Australian airline Qantas has just completed the world's longest nonstop flight in commercial aviation, flying just over 19 hours from New York to Sydney.
As the airline ponders the viability of making the route a part of its daily schedule, it will be aided by a wealth of data. The results will shape the flights of the future.
It is all part of what Qantas is calling “Project Sunrise,” a feasibility study that goes beyond finding out the economic viability of such long-haul flights. It also looks to understand the physical impact on passengers and crew and what innovations can be brought in to maximize their health in the air.
In making these assessments, data collected from a range of wearable devices were used to collect data for further analysis.
All 49 people on the flight, which included Qantas executives, journalists, and researchers, along with the aircrew, were run through a series of tests to assess the physical impact of such a long flight. The data was collected on small wearable devices on their wrists.
Pilots wore brain wave monitors to track their alertness levels and their quality of sleep before the flight. During their breaks while in the air, urine samples were taken to monitor levels of melatonin, which regulates the body clock.
Pilots were also filmed on video while they were flying with AI technology to monitor fatigue.
Ultimately, this data – collected by the Co-operative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety, and Productivity – will be used to inform pilots when they should rest on the flights to ensure maximum alertness while on duty.
In collaboration with university research teams from Monash University in Melbourne and the University of Sydney, data for areas such as brain activity, melatonin levels, and alertness levels were also collected.
There were a significant number of differences between a routine flight today and the Qantas test flight.
Because the flight was heading to Sydney, clocks were changed to Sydney time at departure, and passengers were asked to stay awake for the first six hours in a bid to reduce jetlag.
Spicy food was served in a brightly lit cabin to keep people more alert.
As the flight continued, the menu changed to creamy carbohydrate-based heavy food as the lights were dimmed to simulate Sydney in the night time before arrival.
Professor Marie Carroll, one of the researchers from the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, said that the extra long haul flights intensify the effects of jet lag. It can cause serious health issues for frequent flyers.
The more someone flies across time zones, it is more likely they will experience the health impacts of jet lag. These include psychological manifestations such as mood swings to physical symptoms like diarrhea.
"Your entire metabolic system can become affected, you can become more obese, and your immune function can be affected," she said.
"So, these interventions (on the flight) will mitigate that."
Journaling Beyond Flights
Now that the flight is over, passengers have been asked to keep diary logs for 21 days – seven of them in advance of the flight - recording their health and well-being levels. They will also be asked to complete tests on iPad’s to gauge their reaction times and attention spans.
In advance of the test flight, the Charles Perkins Centre released some of its preliminary research on long-distance flyers.
An initial study found that 54% of people surveyed use earplugs or noise-canceling headsets to help them sleep, while 38% drank alcohol to help them sleep.
On arrival, 39% sought healthy food to help with their recovery. Still, less than half of the travelers – 47% – made no effort to go out in the sunshine after arrival, even though this is a proven way to overcome jetlag.
This baseline research was conducted from surveying 500 passengers on Qantas international flights of nine hours or more.
Theory to Reality
In establishing its business case, Qantas already knows that the flight is technically possible. Still, a key issue now is to determine how people will feel after the flight.
Most of those traveling on a Sydney to New York nonstop route will be doing so for business. It would be highly unproductive for them to arrive in a state of exhaustion.
“People seem to be wildly different when it comes to the experience of jetlag. We need more research on what contributes to jetlag and travel fatigue, so we can try and reduce the impact of long haul flights,” said Professor Stuart Simpson, from the Charles Perkins Centre.
"We have a long way to go in terms of understanding how the wide variety of influences – including nutrition, hydration, exercises, and light – might work together for maximum benefit."
Another test flight will take place in November, from London to Sydney, and there will be another test to New York before the end of the year.