What It’s Like to Spend 17 Hours in Economy on the World’s Second-Longest Flight
On March 25, Qantas flight 9 landed in the history books as the first ever nonstop passenger flight between Australia and Europe. 17 hours and 2 minutes after taking off from Perth (PER) in Western Australia, the Being 787-9 landed at London Heathrow (LHR) with 212 passengers and 17 crew.
Too many dignitaries to list, including the airline's chief executive Alan Joyce, and media from all over the world filled up business class and premium economy. Way behind them, I was on board too... sitting in 56D, the fourth-to-last row of economy. I braved the second-longest flight in the world in coach class. With no internet. Here's how it went.
The check-in desk was festive and lively, with dozens of photographers and videographers on hand to record and interview passengers, including Qantas CEO Joyce:
As a Oneworld elite, I used the Priority line to check in, collect my boarding pass and check my large bag. As one of the first passengers to check in, I made it into Qantas' Twitter feed, albeit in the background:
After check-in, Perth to London passengers actually have to clear security twice. First, you go through Australia domestic security to get airside. Then, to get to the international gates, you have to pass through exit immigration and through a secondary international-standard security screening.
Business class passengers and Oneworld elites can proceed to the spectacular new Qantas Transit Lounge — with 15 showers, a yoga studio, an outdoor patio and skin hydration stations. More on that in a separate post.
But, if you're flying economy, there's still a way you can get some fresh air before the flight. There's an outdoor patio right next to the departure gate 20 where you can lay out and soak up a little sun:
After photo-ops with the crew, it was finally time to board the long flight. As a member of the media, I got a chance to board the flight as one of the first few passengers. (However, in keeping with our editorial policy of paying for all our flights, we had purchased my ticket in cash. That's why I was in economy and not premium economy, like my media brethren.)
Cabin and Seat
The Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner economy cabin has 166 seats in a 3-3-3 arrangement. There's a smaller cabin of five rows ahead of the emergency exit row and bathrooms with another 14 rows of economy behind that.
Qantas installed economy seats with 32 inches of pitch vs. the standard 31 inches of pitch in most economy cabins nowadays.
That said, these seats are far from spacious. The 9-wide economy arrangement means they are just 17.25 inches wide. And while you might fit in this small of a seat, you might have a passenger of size in the seat next to you — as I did for this very-long flight — which further reduces the seat width.
In the very last row of the aircraft are two two-seat pairs, which are great for couples traveling together. And, I checked, these seats recline too.
Speaking of seat recline, it's a mixed bag. The seats do recline a full six inches. This is great if you're trying to go to sleep. But, it means that you can't work on your laptop if the passenger in front of you reclines — as he did for almost this entire flight.
The seat backs have a very useful 11.5 inch x 2 inch openable tray. Inside, there's an elastic band that I found helpful for holding my boarding pass, menu, landing card and even the amenity kit. The rest of the tray was helpful for storing my compact camera and cell phone in one easy-to-access place. The tray also has a USB power plug that's useful for plugging in your phone during the flight. While it's not a fast-charging plug, your airplane-mode phone will surely be full by the time the 17-hour flight lands.
The extendable part of the tray is designed for holding a personal electronic device like a tablet, but can serve to hold anything you want.
Since Qantas doesn't have Wi-Fi on its Dreamliners — at least yet — you're going to have to rely on the entertainment system and any entertainment you bring with you to pass the 17 hours. Thankfully, Qantas' IFE system delivers seemingly weeks' worth of entertainment, including hundreds of movies and entire multi-season series of TV shows. Never saw Westworld? Well, you can binge-watch the entire first season on this 17-hour flight. Ditto for too many series to list individually. The screen measures 11.5 inches wide and is clear and crisp, easily keeping your attention.
There's also a easy-to-navigate route map and journey information system. Understandably, it struggles to show the entire route:
For your own devices, each three-seat row has two universal power plugs to share, in addition to the USB plug in the seatback storage tray.
At boarding, each economy seat was stocked with a large pillow, plastic-wrapped blanket and pair of headphones. In the seatback pocket was a small bottle of water.
The over-the-ear two-prong headphones were of impressive quality for economy. If you want to use your own headphones during the flight, no two-to-one prong converter is necessary. Just plug your headphone jack into either plug.
During ascent, the cabin crew passed through the cabin a couple of times to hand out menus and amenity kits. Inside the cloth-backed amenity kit is a bright red mask, earplugs, toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste.
While the thought is appreciated, Qantas went a bit overboard with the size of the economy amenities. There's barely enough room for passengers in the seats, much less for a massive pillow. You can't use it for lumbar support without reducing your legroom to Spirit Airlines levels and it's too big to use behind your head when reclined.
First off, this was no ordinary flight. The London-based cabin crew was specially picked and prepared for this flight, considering the large media presence and contingent of AvGeek passengers. Qantas was wise enough to schedule an additional two cabin crew members for this flight (12 instead of 10) to help with the extra workload. From meal services to visits to the galley, the crew was friendly and patient with the excited passengers. And, unlike on most flights, the crew was happy to pose for photographs.
Early in the flight, the head flight attendant passed through the cabin to welcome Qantas Platinum, Platinum One and Chairman’s Lounge elites, as well as Oneworld Emerald. As an American Airlines Executive Platinum (Oneworld Emerald), I got a visit. Paige Skipper explained the order of the service for the flight and answered any questions I had. Since we had already chatted for a bit during boarding, she didn't spend much time with me. But she made sure to chat it up with other elites.
Food and Drink
With such a long flight, there was a lot of food available for passengers. It started with a drink and snack service. The economy drink list was extensive, including sodas, juices, spirits, Australian beers and sparkling, red and white Australian wines.
Sparkling wine in economy is such a rare offering that I'll never pass up the chance.
Dinner choices were between:
- Salad of cumin spiced beef with zucchini, corn and a citrus dressing
- Cheese ravioli with leek and mushroom cream sauce
- Chicken with red rice and roasted Mediterranean vegetables, soya beans and thyme jus
The chicken was a very popular option, with flight attendants having to tell passengers starting rows in front of me that the choices were down to "the main course salad or a hot pasta." I chose the salad. The strips of meat were juicy and tender, but the salad wasn't big on the greens. Instead, while they aren't mentioned in the description of the plate, there was a disproportionately large amount of onions and peppers. And that's coming from someone who likes onions and peppers.
The dinner was served with another drink selection from the drink menu. And an offering of tea, coffee or hot chocolate was served when drinks were picked up. And yes, the hot chocolate came with marshmallows!
In between meals, there were snacks and drinks available in the back galley where Qantas installed an economy snack bar.
The cabin crew also passed through the cabin mid-night to hand out fruit-flavored ice cream bars.
In fairness for serving dinner front-to-back, the cabin crew served breakfast from back to front. Choices were "Feta and spinach omelette with pork and apple sausage, bacon, hash brown and braised beans" or "Seasonal fruit plate." I chose the omelette. It was served with a fruit and granola Greek yogurt and a "coconut banana loaf" (the last of which I didn't try). The meal seemed rather bland, but it may have just been that my taste buds were shot as we neared the end of the long flight.
The westbound flight from Perth to London seems perfectly scheduled for sleep. The flight departs Perth at 6:45pm. This gives the crew enough time to serve drinks and dinner before the lights are faded out for the night.
Most of the 17-hour flight occurs with it being dark outside, so there's not the trouble of having to simulate an artificial night. Instead, the crew can leave the lights off for an extended night, giving passengers a chance to sleep much of the journey. Passengers who are unable to sleep have days worth of entertainment in front of them and plenty of snacks and drinks available in the galleys. The lights are only turned back on shortly before the 5:05am scheduled arrival time.
I spent much of the journey in economy, with my only reprieve coming when a Guardian reporter sitting in business class wanted to swap with me to try out economy. I split those hours between actually being able to work on my laptop and chatting up dignitaries in the business class galley — from the Qantas CEO to CNN's Richard Quest and our flight's Captain Lisa Norman.
That part didn't suck, but sitting in economy most of the flight sure did. The 17-inch width seats are already snug for someone with a 38-inch waist, but this squeeze was amplified by having a much larger passenger sitting next to me. It didn't help when he passed out from drinking from the scotch bottle he smuggled on-board. (When the crew got wise to this, they took the bottle, only returning it once we were in London.) Between his size and the deep recline of the seat in front of me, it was quite the squeeze.
Having to deal with this for a three-hour flight would be trying. A 17-hour flight in this scenario was especially difficult. While 9-wide economy is the standard on most airlines, this is a flight where it seems like installing 8-wide economy seating — as the Dreamliner was originally designed for, but only a few airlines installed — would pay dividends. Removing those passengers and their bags would reduce weight, thereby saving fuel, and make the journey much more comfortable for economy passengers.
It's probably too late for the Perth-London route. But, as Qantas looks to fly even further than this 9,000+ mile 17-hour journey, I implore Qantas' Project Sunrise designers to consider the economy experience a little more. The storage tray and 32-inch pitch on this Dreamliner are excellent improvements. However, while those large pillows are lovely, they serve no practical use in such a tight seat. A few more inches of seat width would be a real help.
First, it was awesome to be part of such a historic flight. And Qantas has certainly made efforts to make the economy experience nicer, including a well-designed seatback storage tray, economy snack bar, expanded drink selection, deep recline and soft and substantial blankets.
However, the experience falls short on space. The 17.25 inch wide seats are tight enough for most passengers before having to deal with potentially being squeezed further by the passenger next to you. And, while the seat recline is great for sleeping, it makes working on a laptop impossible. Also, it's not like you're going to get any on-line work done anyway, with the lack of Wi-Fi.
When I was interviewed in the arrivals lounge about the experience, I was asked: Would you fly this flight again? My hot take: Yes... but not in economy. I'd certainly look for premium economy or business class awards instead. For 17 hours, getting a little extra space or a lie-flat bed would make the journey so much easier.
That said, if you can't afford the price premium, Qantas has gone to great lengths to make economy experience better. And with the great squeeze in economy all across commercial aviation, it's going to be hard to find an overall better option.
This story has been edited to correct the date the first flight landed in London nonstop from Perth. It was March 25, not 24.