Super-long flights: Can the pilots do it?


Qantas Airways' Project Sunrise plans to link all of Australia's major cities with non-stop flights to London, New York and other distant destinations have been waiting on Qantas' decision over whether Airbus or Boeing will build the planes—but the question of how to staff them has barely been touched.

There's been a certain amount of research done on existing ultra-long flights to determine what passengers want, or will put up with, to have uninterrupted travel, but Qantas, which expects to order the planes by later this year and fly the routes by 2022 must still get approvals from pilots and government regulators, since the flights will far exceed the legal and contractual limits of 20 hours. With time on duty before take-off and after landing, the Sydney-London flight will likely come in at a bit over 23 hours.

The head of Qantas' pilots' union told reporters for Reuters that "The technological change is obviously there but the human physiological side hasn't changed since the Wright brothers flew. We really need to understand the effects on human performance on the flight deck of these ultra-long range flights." 

Pilot fatigue is already under study in many places as longer flights become more common. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau released a study several months ago that indicated 60% of long-haul pilots had reported moderate-to-severe fatigue on their most recent flights.

The obvious answer is more crew to share shifts; some flights already a captain, a first officer and two second officers; the second officers are licensed to fly the plane at cruising altitude, but not to take off or land. Off-duty crew can rest in a special bunk area. Qantas would prefer not to add a second captain and first officer, although replacing one of the second officers with a first officer has been suggested.

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