By Robert Wall
(The Wall Street Journal)
LONDON – Qantas Airways Ltd. is inaugurating one of the world’s longest commercial flights on Sunday – a roughly 17-hour journey between Perth, Australia, and London that adds another really long flight to a growing roster of them.
New planes and fuel-efficient engines have made these “ultra long haul” connections possible and profitable. Now, airlines and aircraft makers are working on making them tolerable for passengers.
The flights promise fast, seamless travel between far-flung locales. The downside: they require almost a full day trapped inside a plane. For economy-class passengers, most of that time is spent squeezed into a narrow seat that doesn’t fully recline.
Qantas and other carriers are experimenting with lighting, cabin temperature and menu items to help travelers cope. Now plane makers are getting into the act.
Boeing Co. and Airbus SE are offering aircraft that, in addition to extra range, can provide more cabin humidity and cleaner air – both factors that help make long-haul journeys less fatiguing.
Ultra-long flights “are an adventure for passengers and also for the airlines, so we need to provide a product so they can dare go on that adventure,” said Marisa Lucas-Ugena, marketing boss for Airbus.
The new Qantas service is meant to be a steppingstone to a 22-hour direct flight it eventually wants to operate between Sydney and New York or London. The destinations are about the same distance apart from Australia – just in different directions.
So far, no plane can do it with a full load of passengers. Qantas is pushing Boeing, the world’s top plane maker, and No. 2 Airbus to provide a new plane for about 300 passengers and a 22-hour flight.
Currently, the world’s longest flight is Qatar Airways’ 17-hour-40-minute flight linking Auckland, New Zealand, with Doha, but it may not hold the record long. Singapore Airlines Ltd. this year plans to resume direct 19-hour flights to New York.
Singapore Airlines scrapped the service in 2013 when it retired the Airbus A340-500 planes that it used on the route. Singapore Airlines now is buying seven Airbus A350-900 aircraft specifically configured to carry an additional 5,270 gallons of fuel.
Apart from the mechanical challenges of such long flights, there are biological challenges. Qantas is pairing its rollout of the new flight this month with an extensive program to help passengers manage jet lag. “It is about a series of subtle changes,” said Phil Capps, the airline’s head of customer product.
To help passengers start adjusting to the new time zone, Qantas is rescheduling food service at the start of the journey to synchronize more closely with meal times at the destination. It has bolstered the onboard menu with lighter meal options such as a tuna poke salad bowl, a bespoke herbal tea to encourage relaxation and a bedtime hot-chocolate drink containing Tryptophan, an amino acid credited with helping to induce sleep.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG last year began using 24 different light settings on its Airbus A350-900 planes to help manage passenger biorhythms during long haul flights. The airline uses different color schemes to help passengers fall asleep or wake up.