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Are non-stop flights to Australia a health risk?


En 1872, Jules Verne predicted 80 days for a world tour. In 2017, sailing, Francis Joyon finished in 40 days. In 2025, the Airbus A350-1000 will be able to complete a Sydney-London-Sydney in 40 hours. The new version of the European ultra long-haul aircraft is cut out to cover a non-stop half-round the world. On the mythical route of the kangaroos, the Australian national company Qantas has planned for 2025 – with two years of delay linked to the Covid – non-stop commercial flights Sydney-London (17,750 kilometers) in 19 hours and 20 minutes and a little less on the London-Sydney return with the prevailing winds blowing from west to east. The plane, which will make a short stopover in Great Britain, will therefore have flown 40 hours.

Time saving and less fatigue

The recent order placed with Airbus includes 12 A350-1000s as part of the “Sunrise” project (in pursuit of the sunrise), which bodes well for the opening of other very long flights, such as Sydney-New York (15 988 kilometres, but also services to Paris, Frankfurt, Chicago, etc. The time saved compared to flights with a stopover is at least four hours, not to mention less fatigue due to depressurization linked to the landing followed of a new pressurization after take-off thus avoided.

For Australia, this is a real challenge which is similar, all things considered, to our national desire to open up. Citizens of the state want to be able to reach any global metropolis without having to endure a long correspondence in Asia or elsewhere. According to Qantas boss Alan Joyce, the A350 and the Sunrise project “will allow any city to be a single flight away from Australia. It is the last frontier and the last solution to the tyranny of distance”.

Technical, social and commercial constraints

Such a challenge, which is writing a new page in the history of aviation, requires overcoming constraints that have not always been considered by international aeronautical regulations. They are technical, social and commercial.

Airbus, which was in competition with Boeing on this Sunrise project, had already fulfilled a large part of the technical contract by producing the A350-900 ULR (ultra long range, with increased range), planned to link Singapore to New York (15,323 kilometres) with Singapore Airlines. Qantas’ A350-1000, the slightly longer big brother with the same Rolls-Royce engines, is fitted with an additional 20,000-litre central fuselage tank (not in the wings), increasing its range to 18,0000 kilometers.

Its cabin, which could accommodate 366 passengers, is not denser, on the contrary. The six passengers in the first have a bed, but also a reclining chair and a wardrobe. 52 chair beds will be provided in business class, 40 seats in Premium and 140 in Economy (seats spaced 84 cm apart from 79 cm usually). With only 238 seats in total, relaxation areas could be set up here and there in the cabin. Boeing, mired in B777X certification issues and B787 manufacturing flaws, had no credible Sunrise offer.

Air travel: (almost) all roads lead to America

Few details were given on the social aspect of these very long flights concerning the composition of the crews, rest times in flight and at stopovers, salaries, etc. The Australian and International Pilots Association, which represents Qantas pilots, had called for a “long-term scientific study” to find out if pilots were getting the necessary rest during such flights. To quantify these parameters, pilots during test flights wore an EEG (electroencephalogram recorder) analyzing brain wave rhythms and monitoring alertness, the aim being to reveal data aimed at optimizing their activity and rest cycles during flights. long-haul. An agreement with the unions has been reached by Qantas.

Monitoring melatonin levels

Sunrise’s success is linked to the reactions of passengers. These were tested during experimental flights. Qantas which already operates a regular Perth-London of 14,498 kilometers in 17 hours, a line which is the most profitable with, as Alan Joyce pointed out, the highest rate of customer satisfaction. To investigate further, Qantas used three deliveries of new B787-9 aircraft for three months. Instead of rallying empty from Seattle, the Boeing site where they are assembled, to Sydney, the aircraft took the future Sunrise routes via New York or London and made a non-stop trip to Australia. No paying passenger on board, but about forty “guinea pigs”, mainly Qantas employees, who experienced the conditions of these flights. The methodology is close to that of space research! It is conducted in partnership with the Charles-Perkins Center at the University of Sydney and Monash University, in collaboration with the Australian Research Center for Vigilance, Safety and Productivity.

Each passenger was equipped with portable recording medical devices and participates in specific experiments at different times during the nineteen-hour flight. “Scientists and medical experts at the Charles-Perkins Center will monitor sleep, diet, physical movement, and the effects of onboard lighting and entertainment to assess the impact on health, well-being, and life. biological clock,” Qantas said. Monash University researchers will work with aircrew to record the crew’s melanin levels before, during and after flights, an indicator of “well-being”.

No flight under the French flag

Do these long flights concern French companies? The record for the longest commercial flight has been held since May 15, 2020 by the French bee company connecting Papeete to Paris (without the usual stopover in San Francisco), over 16,129 kilometers, in 16 hours and 45 minutes in an Airbus A350-900 . Air Tahiti Nui with a B787 Dreamliner had made a comparable flight two months earlier. But these exceptional connections were made with very few passengers repatriated during the pandemic. Air France, which operates the same line with a stopover in Los Angeles, is not interested in the only service on its network justifying a very long flight. Because the clientele coming or going to Polynesia is not large enough to finance such a service compared to the London-Sydney flows, for example. The economic balance is only possible with the contribution of passengers interested in the stopover in California.

It is mainly Asian companies (Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific) or Indian companies that are interested in very long non-stop flights, especially over the Pacific.