December 3, 2023

First Class Suite on Qantas Ultra Long Range A350-1000.

Courtesy: Qantas

Long-haul flights are making a comeback.

It’s one of the clearest signs yet that airlines are betting that the rebound in international travel, which has been hit hard by the Covid pandemic, will continue to grow.

On Wednesday, Qantas launched services between New York and Sydney, with a stop in Auckland, New Zealand. Boeing 787 Dreamliners, not the previous stop in Los Angeles. But the Australian airline is focusing on longer routes: nonstop flights from Sydney to New York and London. Flight time is approximately 20 hours, enough time to watch most of the Star Wars Skywalker saga.

“You don’t have to take off your luggage, you don’t have to transfer, you don’t have a chance to miss a transfer,” Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told CNBC during a demonstration of the airline’s new cabin in New York on Thursday. The new route can cut travel time by more than three hours compared to flights that stop at other airports.

For eight years, Qantas has been working with sleep scientists who study passenger moods, sleep patterns and food intake in hopes of limiting the impact of jet lag on ultra-long flights, and conducted a trial run in 2019. They found that delaying meal service and using cabin lights to keep passengers awake helped combat the effects of jet lag when they arrived at their destination.

Qantas plans to begin operating the new nonstop flights on ultra-long-range Airbus A350-1000 aircraft as early as late 2025. They will seat 238 passengers, far less than the more than 350 passengers a standard version of the plane can hold. Qantas has limited the number of people on board to accommodate wider seats and take into account the weight and range of the aircraft.

The airline has ordered 12 special planes.

“Qantas is the only airline that wants to do that. Because in Australia we’re so far from anywhere, we can justify having at least 12 (of them) aircraft,” Joyce said.

The planes will feature six enclosed first-class suites, which include a table for two, a chaise longue, a 32-inch touchscreen TV and a 2-meter (over 6.5-foot) flat bed. It will also have 52 business class suites with lie-flat beds and 40 premium economy seats, as well as 140 economy class seats.

They will also have what Qantas calls a “wellness zone” with stretch handles, on-screen workout guides and refreshments. Qantas says Wi-Fi will be provided free of charge.

Joyce said the airline’s international capacity has returned to 85% of pre-pandemic levels, and he expects a full recovery by next March.

Passengers on board QF7879 attend a fitness class on a non-stop flight from London to Sydney in Sydney, Australia, on November 15, 2019.

James D. Morgan | Getty Images

However, while ultra-long-haul flights are technically possible thanks to more efficient engines and aircraft, they face other challenges.

“There’s technical feasibility, and then there’s economic feasibility,” said aviation industry analyst and former airline executive Robert Mann.

Singapore Airlines, for example, launched a nonstop flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Singapore in 2004, with a flight time of about 18 hours (times vary with wind and other factors), betting on business travel and serving two purposes Customers between airports will pay a fee to avoid connecting at another airport. In 2008, it offered a reconfigured cabin with just 100 business class seats on the A340-500.

But it stopped flying in 2013 as the airline got rid of fuel-guzzling four-engine planes. It restarted in 2018 with a mix of business and premium economy seats, was suspended during the pandemic and restarted last year.

In November 2020, the airline launched what is currently the longest flight in the world from New York John F. Kennedy International Airport to Singapore.

According to airline data company OAG, here are the longest flight distances in the world: