Qantas’ New York To Sydney “Research” Flights: Research Or Publicity?

Filed Under: Qantas

We know that Qantas is working on “Project Sunrise,” which is their goal of operating nonstop flights from the East Coast of Australia (Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney) to both London and New York.

It’ll be a few years before these flights launch, given that Qantas is still waiting for final proposals from Airbus or Boeing on an aircraft capable of operating these flights (it’s rumored that Airbus will soon be announcing the A350-1000ULR, which would be able to operate this route).

Qantas’ Project Sunrise research flights

Ahead of these flights launching in a few years (hopefully), Qantas has announced that they will be operating three Project Sunrise research flights, which will see the airline flying nonstop from New York to Sydney, and also nonstop from London to Sydney.

Qantas is taking delivery of three new Boeing 787-9s in October, November, and December, and the airline will be rerouting the delivery flights. Rather than flying them nonstop from Seattle to Australia, they’ll fly them to London and New York, and then nonstop from there to Sydney.

“Wait a second, I thought the 787-9 couldn’t fly this nonstop?” Ordinarily it couldn’t, but it will be able to fly nonstop because they’ll greatly limit the weight of the aircraft. Each flight will have just 40 people, and that includes the crew. Qantas also notes that they’ll be carbon offsetting these flights.

Qantas 787-9 business class

This will represent the first ever nonstop flight by a commercial airline from New York to Sydney, and only the second flight from London to Sydney (Qantas flew this with a 747 many years ago in a similar test).

What research is being conducted?

Qantas says that the onboard research is being designed in partnership with Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre and Monash University, in conjunction with CRC for Alertness, Safety, and Productivity.

Those in the cabin (mostly Qantas employees) will be fitted with wearable technology devices and will take part in specific experiences at varying stages of the flights. Scientists and medical experts will monitor sleep patterns, food and beverage consumption, lighting, physical movement, and inflight entertainment to assess the impact on health, wellbeing, and body clock.

Meanwhile researchers will also work with pilots to record crew melatonin levels before, during, and after the flights. Pilots will wear EEG devices that track brain wave patterns and monitor alertness. This is being done to assist in building the optimum work and rest pattern for pilots operating long haul services.

As Qantas Group CEO, Alan Joyce, describes it:

“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.

For customers, the key will be minimising 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 maximise rest during their down time on these flights.

Flying non-stop from the East Coast of Australia to London and New York is truly the final frontier in aviation, so we’re determined to do all the groundwork to get this right.

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. We’ll also be looking at how we can use it to improve our existing long-haul flights.”

Qantas 787-9

Why I’m skeptical

Are these Project Sunrise research flights, or Project Sunrise publicity flights?

Based on Qantas’ record, I’d say it’s the latter. The airline is absolutely brilliant at generating publicity. For example, they talked more about their 787-9s before they took delivery of them (even though they were late to the game, and there was nothing special about them), than I’ve talked about Air Belgium, and that’s saying a lot.

Qantas already operates a nonstop Perth to London flight, which is about 17 hours. Are the two hours going to make that much of a difference? If taking an even longer flight is that important, maybe they should fly Singapore Airlines’ Singapore to Newark nonstop flight, which is only marginally shorter?

The point is, there’s nothing materially different about a flight an hour longer, and this won’t actually present that much useful data:

  • Different planes have different pressurization and impact on jet lag, and the 787 won’t be the plane actually used for these routes
  • The schedule Qantas will actually use if/when they operate these flights isn’t accounted for (presumably), and there’s a big difference in terms of how passengers feel depending on whether they depart at 1AM or 1PM
  • Having only 40 people onboard won’t account for the feeling passengers have on a full flight, including the noise, light, etc.
  • Given that this is a special test flight, passengers are much more likely to be excited/not tired

Let’s keep in mind that Qantas was in the news not too long ago because they were considering adding an exercise zone to their new ultra long haul flights. Of course most of us knew from the very beginning this wouldn’t happen. But Qantas loves to throw stuff out there, let the media pick up on it, and then it doesn’t end up happening.

Oh wait, I guess I just fell for their trick. 😉

Bottom line

As an aviation geek I find it cool that Qantas will operate a nonstop flight from New York to Sydney, since it’s a first. However, I firmly believe this is primarily about generating publicity, and not really about research. I guess we’ll see:

  • If they also have some media people on this flight (I’d be willing to bet they will)
  • If Qantas’ service on their new ultra long range flights is actually any different (I’d be willing to bet it won’t be)

I bet they’ll get a couple of tidbits of information about it, but I do think the primary motivator here is publicity.

What do you make of Qantas’ Project Sunrise research flights? Are they doing this purely for publicity, purely for research, or a bit of both?

  1. Gotta wonder if Sam Chui will be on that flight and making a video of the whole experience too 😉

  2. Considering (as you mention) that Qantas did a non-stop flight already between London and Sydney on a 747 back in the late 80s (if I recall), and nothing more came from that regarding non-stop London-Sydney flights, then I’m going to say this is publicity.

    Maybe they want to give Boeing some positive news too…

  3. Do you know if these research flights are going to be a single run, or will they make several trips? I tend to be a bit skeptical of the ‘research’ aspect of these flight, but the airplane and aviation geek in me says, “Get after it!” I am curious as to what the gross weight of the jets making these flights will be, compared to what they are expecting in actual service (yes, I know the jets going into service will be different), and what kind of fuel burn and performance margins they are going to be getting. Going that far means a LOT of gas, and weather happens. Given the fuel they need and the distance they are going, what are their divert criteria. Once upon a time, I believe Tokyo was a potential fuel stop going from the US to SIN (and HKG I believe) for 747s depending on winds.

    Should be fun to read about. 🙂

  4. Publicity all the way. As you note, an extra hour of flying versus SIN-NYC is irrelevant. Now if they put the 40 pax in Y, that might be a different story 🙂

  5. Most of the research seems oriented towards the pilots and the institutions conducting it are highly respected. This is a much about the negotiations qantas will have to have with the pilot’s union before they can launch these flights. There was some more detailed coverage in the Aussie papers today that went beyond the press release.

    The self-loading cargo will get to to suck it up as usual.

  6. I completely agree. When I saw there were only going to be 40 people on the plane it was obvious this wasn’t going to tell them much of anything about passenger experience. Unless they’re going to make them all sit in just a couple of Y rows so they’re packed in like regular pax

  7. Just send Monash researchers on a regular QF Long haul flight if they want real data. I am pretty sure they would highly recommend more leg room for economy passengers. These Ultra Long Haul flights should not be 31″ pitch but rather around 34-37″ pitch – oh wait, was that not what we used to call economy pre 1990’s?

  8. I reckon it’s more publicity than research but I think they’ll actually be getting some vital research from the operations side of things such as how much fuel they will need/ how much they have left after they land, what tail/ head winds are like, how hungry the passengers are and how much water they will need to carry. Back when they launched Perth to London they had everything from fuel, water and meals filled to the top for the first few weeks so maybe they’re trying to avoid that as that can increase fuel consumption quite drastically especially with it being a longer flight. Does anyone know how many pilots will be needed to operate the flight? I believe Singapore has pilots for Singapore to Newark so maybe this flight will be on the border.

  9. “For example, they talked more about their 787-9s before they took delivery of them …, than I’ve talked about Air Belgium, and that’s saying a lot.”

    Sentences like this are the reason I read this blog. Nicely done.

  10. @Ed is correct above. All the prestigious institutions they are using can be bought. The pertinent reason for these flights is to get CASA (the regulator) to make some changes to crewing rules, and those applying to two engined long haul aircraft. Publicity and ‘research’ are just advantageous side effects. If CASA changes its rules, then it will undermine potential union demands.

  11. @2paxfly – Their bad results? Profit dropped 6% to $A890 million and the share price ended up. It’s an airline, it’s profit will change and undoubtedly at some point, it’ll lose money again.

  12. @ Jake

    “I believe Singapore has pilots for Singapore to Newark so maybe this flight will be on the border.”

    It’s reassuring to know they have pilots on board 😉

  13. Flying backwards for 6 hours and flying the wrong way around the world? Sounds like a mental breakdown, heart attack, and PTSD for airline executives. Definitely publicity if you ask me

  14. “Scientists and medical experts will monitor sleep patterns, food and beverage consumption, lighting, physical movement, and inflight entertainment to assess the impact on health, wellbeing, and body clock.”

    To get more accurate results, they would want to add few babies that never sleeps, fully seated 3-3-3 with few big people, seat in front fully reclines while yours doesn’t, and a broken IFE into the control environment. Oh, and don’t forget, you will not get your meal choice either.
    They won’t learn much with 40 people unless they push the testing to the limits.

    Just make them all sit in just a couple of Y rows would probably not enough. You gotta put them through the worse stuff for 20 hours.

  15. It’s publicity! Don’t forget Qantas is celebrating its 100th birthday shortly!
    Most Australians don’t want non stop services – we want flights from Aussie places other than Sydney to cities other than London or LA! That’s why the middle eastern and Asian airlines are so successful on Australian routes.
    Qantas is all about premium services from Sydney to London and LA.They don’t care about any other route or economy passengers. There economy class is way behind other airlines and Qantas is g3nerally low down on list for most passengers travelling to Europe

  16. Publicity. Plus influence on the way regulatory bodies think to get unions to cave in.
    +1 on Sam Chui being invited to film and generate publicity.

  17. @Aniljak – why do you choose to speak on behalf of “most Australians”? How is this determined, a survey of your close mates?

  18. @JDS

    That was a research flight. It flew with only two cabin crew, 16 passengers, and was basically stripped of all its interiors – it didn’t even have galleys. It used a special super high density jet fuel made just for this flight by Shell, and the fuel was so expensive to produce it would never ever be commercially viable. The idea behind that flight was to prove it was possible to fly between the two cities, allowing them to predict that at the current technical advancement rate, it would be possible within a few decades. That flight was never meant to lead to non-stop flights.

  19. @Jaydan

    Funny why they want to prove it’s possible but never commercially viable.

    We went to the moon 50 years ago, so I don’t think 10,000 miles would be impossible 20 years after the moon landing.
    I’m pretty sure back then was also a publicity stunt and the research stuff is all BS just like the what they are trying to do now for NY.

    Maybe it is a good time someone should try to break the old 777-200LR record.

  20. QF have a world-class publicity machine. The news articles will show everyone lounging about having a nice time in J or a few lowly chumps scattered around Y+ with electrodes on their foreheads for the boffins from Monash. You won’t see Y.

    Neil Perry will most likely be there spouting his latest over-described and under-sized food platings along with shiny AJ and his SJW crew.

  21. @Aaron – They will stop and rest in NYC and London for a couple of days before continuing the journey, do press etc. There is no such thing as wrong way around the world.

  22. @Aniljak is basically correct.

    Qantas really only prioritise Blue Riband high-yield single-sector flights.

    Their 787-9 configuration tells you everything. Business Class is acceptable but fairly dense, while the Premium Economy and Economy cabins are more cramped than their competitors.

    It’s difficult to see why a non-stop London or New York flight would even bother with a Premium Economy cabin, let alone Economy.

    In practice I suspect they will go with around 5 rows of Premium Economy and 10 rows of Economy purely to evade accusations of abandoning the general public and of having no Award inventory.

    Something like:

    84 Business
    35 Premium Economy
    90 Economy

  23. Umm, I think the existence of your post answers it – even if there is a research component, publicity is generated…..

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