The passengers are strapped with biometric devices, their vitals carefully analyzed by medical researchers and scientists. These brave travelers will be surviving cramped quarters for a long time, experiencing elevated doses of radiation, and battling ongoing fatigue while not losing their minds, knowing they’re actually just trapped in a tin can with other human beings.
The challenge sounds like everything you’d expect on a one-way trip to Mars. But in fact, I just described the upcoming New York to Sydney route to be offered by Qantas Airlines starting in 2020. The 10,100-mile flight is the longest in history, clocking in at 19.5 hours (saving about 3 hours versus if the plane had a stop en route). It’s nearly a literal day inside the most ergonomically uncomfortable means of travel. What could go wrong?
At minimum, a lot of jetlag, which is why Qantas is running Project Sunrise, taking careful considerations to change small details about the flight to help get passengers more rest. Taking off around midnight, the biggest change on the Sunrise flight was that passengers were placed on Sydney time immediately.
That means, instead of serving a meal and letting people immediately conk out as most night flights do, the crew left the lights on for six hours, serving food only several hours into the air. (Bloomberg‘s Angus Whitley hopped on the inaugural flight to experience this firsthand—noting that both dishes served were spicy, in an effort to keep passengers awake in the short term. They were also both fish dishes, which are thought to slowly increase the sleep hormone melatonin before bed.) After the trip, many volunteers wore movement and light sensors to ascertain how they were coping and whether they were actually getting their recommended sunshine, upon landing.
Meanwhile, the pilots and crew were being studied, too. Pilots donned EEGs during and after the flight to study electrical patterns in their brains both during work and rest times. (That’s important!)
The only real problem seems to be that, while passengers are being studied closely on these flights, the circumstances were quite a bit different than they’d normally be on a commercial flight. Testers all flew in business class, which is obviously going to be easier on the body than coach. The test flight also had lots of open seats, meaning people could stretch as much as they liked. Qantas promises the upcoming commercial route will feature a coach class cabin with extended legroom in every seat (needed!), and a small area for people to stand at the rear of the plane. On flights over eight hours long, blood clots become a very real possibility, so ensuring people have space to move is vital. Qantas is also installing a wellness center in their terminal, and making attempts to maximize natural light for passengers before taking off and landing. But these considerations don’t mean a lot for the day you’re in the air.
In any case, it’s all enough to realize why frequent flyers are so unhealthy in the first place, facing compromised immune systems, weight gain, and potentially dangerous levels of radiation exposure on a regular basis. Merely dimming the lights at the right time won’t be enough to solve the wellness challenges of air travel, especially on a 10,000-mile flight. But it does seem that the world’s longest route has offered Qantas a moment to reflect on its passenger experience from a holistic point of view. And it’s hard not to be encouraged by that.