20 Hour Flight: What Australian Media Got Wrong About Qantas' Marathon New Flight

What jetlag?

20 Hour Flight: What Australian Media Got Wrong About Qantas' Marathon New Flight

Reading the first reviews of Qantas’ marathon new flight from New York to Sydney, one might think it was one of the most intimidating challenges of the 21st century.

In a sense it was: long haul travel is the world’s largest endurance sport, and precious few events have been broadcast so widely. But when you take a closer look at this 20-hour ‘epic’ (which the aforementioned journalists all experienced from business-class), compared to many existing red-eye journeys, it was a walk in the park.

Not convinced? Put it this way: would you rather fly Sydney to London, economy, which takes roughly 26 hours with a four hour layover in Dubai (or 39 hours, if you are as smart as this author, who once booked an 18 hour layover in Bangkok), or New York to Sydney as part of a 19 hour and 16 minute lie-flat snooze, food and yoga fest?

If you are detecting a subtle undertone of jealousy you are absolutely right. But the point remains: why is everyone so worried about this potential new route’s jetlag, when people have been making tougher trans-hemispheric crossings for decades?

The point of Project Sunrise is to make people’s lives easier. And jetlag comes more from moving to a new time zone – something this new route is not going to change (for better or worse).

To be fair, one Bloomberg journalist did put his experience in context, invoking the 40 hour reconnaissance missions pilots made during the Korean War. And – to the Wellbeing Brigade’s point – we appreciate the media interest in the impact being in a pressurised cabin for an unprecedented length of time will have on the general public.

This is a fair concern which Qantas has dealt with admirably (if thoroughly), bringing in professors from the University of Sydney to monitor and advise passengers on how best to stay healthy in the air, a process which started weeks before the journey itself.

Journalist observations of the hardship of the journey, however, in the eyes of this author, don’t make sense. That’s not to say I don’t think they are being honest: just that I don’t entirely understand their approach to the trip.

Angus Whitely, for instance, a Bloomberg News Reporter based in Sydney (who was invited to experience the test flight), said: “I’ve just endured the world’s newest longest flight, a 16,200 kilometer (10,100 mile), nonstop ultra-marathon… [that] took about 19 and a half hours, and was almost as demanding as that sounds,” arriving in Sydney “more or less intact” even if he was “not quite sure what day it was.”

So far so descriptive. It’s not like we’re immune to poetic license either. Besides, Angus does not claim to experience the full “soul-crushing, body-buckling” jet lag the route is known for, something which the Sydney Morning Herald’s Patrick Hatch, who was also on the flight, appears to confirm (“as we prepare for landing, I have to say I’m feeling better now than I was when I touched down in New York five days ago. The journey home was three hours quicker and it didn’t include a traumatic transfer through Los Angeles’ LAX airport”).

But back to the start: after the aircraft takes off, Angus says he follows Qantas’ recommendation of staying awake for at least 6 hours into the New York night, well past his normal rhythm, which is, we reckon, his first mistake. Why? Because – much as we admire Qantas’ attempts to help travellers beat jet lag – in our experience (we’ve tried everything from melatonin to the CIA anti-jetlag diet), no matter how ‘in-sync’ with your destination you try to get on a flight, the only cure to jetlag is time (and a triple shot espresso on your first few breakfasts after landing).

And according to Angus’ description, our theory appears to have credence, with this ‘stay awake’ mandate “immediately cause[ing] trouble for some passengers.”

“They wear movement and light readers on their wrists and have been asked to log their activities; they’ve already been under observation for a few days and will be monitored for 21 days in total. Most of them are bingeing on movies or reading books, but one of them is dozing within minutes. To be fair, I feel his pain. It may be the middle of the day in Sydney, but my body is telling me it’s pushing midnight in New York.”

By the time the lights are dimmed, Angus is able to “crash for six hours straight,” which he says is longer than he can remember sleeping without waking on any other flight. Though this might suggest Qantas’ strategy worked (and who knows, maybe it did), our intuition is that if we had been in his shoes, we’d have just got four, with our body clock rudely waking us up as it came to 7am New York time.

To their credit, Qantas acknowledges this problem, with Alan Joyce (as reported by Bloomberg) saying the trick is accommodating those who want to drink and snooze at will (read: us) as opposed to those who want to follow jetlag procedure.

Our take? If you ever find yourself on a 20 hour flight in the future (should Project Sunrise come commercially to fruition), just go to sleep when you can, for as long as you can, content in the knowledge that either way you’ll be out of whack when you arrive (but without having suffered ~consciousness~ for quite so long on the flight).

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