Qantas to launch London-Sydney test flight despite new sustainability pledge

Simon Calder
Long reach: the Boeing 747 that flew nonstop between London and Sydney in 1989: Qantas

Final preparations are under way for Qantas’ London-Sydney nonstop test flight, which is happening the same week as the airline announces its commitment to becoming more sustainable and cutting carbon emissions.

On Thursday 14 November Qantas is making its second ever direct flight between the two cities – the first happened 30 years ago.

In 1989, the plane was a Boeing 747-400 – the first of this extra-long range aircraft delivered for the Australian airline. It had been flown in from the planemaker’s factory in Seattle.

Taking off on the sunny morning of 16 August, the Jumbo jet covered the 10,573 miles from Heathrow to Botany Bay in New South Wales in 20 hours and nine minutes.

The plane, named City of Canberra, is now at a museum near Wollongong, New South Wales.

In 2019, a freshly built Boeing 787-9 “Dreamliner” will be deployed. Like the test flight from 30 years ago, it is being ferried in from Seattle to London. And it will fly with no paying passengers on board.

The trip is being described as an “ultra long-haul research flight to gather new data about inflight passenger and crew health and wellbeing”. This looks a contentious claim. Qantas already has every opportunity to conduct in-depth research on the effects of very long flights with hundreds of subjects on its daily Perth-to-Heathrow nonstop flight, which is scheduled to take almost 18 hours.

The London-Sydney flight is likely to take only two hours longer, and will not allow researchers to conduct real-world tests on a flight with a full complement of passengers.

Also, any commercial flight on the route will certainly not leave at 6am, the departure time scheduled for the Qantas test flight, so tests to measure fatigue will not be wholly helpful.

Qantas calls its plan for nonstop flights connecting Sydney with both London and New York “Project Sunrise”. Scheduled flights are expected to start by 2022, if Airbus or Boeing can supply a suitable aircraft – either the A350 or 777X respectively.

The first nonstop three decades ago was carefully planned, using special fuel with high energy density. The tanks were topped up at the holding point at Heathrow, just before take-off, because during the taxi the plane used nearly one ton of fuel – roughly what was left in the tanks when it touched down.

While the 747 used around 180 tons of fuel on the original trip, the twin-engined Dreamliner will burn around half as much.

Qantas staged a similar ultra-long-haul journey in October 2019, from New York to Sydney. It was widely misreported as “the longest-ever commercial flight,” even though it was not commercial and the 1989 flight was around 1,000 miles further.

Qantas has this week also announced a “major expansion of the airline’s commitment to a more sustainable aviation industry”.

The Australian airline has promised net zero emissions by 2050, starting by capping net emissions from 2020. Qantas will also invest A$50m (£26.6m) to help develop a sustainable aviation fuel industry.

“In total, these commitments are the most ambitious carbon emissions targets of any airline group globally,” the carrier says.

The Qantas Group chief executive, Alan Joyce, said: “These short-term actions will go towards a longer-term goal of being completely net carbon neutral by 2050. It’s ambitious, but achievable.

“Concerns about emissions and climate change are real, but we can’t lose sight of the contribution that air travel makes to society and the economy. The industry has already come a long way in cutting its footprint and the solution from here isn’t to simply ‘fly less’ but to make it more sustainable.”

Climate-change campaigners have deplored the Qantas nonstop flights. Anna Hughes, director of Flight Free UK, said: “At this time of climate emergency we should be investing our ingenuity and engineering in lower carbon methods of long-haul travel.

“These flight experiments are unnecessary and irresponsible.”

Airbus has also seen its aircraft flown extreme distances by Qantas. On Christmas Eve 2003, an A330 was delivered direct from the factory in Toulouse in southwest France to Sydney, covering 10,507 miles.

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