Qantas tests 20-hour nonstop flights to see if passengers can bear it

A Qantas A380s is shown in this file photo.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

Qantas Airways Ltd. will run marathon ghost flights from New York and London to Sydney, Australia, carrying just a few staff to see how the human body holds up on a 20-hour, nonstop flight before commercial service starts.

Qantas said Thursday it will simulate the world’s longest direct flights with Boeing Co. Dreamliners as soon as October. The 40 passengers and crew, most of them employees, will undergo a host of medical checks and assessments.

Qantas is trying to roll out a network of super-long direct services connecting Australia’s eastern seaboard with South America, South Africa and North America as rising oil prices squeeze profit margins.


The Australian airline wants to start direct flights connecting Sydney to New York and London as soon as 2022. Chief Executive Alan Joyce describes the services as aviation’s final frontier.

The services aren’t yet a sure thing. Qantas still hasn’t decided on a Boeing or Airbus plane that can fly the route fully laden and without a break. And it’s not clear how passengers will tolerate living in the cabin for the better part of a day and night.

“The things we learn on these flights will be invaluable,” Joyce said on a call Thursday.

Joyce has previously said he plans to choose either Boeing’s 777-8X or Airbus’ ultra-long-range A350-900ULR and -1000ULR for the flights. Competition for the contract gives Qantas more leverage over price.

In 2018, Joyce said Qantas and the aircraft manufacturers were dreaming up cabin interiors geared toward surviving such marathon flights — possibly incorporating bunks, child-care facilities and even somewhere to work out. “We’re challenging ourselves to think outside the box,” he said. “Would you have the space used for other activities — exercise, bar, creche, sleeping areas and berths? Boeing and Airbus have been actually quite creative in coming up with ideas.”

But later Joyce said Quantas had ditched those notions; instead, passengers will be given a space to stretch and have a drink of water.

The more spartan comfort levels underscore Qantas’s challenge. There are other barriers too: Although Joyce said the planes proposed by Boeing and Airbus for the ultra-long-haul flights can make the distance, neither can carry the weight that Qantas initially targeted.


Even after promoting Project Sunrise for years, Joyce said he’d be ruthless. “We will kill the project” if the economics don’t stack up, he said.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television on Thursday, Joyce said the delay to Boeing’s 777X program hasn’t excluded the U.S. manufacturer from the deal. He said Boeing had offered Qantas a “transitional” solution to accommodate for any delay. He didn’t elaborate.

“This is still a very competitive race,” he said.