Ultra-long-haul flights are coming back. Qantas wants to break the record

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The first class suite on Qantas’ ultra-long-range A350-1000.
Courtesy: Qantas

Long flights are making a comeback.

It is one of the clearest signs yet that airlines are betting that the rebound of international travel, devastated in the Covid pandemic, will continue to grow.

On Wednesday, Qantas launched service between New York and Sydney with a stop in Auckland, New Zealand, on Boeing 787 Dreamliners, instead of a previous stop in Los Angeles. But the Australian carrier is focusing on even longer routes: Nonstop flights from Sydney to New York and London. Flights could clock in at around 20 hours, enough time to watch most of the Star Wars Skywalker Saga.

“You don’t have to take your bags off, you don’t have to transfer, you don’t have a chance of misconnecting,” Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told CNBC on Thursday at a showcase of the airline’s new cabins in New York. The airline estimates the new routes could reduce travel time by more than three hours compared with flights with stops in other airports.

For eight years, Qantas has been working with sleep scientists who have studied passenger moods, sleep patterns and food intake in hopes of limiting the impacts of jet lag on super-long flights, with test runs in 2019. They found that delaying meal service and keeping passengers awake longer with cabin lights help to fight the impacts of jet lag when they arrive at their destination.

Qantas is planning to operate the new nonstops on ultra-long-range Airbus A350-1000 planes starting as soon as late 2025. They will seat 238 passengers, far fewer than the more than 350 passengers that standard versions of the planes can fit. Qantas limited the number of people on board to fit more spacious seating and to account for weight and the plane’s range.

The airline has ordered 12 of the special planes.

“Qantas is the only airline wanting to do this. Because from Australia, we’re so far away from everywhere that we can justify at least 12 [of these] aircraft,” Joyce said.

Courtesy: Qantas

The planes will be outfitted with six enclosed, first-class suites that include a table for two, a reclining chair, a 32-inch touch-screen television and a 2-meter (more than 6.5-foot) flatbed. It will also have 52 business-class suites with lie-flat beds and 40 premium economy seats, as well as 140 seats in economy class.

They will also have what Qantas calls a “Wellbeing Zone” that has handles for stretching, on-screen exercise guides and refreshments. Wi-Fi will be complimentary, Qantas said.

Joyce said the airline’s international capacity is back to 85% of pre-pandemic levels and that he expects that to fully recover next March.

Passengers onboard QF7879 are taken through exercise classes during the flight from London to Sydney direct on November 15, 2019 in Sydney, Australia.
James D. Morgan | Getty Images

Yet even though ultra-long-haul flights are technically possible thanks to more efficient engines and aircraft, they face other challenges.

“There’s technical feasibility, and then there’s economic feasibility,” said Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst and former airline executive.

Singapore Airlines, for example, launched a nonstop flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Singapore that took about 18 hours (times vary due to winds and other factors) in 2004, a bet on business travel and that customers between the two destinations would pay to avoid connecting in another airport. In 2008, it offered reconfigured cabins that solely featured 100 business class seats on the A340-500.

But it discontinued the flight in 2013 as the carrier got rid of the fuel-guzzling, four-engine aircraft. It relaunched it in 2018 with a mix of business-class and premium-economy seats, pausing it during the pandemic and relaunching it last year.

In November 2020, the carrier introduced what is currently the world’s longest flight, from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Singapore.

Here is a look at the world’s longest flights by distance, according to airline data firm OAG:

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