries to stay awake for the majority of a long flight on the B-52 so he can be ready to perform any task needed. But B-2 pilots have less of a choice in that respect. The B-52 is flown by a five-person crew — two pilots, two navigators and one electronic warfare officer. On the B-2, all tasks are shared between the two pilots, leaving less time for rest.
“You just have to identify what the crunch points are going to be. What’s going to be the most important thing to do?” said Capt. Mike Haffner, a B-2 pilot with the 13th Bomb Squadron, who manages the aircraft simulators.
“When you get started in that mission, [it’s important] to not get lulled into a false sense of security because you feel like you have 12 hours or more to get over to the target area,” he said. “You’ve got to be productive and get things done, so you can start taking turns taking naps and getting ahead of that, because as soon as you get behind the power curve, it’s kind of hard to recover.”
The US Air Force maintains a staff of doctors and physiologists that specialize in how protracted flying can impact the human body. These officials help new pilots learn techniques to improve their performance over long-endurance missions and update experienced pilots with new information about how to prevent fatigue.
“There is a way you can shift that circadian rhythm back and forth by getting the appropriate amount of sleep, shifting your sleep schedule and even modifying diet,” said Capt. Caleb James, a doctor with the 509th Medical Group.
While commercial flight crews will find ways of adjusting, how will passengers fare? The psychological implications alone of being in a tin can for that long are worrisome, especially with smaller and smaller airline seats. Many of today’s passengers already feel the sting of claustrophobia, with seatbacks just inches away from their face.