Qantas is planning to operate three ultra long-haul research flights as part of ‘Project Sunrise’ to gather data about in-flight crew and passenger health and wellbeing.

The airline is hoping to eventually launch direct flights from the east coast of Australia (Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) to London and New York following the success of its Perth-London service.

Over the course of three months, Qantas will use its new Boeing 787-9s and re-route their planned delivery flights. Rather than flying empty from Seattle to Australia, the aircraft will simulate two Project Sunrise routes – London and New York to Sydney.

According to Qantas, this will be the first flight by a commercial carrier direct from New York to Sydney and the second time a commercial airline has flown direct from London to Sydney.

Each of the three test flights will have a maximum of 40 people on board including crew in order to minimise the aircraft’s weight and deliver the necessary fuel range.

Qantas will offset all of the carbon emissions from each of these flights.

On-board research is being designed in partnership with Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre and Monash University in Melbourne in conjunction with CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity.

People in the cabin, which will be mostly Qantas employees, will be fitted with wearable technology and take part in specific experiences at varying stages of the approximately 19-hour flights. Scientists and medical experts from the Charles Perkins Centre will monitor sleep patterns, food and beverage consumption, lighting, physical movement and in-flight entertainment to assess the impact on health, wellbeing and the body clock.

Researchers from Monash University will work with pilots to record crew melatonin levels (the hormone that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle) before, during and after the flights. Pilots will wear an EEG (electroencephalogram) device that tracks brain wave patterns and monitors alertness. Qantas aims to establish data that can be used to optimise the work and rest patterns for pilots operating ultra long-haul services.

Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said the airline hopes the test flights will give medical experts the chance to do real-time research that will translate into health and wellbeing benefits.

The airline has also gathered data on passenger sleep strategies on its Perth-London service, with the findings due to be assessed further as part of the ultra long-haul research. Customer feedback on food choices, separate stretching and wellbeing zones and entertainment options will also be tested.

Joyce commented: “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 to 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, in-flight 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 said both Airbus and Boeing have pitched versions of their A350 and 777X aircraft that are capable of operating Project Sunrise flights with a “viable commercial payload”.

A final decision on Project Sunrise is expected to be made by the end of December 2019, and depends on aircraft economics, regulatory approvals and industrial agreements.

Joyce added that “the economics have to stack up”.

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