In everyone’s dreams, a beeline between Sydney and London

While Qantas has focused on a shortfall in ultra long range aircraft performance as blocking its quest for viable non-stop flights from Australia’s eastern cities to London, Paris and Frankfurt there is another arguably much more difficult obstacle to overcome.

It is air traffic control reform, primarily in China and the multiple organisational sensitivities that drag down the efficiency of navigation across EU skies.

The Great Circle Mapper site graphic shown at top of page displays the optimum 17,016 kilometer that could be flown between Sydney Airport and London Heathrow.

It runs right into the thick of the dysfunctional (from the airline point of view) ATC jungle over China, well before European skies are traversed. China’s air navigation issues are well discussed in technical forums, and explained by experts in such things as reflecting its defence rather than civil aviation priorities.

What non China airlines might think about the consequences of this is not of any material importance to the PRC. It’s their sky, get over it.

But it could retard an otherwise perfectly direct transit of the PRC by a future Qantas 777-9 LR or A350-900 ULR by an hour, or more, and totally trash the benefits of improved long range performance should Airbus or Boeing indulge the Australian carrier’s wishes for the necessary improvements to be available by 2022.

Between China and the prickly situations that seems to arise all too often in the patchwork air traffic control suppliers in the EU, technological advancement could be neutered by political or administrative retardation.

Not that the current state of affairs across the Middle East for flights via Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha (the home hubs for Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways) is anything but a pain, compounded at times by congestion at the main Dubai airport.

But ultra long range jets approaching the end of 20 hour or longer non-stop flights from Australia need to burn prodigious amounts of fuel just to carry fuel required for mandatory reserves for diversions caused not just by inefficient air traffic control, but sudden airport closures for weather or other reasons, as well as stronger than forecast en route headwinds, and so on and so forth.

On the way, such jets will have been so heavy at takeoff that they will not be as fast for some hours, nor as high flying and thus fuel efficient, as less heavy jets with engines and airframes designed around flights seldom lasting more than 15 hours in the air.

At various times in the past, proposals to fly a radically different route from Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne to say London have been made.

This would involve following a NE heading up to the high arctic of Alaska and Canada, or on some days, NE Siberia and maybe even crossing over the north pole before flying down the other side of the globe to the final destination.

There are insurmountable problems with this concept. It involves in the case of a Sydney to London flight, by way of example, around an extra 1000 to 1300 kilometers and at high arctic latitudes, low velocity NE headwinds are potentially more common than useful westerly breezes.

When things turn nasty in the Arctic, as in nastier than usual, the weather paralysis visited on Europe generally comes in from the NE.

A useful set of tools for toying with routes between Australian and European cities via the North Pole (and South Pole) can be found here. The results overflying Fairbanks, Point Barrow, or points in the Yukon, are daunting.

The economics and maths involved in ultra long flight are pretty dismal at this stage. ATC and airport congestion will quite possibly keep them that way for longer than Qantas, and other airlines, and Airbus and Boeing would like.

But eventually they will be overcome.

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