With Qantas scheduled next year to start flying non-stop from Perth to London in 17 hours, the airline has also set its sights on being able to make its prestigious ‘kangaroo route’ – Sydney to London – non-stop too.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has issued a challenge to the major manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, to produce an aircraft capable of flying directly to London from Sydney non-stop by 2022. The proposed 20-hour flight would shave three hours off the route’s current travel time.
The latest offerings from both aviation companies (the Airbus 350-900 ULR and the Boeing 777-8) promise to fly longer distances than previous commercial planes, making Mr Joyce’s challenge, at least to the uninitiated, seem achievable.
But what would 20 hour non-stop flights mean for our wallets and the environment? And can Australians ever look forward to jetting off to Europe for a weekend trip?
We put these questions and more to aero-dynamics expert at the University of Melbourne, Professor Nicholas Hutchins.
Not such a new goal after all
Flying non-stop Sydney to London is not a particularly new goal, says Professor Hutchins. Qantas did it with an empty plane back in 1989 in just under 20 hours.
Since then he says iterative improvements in aircraft design have seen planes become lighter and lighter thanks to new composite materials like reinforced polymers. There have also been improvements in engine and wing efficiencies.
“These improvements have allowed airlines to gradually extend how far they can fly at capacity,” says Professor Hutchins.
Various routes have claimed the title of longest non-stop flight in the world, including Qantas’s Sydney-Dallas route and, more recently, Emirates’ Dubai-Auckland route.
QANTAS wants to fly people to London, overnight. Image via Facebook.
“But if you check the fine print, the provisos are rather alarming,” says Professor Hutchins. “You’re flying so close to the cusp of these planes’ capabilities that if there are strong headwinds or slightly adverse weather conditions, the payload has to be reduced somehow.”
And payload reduction, or reduction in the planes’ maximum weight capacity, means less cargo or fewer passengers. For this reason, Professor Hutchins thinks non-stop flights will remain expensive.
“Non-stop flights are likely to become premium routes because they necessitate a lower payload,” he explains.
The problem with speed
So will we ever be able to fly to London for a weekend? Unlikely, says Professor Hutchins. “Unless there is a complete paradigm shift, like a radical new propulsion system – it’s really hard to imagine.”
“Aircraft speeds haven’t changed for decades,” he says. “In fact, since Concorde was retired in 2003, you could argue they have gone backwards.”
Engineers are working on supersonic (faster than the speed of sound) and, even hypersonic (much faster than the speed of sound) flight. But the speed of commercial aviation is unlikely to rise in the future (because it is just too expensive).
“Because the drag on an aircraft, and hence the fuel required to power it, is proportional to the relative velocity squared, there is a fundamental problem with speed,” says Professor Hutchins.
“There is a huge cost penalty for speed,” he explains. “Even a slight increase means a much larger proportional increase in the fuel required.”