So what is it like spending 17 hours in an aircraft while flying some 8,000nm?
Australian Aviation was among the 140-odd passengers in the economy cabin of Qantas’s inaugural QF9 service between Perth and London Heathrow, operated by Boeing 787-9 VH-ZND.
The passenger offering on the 787-9 was, in the words of chief executive Alan Joyce, the best service that the airline has ever put in the air.
While those watching the bottom line smile in appreciation at the efficiency of the aircraft, with its carbon composite wings and fuselage helping reduce weight and new generation engines sipping fuel rather than downing the stuff in large gulps, it is the verdict of passengers that ultimately determine whether a route is successful.
And on that front the scorecard for the 787-9 is mixed.
First, the positives.
The technologies embedded in the Dreamliner includes having more fresh air pumped into the cabin. Further, the composite materials allow for higher cabin humidity. While dry eyes at the end of a long-haul or ultra-long haul flight have not been totally eliminated, it can be said eyes felt less dry.
Further, the use of carbon composite materials mean the cabin pressure altitude is lower, helping reduce jetlag.
In the minus column, Qantas’s 787-9s feature nine abreast seating in economy. To put this in perspective, only Japan Airlines has configured its 787s in anything but a 3-3-3 configuration in the main cabin.
Nonetheless, 3-3-3 means seats are less than 18in wide (exact figures vary depending on how it is measured) and aisles feel narrow. There were a few accidental knee knocks and inadvertent shoulder bumps throughout the night as passengers made their way to the restrooms or self service snack bar.
Rob Williamson is a very frequent flyer who normally travels in business class on his work trips to Asia or Europe. However, the Perth-based businessman was seated in 41A for the inaugural flight, with business and premium economy completely booked out.
He said he came away from the experience pleasantly surprised.
“It was above my expectations,” Williamson told Australian Aviation moments after the flight touched down.
“My personal feeling and well-being is better after this flight than after a 12-hour flight from Sydney to Beijing on a Qantas Airbus A330.
“I think the configuration of these economy class seats is very smart and the food I have eaten has been very good.”
Further back in the economy cabin in seat 56D – the fourth last row – was JT Genter, points and miles writer for travel website The Points Guy.
He said the 17-hour flight “flew by” as he busied himself with the inflight entertainment offering, the meals and the general excitement that an inaugural service often brings.
“I actually didn’t sleep the entire time but it still flew by,” Genter told Australian Aviation in the arrivals hall of Heathrow’s Terminal 3. “There was tons of entertainment.”
While praising Qantas’s meal service concept – in contrast to the traditional airline meal tray, the airline offers passengers in economy a larger main course, bread roll and packaged dessert while doing away with an appetiser – Genter said the seat itself was “as comfortable as possible while still being nine wide”.
“Those nine wide seats are tough,” Genter said. “At least they gave us an extra inch of pitch at 32in.”
“The seat was pretty well designed with the unique storage areas and mood lighting and all that sort of stuff.”
Qantas’s economy cabin comprises a small section of five rows immediately behind premium economy, and a second section of 14 rows that stretches from Doors 3 to Doors 4.
Getner said having only 166 economy seats – it is one of the smaller economy cabins among all 787-9 operators – meant the galleys were not as crowded with passengers when compared with some flights operated by larger aircraft such as the Airbus A380.
“Even with an inaugural flight like this one where a ton of people are excited and standing up and talking, the galleys didn’t get that crazy,” Gender said.
“The flight attendants might disagree but I think for a normal flight that might really play well.”
A smaller economy section also avoids that cavernous, almost steerage, feeling sometimes experienced when travelling in economy on aircraft with a low proportion of premium seats.
VIDEO: Travel Daily speaks to passengers, chef Neil Perry and Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce after the arrival of the inaugural Qantas flight QF9 in London in a video on its YouTube channel.
The rear galley features a self-service station that included drinks and snacks such as whole fruit, carrot sticks and hummus, and cheese and crackers. For those with a sweet tooth, Tim Tams, chocolate chip cookies and muesli bars were also on offer.
Fresh fruit and vegetables proved a refreshing change to the usual assortment of pre-packaged snacks, while a hot chocolate with marshmallows, poured out of a purple jug featuring Cadbury and Qantas branding proved a comforting, and popular, warm pre-bedtime drink.
Credit too goes to Qantas for providing a decent-sized pillow for its economy passengers, instead of going for these tiny things that don’t offer anywhere near the needed support for those without the luxury of a lie-flat surface in business or extended recline in premium economy.
And as Genter mentioned, Qantas’s inflight entertainment system, which does away with a handset in favour of a touchscreen, has something to cater for just about everybody’s taste including a heavy selection of box sets.
The flight had two main meal services, while those awake in the middle stages of the flight were offered a warm bacon sandwich or vegetarian alternative not described in the menu seen below.
Previously, Qantas has spoken of the ideal flight profile for jetlag as having passengers awake for at least the first third of the flight before going to sleep. That way, they will wake up for breakfast before landing in London refreshed and better able to get on with their day.
And it certainly appeared the cabin crew was keen to achieve this objective, notwithstanding the disruption of having camera crews and other media, as well as airline executives, moving through the aisles to capture all the colour and movement of the inaugural flight.
It also should be noted the flight attendants were delayed in beginning the dinner service due to the seatbelt sign staying on for about an hour after takeoff due to turbulence caused by the flight being at the edge of Tropical Cyclone Marcus.
The cabin lighting, which has been designed in partnership with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and experts at Boeing, also played a role. The cabin lights stayed on well after the dinner service had concluded, gradually turning dark over the course of what seemed an hour. The cabin temperature also seemed cooler as the lights went down.
The cabin stayed dark until about 90 minutes prior to landing, when, again, the lighting gradually transitioned to “dawn”.
It would be an exaggeration to say sleep came easily. However, it was possible to get a decent five or six hours, or more, of sleep over the course of the 17-hour journey.
A further note regarding the economy seat. Perhaps the adjustable headrest, now pretty much de-rigueur on most modern airliners for the support it gives the head and neck, needs to be tweaked as it was Australian Aviation’s experience that the headrest struggled to stay in place, regularly sliding back down the seat after being adjusted.
NOTE: Williamson, Genter and Australian Aviation‘s Jordan Chong flew on paid revenue tickets on the inaugural flight.