August 30, 2019.   The Grail Route.

It’s fascinating how the challenges of long-haul flying are no longer technological. They are, instead, questions of flesh and blood. The newest long-haul jetliners can safely stay aloft for the better part of twenty hours. But can a person?

We’re about to find out. This fall, Qantas is planning to operate a series of experimental nonstops between Sydney and both New York-JFK and London-Heathrow, operated by Boeing 787-9 aircraft. Flight times will approach the twenty hour mark. Only a few dozen passengers — mostly Qantas employees and journalists — will be aboard, their vital signs and other biometrics carefully monitored.

The question isn’t whether such flights are survivable — obviously they are — but under what conditions are they bearable for a customer? Can a passenger be expected to tolerate economy class, as we know it, for such a marathon? Or will these flights, once they become regularly scheduled, need to be outfitted with special cabins, perhaps entirely with lie-flat seating? That’s one of the things Qantas will be evaluating, along with physiological issues such as noise and radiation exposure, hydration, and the matter of deep-vein thrombosis.

A Sydney-London nonstop, the so-called “Grail Route,” has been a dream of airline network planners for decades. (Qantas has nicknamed its endeavor “Project Sunrise.”) It’s finally on the verge of happening. If the experiments prove successful, Qantas hopes to move to scheduled flights starting in 2023, using either the 777X-8 or A350-ULR (ultra long range).

Indeed we’ve reached the point where virtually any two cities on earth are now connectable in a fell swoop. I have a collection of old airline timetables at home, mostly from the 1970s. Going through them, it’s remarkable how complicated it once was getting from continent to continent. Journeys that today take ten or twelve hours without a change of planes literally took days, sometimes with three or more stops along the way.


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