by Nigel Richardson, The Telegraph, March 26, 2018
The kangaroo has landed. In one giant hop Qantas has just pushed back the limits of commercial aviation with the first non-stop flight between Australia and the UK. At 5am on Sunday Flight QF9 from Perth touched down at London Heathrow after 17 hours and 9,000 miles - and I am now empouched on the return service, QF10, in a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner that bristles with new gadgetry designed to make this epic slog as comfortable as possible.
This is not quite the world’s longest commercial flight (that dubious honour belongs to Doha-Auckland on Qatar Airways, which I flew last year) but it is long enough for the passenger experience to be the subject of a scientific experiment. Over these two inaugural flights 20 passengers have been wired up to monitors as part of a study being carried out by the University of Sydney into the impact of long-haul flights on the human body.
“It’s the first time we’ve been able to integrate science into time-zone travel,” says Phil Capps, Head of Customer Product and Service Development at Qantas, during the pre-flight hullabaloo at Heathrow. Qantas has deployed a team of spokespeople - and a person in a kangaroo outfit - to enthuse about an innovatory cabin experience that promises to have the 236 passengers (42 in Business, 28 in Premium Economy and 166 in Economy) disembarking in Perth as bouncily as Skippy himself.
Neil Perry, the famous Aussie chef responsible for the in-flight menus, has devised jetlag-defying dishes with, he says, “plenty of carbohydrates and proteins which definitely promote the production of melatonin” (the hormone in the brain responsible for regulating the body clock). Chilli, on the other hand, is banned “because it stimulates the metabolism” - although I notice it has smuggled itself aboard in the crab cakes starter.
The cabin lighting, described by Karen Gardiner, one of Phil Capps’s team, as “quite spectacular”, is likewise designed to fool one’s body clock into re-setting itself. “We’ve set nine different scenarios for the lights,” she says, “including ‘sunset’ and ‘sunrise’.” (In the event I don't really notice the lighting and the in-cabin sunrise doesn't appear to happen at all.)
The windows are 65 percent larger than standard issue, which mitigates that feeling of being in a tin coffin, and the window blinds have five see-through settings, from light blue to deepest indigo, which is rather soothing though as I am not sitting by a window I have no control over these moody blues.
The most promising innovation from my point of view is the cabin atmosphere, which theoretically benefits from increased humidity (so your eyelids don’t feel like sandpaper when you wake up) and a cabin pressure equivalent to a lower altitude. “You’re looking at a cabin altitude of about 6,000ft as opposed to seven and a half or eight so it’ll be interesting to see how you feel at the other end,” Dan Pearce, one of the two First Officers, tells me. He says he’s been flying a Dreamliner on other long-haul routes and has noticed ”a big difference”.
Full disclosure at this point: as you may have guessed I am writing this in a Business Class seat. But before your lip reaches the full “I knew it!” curl, consider that I am effectively at my desk here and that, quite simply, I wouldn't have flown at all if I’d had to do it in the back (which, let’s face it, is an endurance test whatever the cabin atmosphere or fancy lighting). Long-haul flying and I really don’t see eye to eye and, besides, my bones are getting too old for it. Which is why I’m particularly interested to see if all this new stuff works.
So does it? I’m not sure yet as we’re only over the Black Sea (and I’m only on the first meal: crab cakes followed by pappardelle with parsley and pecorino soffritto, spring peas and toasted walnuts. Plenty of melatonin, surely, in that lot). There are still 13 hours and 7,500 miles to go.
The bigger question is, will these non-stop flights really take off? They certainly shave hours off routes with Middle East stopovers and Perth as a tourist destination is set to enjoy a real dividend, with Western Australia promoting the region as the ideal and obvious place for Europeans to kickstart their Down Under experience. As important, for Qantas, is the fact they are blazing a trail for other extreme-haul routes, including Sydney-London, that the airline hopes to have in operation by the early 2020s.
With six hours gone and the plane now over a darkened Iran it is time for the flight attendant to attach my “mattress” (actually just a quilted cover) to my seat and for me to press the recumbent figure icon on the control panel...
Seven and a half hours hours later, with the sun having risen beyond the blue blinds (though not in the cabin), I awake 40,000 ft above a portion of the Indian Ocean known as the Wallaby Plateau. There are now just 2½ hours until we land in Perth and I can honestly say I feel a lot fresher than I thought I would (and that’s the consensus among the group I’m travelling with). It’s possible of course that all this talk of melatonin, circadian rhythms and colour phases has simply had a placebo effect but quitting the plane after an on-time touchdown I really do feel a marsupial spring in my step.