When Qantas flight QF9 takes off from Perth on Sunday, heading for London non-stop, it will break new ground in ultra-long range flying.

The 17-hour-plus flight will be the longest service by a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, will link Australia and Britain for the first time with regular direct services, and by distance it will be the world's second longest flight being flown right now.

Preparation for the Qantas flight has involved analysing years of weather data to prove its viability, planning for any diversions and, most importantly, getting the right aircraft.

The 787-9 in the Qantas configuration of 236 seats has the range to make it to Heathrow with the necessary operational elbowroom, and its cabin is heavy on the premium seats that the airline believes will deliver the financial benefits to make the service economically viable.


The smaller, super-efficient aircraft is already capable of vast distances — and being developed to fly even further — and could result in a shift of power that will benefit airlines from this region. It means that end-of-the-line carriers such as Qantas and Air New Zealand, with new long-range aircraft and heavy outbound loads, are able to offer non-stop services instead of "two-stop" destinations.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has spoken of the history-making route as a watershed for travel, tourism and trade.

"When Qantas created the Kangaroo Route to London in 1947, it took four days and nine stops," he says. "This is a game-changing route flown by a game-changing aircraft. Australians have never had a direct link to Europe before, so the opportunities this opens up are huge."

Gareth Evans now heads Jetstar, but until late last year he led Qantas' international airline, and was heavily involved in setting up the Perth-London service.

"We've been waiting since the Wright Brothers took off for aircraft to do this stuff — joining Australia directly to the UK [from Perth] and potentially eastern Australia directly to the UK, or to New York, or to Rio or Cape Town," he says.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has spoken of the history-making route as a watershed for travel, tourism and trade. Picture / AAP
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has spoken of the history-making route as a watershed for travel, tourism and trade. Picture / AAP

As part of Project Sunrise, the airline challenged Boeing and Airbus to develop planes capable of flying those longer routes, and with full payloads. While the Airbus ultra-long range A350XWB will soon enter service with Singapore Airlines, the next generation Boeing 777, which promises even greater range — 16,110km with 375 passengers aboard — will not be available until early next decade.

Evans says both Qantas and Air New Zealand could benefit from being at the bottom of the world.

"It opens up a world of possibilities, which is going to be great for the airlines and great for customers as they don't have to stop. And also it's a unique opportunity for us because hub carriers have to go through their hubs — that's their business model. There's some uniqueness that we can bring to the market. We've been hamstrung until today."

Motion graphic explaining the world's longest flights. Motion Graphic / Nathan Meek

Air New Zealand has already pioneered some long routes, including Auckland to Vancouver at just over 13 hours and Auckland-Houston at 13 hours, 35 minutes.

The airline's chief revenue officer, Cam Wallace, says Kiwis are "match fit" for long duration flights.

"People are very used to long city pairs and have a lot of resilience," he says. "We don't get a lot of high value customers or frequent fliers saying 'we don't want to go that far'."

Passengers would much rather get to their destination with one flight, says Wallace.

"Right now we've got the right aircraft with the right amount of seats and we don't have the planes that were too large and too hard to fill, because our primary market is 4.5 million Kiwis, so we see more and more opportunities not only in Asia, but in the Americas, to be able to connect Kiwis to the world without having to have a stop."

A Qantas Dreamliner will fly from Perth to London daily, the longest flight for a Boeing 787. Photo / Supplied
A Qantas Dreamliner will fly from Perth to London daily, the longest flight for a Boeing 787. Photo / Supplied

Air NZ is eyeing routes between Auckland and the east coast of both North and South America. Chicago is a prime candidate for Air New Zealand's next destination, and is already within range of a Boeing 787-9.


Hawaiian Airlines this month announced a move to 787-9s, allowing it to widen its horizons.

The planes, which have a range of nearly 16,000km, give it the potential to expand beyond the Pacific Rim. London and other parts of Europe are now possibilities, says Hawaiian's president and chief executive Peter Ingram.

"The Dreamliner is going to give us certain options that we are physically limited from today," he says.

A challenge for leisure carriers, says Ingram, is getting the fares low enough to consistently fill an aircraft, but high enough to provide a healthy yield.

"Business travel necessarily pays a premium for non-stop service [but] when people are spending their own money, they're very conscious of getting the value."

It's not only airlines in this part of the world that are planning to fly long. Qatar Airways launched the longest flight in the world last February, between Auckland and Doha, and is scoping more ultra-long range flying.

Qatar Airways started the longest flight between Auckland and Doha last year. Photo / Supplied
Qatar Airways started the longest flight between Auckland and Doha last year. Photo / Supplied

Speaking at the launch of Qatar's services to Canberra, chief executive Akbar Al Baker said the airline would rather fly non-stop point-to-point, avoiding congested hubs and preferring to fly passengers through the near-new Hamad Airport, which like the airline, is owned by the Qatari government.

But the further the flight, the greater the variables. While the direct distance between Auckland and Doha is 14,551km, the regional blockade which forces it to avoid Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates airspace has in the past month resulted in flights of more than 14,900km, still well within range for the Boeing 777-200LR the airline is using.

Qatar Airways has started direct flights between Doha and Auckland taking 18 hours one-way, or less than a minute in this video

The popularity of non-stop flights to the Middle East is one reason why Qatar's rival Emirates is about to pull its A380 planes off the Tasman from Auckland. Emirates started flying directly to Dubai in March, 2016.

Sean Berenson, general manager of product at Flight Centre, says the direct flights are attractive to the airlines and to passengers.

"Customers are responding by buying the tickets," he says. "We've seen great growth in sales of long-haul routes — Auckland-Dubai and Auckland-Qatar sells well, and from what I'm hearing in the market, Perth-London is selling well."

New aircraft are more comfortable, says Berenson.


"We're really lucky in New Zealand. The investment in the cabins has been extraordinary and the economy class cabin is a much different place to what it was five years ago."

It's not only the airlines that can benefit from non-stop flying; so can end-of-the-line airports.

Scott Tasker, Auckland Airport's general manager aeronautical commercial. Photo / Supplied
Scott Tasker, Auckland Airport's general manager aeronautical commercial. Photo / Supplied

Auckland Airport's general manager, aeronautical commercial, Scott Tasker, says the marathon flights through the Middle East are an example of how non-stop flying can benefit both New Zealand tourism and Kiwis travelling overseas.

"It enables the economic establishment of longer, skinny routes and that is really positive when you think about some of the things that are possible with visitor markets as well as outbound travel markets that have quite large volumes of traffic that were connecting through hubs, but now can be connected non-stop."

And there is potential for lower fares for flights in and out of New Zealand, as passengers have access to non-stop seat capacity and don't need to compete for seats that go through hubs, as they do now.

Tasker says one example would be a passenger coming direct from New York to Auckland, who would otherwise be competing with someone flying across the United States to Los Angeles and then on to Auckland.


"The internal carrier is going to make more money from them and is keener to get them on their plane on that [domestic] segment," says Tasker.

New Zealand is still well placed to act as a mini hub between Asia and South America, in spite of advances in aircraft technology.

"Asia to southern South America is going to be a stretch too far. What it comes down to is whether there is an interest from an airline perspective and whether the market's big enough."

While airports in this region could be winners, those closer to the Equator may see more aircraft flying overhead, rather than stopping.

Changi Airport in Singapore is one of the world's biggest north-south hubs, and is expanding aggressively as it sits at the heart of the fastest-growing aviation region.

Ivan Tan, the airport's group senior vice-president of marketing and communications, says ultra-long-haul would benefit Changi with one particular flight — the Singapore-New York super marathon that Singapore Airlines is reinstating this year, which at 16,600km will be the longest flight in the world.


And he believes there will still be a market for those who want a stopover.

"We think there will still be passengers who don't relish 20 hours in an aircraft. Breaking the journey is important for them for health reasons, sanity even."

The longest flights

A Boeing 777-200LR flew the longest route yet, as part of a promotional tour.

Boeing is developing a new version of its 777.
Boeing is developing a new version of its 777.

During a 2005 test flight, the 777-200LR "Worldliner" flew 21,601km during its 22-hour, 42-minute flight from Hong Kong, flying eastbound over the north Pacific Ocean, across North America, then over the mid-north Atlantic Ocean to London.

There was plenty of room: the plane had just 35 people on board. In service, the 777-200LR can carry more than 300 passengers and their baggage up to 17,445km.

In 1989, Qantas flew a Boeing 747-400 from London to Sydney, setting a distance record for the day of 17,982km, and taking just over 20 hours. Like the Worldliner, the flight had few people on board — only 18 passengers and crew.


Hamish Fletcher: My 17 hours in seat 75D

There are still more than four hours to go when the cabin fever sets in. I'm gripped by a restless desire to be anywhere other than seat 75D on Emirates' non-stop Auckland to Dubai flight.

There are still 10 inflight movies that I tell myself I want to watch. There's still three-quarters of an good book to read. There's still sleep that I should be trying catch up on from the previous week. But I don't want to do any of that because it all involves staying on this 17-hour long flight.

Like a child stuck inside on a rainy day who only wants to go outside, all I want is to get off the plane. My sinuses are ravaged by the pressurised cabin, I feel dehydrated despite downing buckets of water and no amount of twisting and turning will get me into a comfortable position.

I'm glued to the inflight map — willing the time-to-destination counter to move faster as it inches towards zero.

The previous 13 hours were, by economy-class standards, pleasant enough. The crew on our A380 were attentive, the food (beef curry and steamed vegetables) perfectly edible, and the in-flight entertainment packed to the brim with the latest Oscar nominees.

And there were just enough empty seats to make moving around the cabin easy and keep the bathroom queues short.


None of which is much solace as we approach the tail end of the journey.

But for all my histrionics, a non-stop flight to Dubai is leagues ahead of one that involves a layover.

Because while a stop gives you the chance to stretch your legs and get a change of scenery, it also means there's a chance of delay or cancellation.

And when you've been stuck in an airport terminal for a while, all you want to do is get back on a plane.