Robert Silk
Robert Silk

Last month, Qantas completed the first of what will be three research flights this fall as it moves toward a final decision on whether to launch flights from Sydney to New York and London as soon as 2023.

At 11,185 miles, London-Sydney is considered the ultimate challenge in ultralong-haul flying. New York-Sydney, meanwhile, isn't far behind. It took
Qantas 19 hours and 16 minutes to operate that Oct. 20 research flight, which was only possible at all because Qantas carried just a partial load of 49 passengers on the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

Qantas' quest to connect Australia's biggest city nonstop to the powerhouse financial centers of New York and London shouldn't be considered surprising. In recent years, the development of long-range, twin-engine aircraft -- namely the Dreamliner, the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 777 -- has led to an ever-expanding map of city pairs that airlines can feasibly service, both technologically and economically.

When I first wrote about ultralong-haul flying in May 2016, Emirates' Dubai-Auckland route was the world's longest. Today, it's only the fourth longest, having been eclipsed since then by Qantas' Perth-London flight, by Qatar's Doha-Auckland and by the world's current longest route, Singapore Airline's Newark-Singapore route.

The fifth on the list, Singapore Airlines' Los Angeles-Singapore route, is also just a year old.

Those nonstop Newark and Los Angeles services are a particularly interesting case. They are flown on twin-engine A350-900ULRs, which Singapore Airlines had purpose-built by Airbus. The planes are equipped with just business and premium economy cabins. No suffering through 19 hours in economy.

Certainly, all airlines understand that comfort and wellness are a major issue for ultralong-haul services, since 15 to 19 hours spent in a thin, metal tube is bound to be hard on passengers, especially when jet lag is inserted in the equation.

That's why Qantas has been conducting a series of studies as it weighs whether to commit to Sydney-London and Sydney-New York service, a move that would require it to work in conjunction with Boeing or Airbus for development of mission-capable aircraft.

During the recent New York-Sydney flight, Qantas performed tests such as monitoring the brain waves, melatonin levels and alertness of pilots. In addition, instead of starting the night flight with dinner and then lights-off, Qantas began the flight with lunch and kept the lights on for six hours to match the time of day in Sydney.

The carrier will conduct similar studies on its two upcoming research flights. And this work builds upon research it has already done on its Perth-London service related to optimum dining choices for sleep and nutrition on ultralong-haul flights.

Still, I can't help but think the biggest answer to the question of ultralong-haul comfort is one we all know. Nothing can do more to alleviate the discomfort of any flight than extra space.

In that regard, I tend to think Singapore Airlines is onto something with its no-economy, ultralong-haul configuration. Of course, fewer seats on planes will translate directly to higher ticket prices. Pick your poison.

The good news, I suppose, is that even sitting hemmed-in for 19 hours, your hand held firmly to your side to avoid an armrest battle, is better than the alternative of sailing around the world. It's surely faster.

Correction: Qantas hopes to add flights from Sydney to New York and London as soon as 2023. An earlier version of this article stated an expected start date as soon as 2022.

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