When Qantas Flight 9 touched down in London at the end of its historic nonstop flight from Perth a little after 5am local time on Sunday, the remarkable had been made to seem routine.
For the first time, Australia and the UK were linked by a direct nonstop air service. For the 229 passengers on board the Boeing 787-9 the experience was of a smooth, seamless service, but that belied the many years of planning and preparation Qantas had conducted.
“When we started the Kangaroo route in 1947, the flight took four days and seven stops. Every decade, as we got new aircraft we improved on that, we got faster, we got more comfortable, we got cheaper,” Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce said onboard QF9 shortly before its landing into London.
“Today we’re on this amazing historic flight, which is the fastest flight that has ever occurred between Australia and the UK.”
The new nonstop link between Perth and London becomes the longest regularly scheduled flight operated by the Boeing 787, and the world’s second longest airline service (behind Qatar Airways Auckland-Doha flights).
As such it is a flight that stretches the operational capabilities of the 787 to its limits, made possible by careful configuration of the aircraft and detailed flight planning.
“We’ve got some very smart people in our organisation who have managed to find the sweet spot between weight, the passenger numbers, and the business class, premium economy and economy class configuration and the range with our engines,” Captain Lisa Norman, one of the four Qantas pilots operating the flight, told Australian Aviation on board QF9.
“Just because you have a 787 doesn’t necessarily mean you can do [this mission], a lot of operators have put in much more dense passenger configs.”
The result was one of the lowest seat counts yet specified for a Boeing 787-9, with 236 seats – Qantas low-cost carrier subsidiary Jetstar operates the smaller 787-8 seating 335 passengers. That means the 787-9 can operate Perth-London with a full, or near full passenger load with full fuel tanks.
For the first two weeks of operations, Qantas is taking a conservative approach to the 787-9’s payload by “blocking off” (ie not selling) up to 20 passenger seats to give the aircraft a comfortable margin to ensure it can reach London without a tech stop diversion (prevailing winds mean the London-Perth sector faces fewer operational restrictions).
On an ongoing basis, and as with Qantas’s Dallas/Fort Worth-Sydney Airbus A380 flights (which can also take more than 17 hours if the headwinds are bad), Qantas will also actively manage loads on QF9 to ensure the 787-9 has the payload range performance to operate the route nonstop.
Other factors too have played an important role in enabling the ultra long-haul flights – Boeing has delivered more than 600 787s now and so Qantas has been able to benefit from incremental performance improvements to the aircraft and to its GEnx engines. Qantas has also commissioned bespoke lightweight cutlery, utensil and service carts, while flying over the Indian Ocean the aircraft can take advantage of ‘user preferred routes’, where the flight crew can plan the most optimal flightpath taking into account winds without being constrained by traditional waypoints and airways. Also, over the Indian Ocean the aircraft can climb in increments of 1,000, rather than 2,000ft, making for a more efficient climb to altitude.
“It has been such a synergy of people’s efforts to help us to get to this point,” Captain Norman reflected.
“I think the significance is not lost on anyone. I don’t know what other frontier you could do after this one now.”
QF9 fast facts
- 229 passengers and crew
- 253.5 tonnes takeoff weight (half a tonne under MTOW)
- 100.6 tonnes of fuel
- Approximate flight time of 17 hours 02 minutes
- Departing Perth’s runway 21 at 1900 local time Saturday March 24
- Landed London Heathrow at 0502 local time Sunday March 25