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Airline to fly nearly empty plane from London to Sydney for ‘Project Sunrise’

Simon Calder
Long reach: the specially decorated Boeing 787-9 that Qantas is using for its Heathrow-Sydney nonstop: Qantas

Qantas is about to fly a near-empty plane from London Heathrow airport to Sydney as part of “Project Sunrise”.

These are the key questions and answers.

London to Sydney nonstop – is this a first?

No. Qantas flew exactly the same trip in August 1989 – so long ago that the plane used, a Boeing 747-400, is now parked at a museum in Australia.

So what’s different?

Logistically, not much. Then, as now, Qantas deftly diverted what would otherwise be a routine delivery flight from the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington, to Sydney. The plane flies to Heathrow and then continues to Australia’s largest city the long way around – and with no paying passengers onboard.

The difference in 2019 is that commercial flights on the route are on the horizon – by 2022, according to Qantas.

What are the details?

The aircraft is a Boeing 787-9 “Dreamliner” named Longreach, registration VH-ZNJ, and painted to celebrate 100 years of Qantas – an anniversary that happens in 2020.

It flew from the Boeing factory in Everett to Los Angeles, and after five days took off for Heathrow.

The plane is equipped with two General Electric engines and fitted with 42 business class seats, 28 in premium economy and 166 economy.

It will operate the 10,573 trip as QF7879, reflecting the Boeing aircraft type. This is the same flight number as was applied to the nonstop New York-Sydney flight in October 2019.

What is the journey time?

It is scheduled for 18 hours, 45 minutes, but is likely to take slightly less. The plane will have an airspeed of about 550mph, and will be assisted by favourable tail winds for much of its journey. It will easily beat the journey time of 20 hours, 9 minutes set in 1989, because the Boeing 747 had to fly slightly slower in order to minimise fuel burn.

The aircraft is due to land at Heathrow at 7.40pm on Wednesday evening and to leave Heathrow on Thursday morning as soon as it opens for departures at 6am. It is scheduled to arrive at Sydney at 11.45am local time on Friday.

Which way will it go?

The exact route will depend on meteorological conditions, but it is likely to stick closely to the “great circle” route – the shortest distance between two points on the surface of the Earth.

The flight will start with an initial heading east-north-east to Copenhagen, then across Klaipeda in northern Lithuania, Latvia and into Russian airspace – passing north of Moscow.

The northernmost point en route is likely to be close to the city of Nizhny Novgorod at 56.3 degrees north – the same as Perth (Scotland, not Western Australia).

The flight path then gently turns south and gradually increases its southward trajectory, crossing the northern Kazakh frontier about halfway along its length. As night falls, Qantas flight 7879 travels over northeastern Kazakhstan until it reaches the Chinese border.

The aircraft will spend more than five hours crossing China, longer than any other country, before reaching the coast at Hong Kong and setting off across the South China Sea.

It then cuts across the Philippines and miscellaneous Indonesian islands before making landfall in Australia, close to Darwin, around sunrise.

Even here the aircraft has almost 2,000 miles – and four hours flying – to cover, cutting diagonally across the Northern Territory, Queensland and northern New South Wales before landing at Sydney.

Officially the trip is being described as an “ultra-long haul research flight to gather new data about inflight passenger and crew health and wellbeing”.

People in the cabin – mostly Qantas employees – will be fitted with wearable technology devices and take part in experiments.

The airline says: “Scientists and medical experts from the Charles Perkins Centre will monitor sleep patterns, food and beverage consumption, lighting, physical movement and inflight entertainment to assess impact on health, wellbeing and body clock.

“Monash University researchers will work with pilots to record crew melatonin levels before, during and after the flights. Pilots will wear an EEG (electroencephalogram) device that tracks brain wave patterns and monitors alertness.

“The aim is to establish data to assist in building the optimum work and rest pattern for pilots operating long-haul services.”

But any commercial flight on the route will certainly not leave at 6am, the departure time scheduled for the Qantas test flight, so tests to measure fatigue will not be wholly helpful.

With a journey time of just one hour longer than the Perth-London nonstop that operates every day, the scientific claims looks flimsy – though the airline says: “Qantas has already conducted data on passenger sleep strategies on its direct Perth-London service, and some of these initial findings will be assessed further as part of these dedicated research flights.”

Qantas is understandably keen to extract as much favourable publicity as possible, as it did with a similar (though shorter) flight from New York to Sydney in October 2019.

What about the impact on the planet?

Flying large aircraft empty for thousands of miles creates a lot of CO2. The airline says it will compensate for the London-Sydney nonstop: “Qantas operates the largest airline carbon offset scheme in the world. This same programme will be used to offset all the carbon emissions.”

But Anna Hughes, director of Flight Free UK, says: “The climate emergency demands a drastic reduction in emissions now, not new ultra-long haul routes.

“Qantas cannot claim to be committed to sustainability while flying empty jets halfway around the world. Airlines are very good at referencing climate change when it serves their purpose, but there is simply no way an airline can achieve net-zero emissions while pushing ultra-long haul routes, and any claim otherwise is greenwashing.

“While there is no doubt that flying such distances is a remarkable feat of ingenuity and engineering, now that we are aware of aviation’s role in the climate crisis, it is time to stop.”

Surely cutting out the stops saves fuel?

Not on ultra-long haul flights like this, where the tanks are full of fuel to be burnt later in the journey.

According to Antonio Filippone in his book Advanced Aircraft Flight Performance, a modern aircraft (specifically the Boeing 777-300, though values are likely to be similar for the 787) on a very long route should optimally refuel every 3,450 miles – if suitable airports are available close to the shortest route. This takes into account the significant extra fuel consumed on the ground and during the ascent.

For the London-Sydney flight, refuelling at Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, and Cebu in the Philippines, divides the journey into three almost identical segments and adds only 74 miles (about eight minutes’ flying time) to the trip – though the journey would take hours longer because of the time on the ground.

When will fare-paying passengers be able to take a nonstop flight from London to Sydney?

Qantas calls its plan for nonstop flights connecting Sydney with both London and New York Project Sunrise. Scheduled flights are expected to start by 2022, if Airbus or Boeing can supply a suitable aircraft – either the A350 or 777X respectively. But Alan Joyce, chief executive of Qantas, says: “There’s plenty of enthusiasm for Sunrise, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. This is ultimately a business decision and the economics have to stack up.”

A decision is expected by the end of 2019. In time, there could also be nonstops from London to Brisbane and Melbourne, and from Paris to Sydney.

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