How long would you be willing to sit on an airplane?

Qantas has been putting that challenge to the test. The Australian airline has broken the record for the longest non-stop passenger flight, with a 19 hour and 16 minute trip from New York to Sydney.

The 16,200 kilometre journey was part of a trial of two new routes that the airline is considering introducing. It will undertake a direct flight from London to Sydney in November.

The flights are being used to collect data on the health and well-being of passengers and crew on ultra-long-haul trips.

Forty-nine passengers and crew were on the New York to Sydney flight. On-board tests included monitoring the brain waves, melatonin levels and alertness of pilots. There were also exercise classes for passengers and an adjusted meal schedule and lighting to help reduce jet lag.

Passengers on the almost 20-hour New York-Sydney flight did exercises to help with jetlag.
Image: James D Morgan/Qantas

One writer on board documented his experience.“The three hourly tests I take during the first half of the flight reflect the demands of this trip,” noted Angus Whitley of Bloomberg. “My blood pressure is elevated, though not high, and my heart rate picking up. My mood is light, though darkening very gradually.”

“We know ultra-long-haul flights pose some extra challenges, but that’s been true every time technology has allowed us to fly further,” said Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce. “The research we’re doing should give us better strategies for improving comfort and well-being along the way.”

The evolving frontiers of air travel

Qantas is calling the flight a significant first for aviation.

“What’s already clear is how much time you can save,” said Joyce. “Our regular, one-stop New York to Sydney service took off three hours before our direct flight, but we arrived a few minutes ahead of it.”

The longest direct flight currently in operation is Singapore Airlines’ Singapore to New York route, which clocks in at 17 hours and 52 minutes.

Close behind that is Qatar Airways’ Auckland to Doha flight – a stretch of 14,534 kilometres, lasting 17 hours and 30 minutes.

It’s a long way from the early days of long-haul commercial air travel. Pan-Am’s first service across the Pacific, in 1936, took six days, five legs and nearly 60 hours in the air between San Francisco and Manila.

The carbon challenge

While today’s flights are achieving greater efficiency, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) acknowledges the need to address climate change.

Aviation produces about 2% of global carbon emissions. The IATA has set targets that include a reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

Airlines are looking at various ways to minimize their impact. Biofuels – which can be made from algae or waste byproducts – are being investigated as a viable way of cutting emissions. Other innovations, like retrofitting winglets – devices on wing tips to reduce drag – have also helped cut CO2 output.

Qantas said all of the emissions from its research flights will be offset.