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Riding out the hops

As innovations in air travel bring the UK and Australia closer, the Kangaroo Route – once stretched over four days and seven stops – has transformed into a 17-hour non-stop flight

Flying between London and Australia is the granddaddy of air travel. Originally, it was called the Kangaroo Route, and not just because of where it was headed. This was a journey of hops. It featured seven stopovers and took four days. It also costed an eye-watering AU$1,077 – that’s the equivalent of AU$35,000 today. The relative costs may have come down, but even frequent long haulers shudder at the thought of this seemingly endless slog. The trip Down Under is an intimidating affair. It’s a feeling you get when you board the plane: you take in your immediate surroundings and realise that – for the best part of an entire day – this is it. And then there’s the stopover. No matter how nice your halfway house – and Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are among the world’s finest airports – it’s a miserable thing to have to disembark, re-embark and face another marathon leg to your destination.

The ultra-lightweight composite construction, low maintenance costs and incredible fuel efficiency of this technical marvel make a non-stop journey from London to Perth not only possible, but economically viable.
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Eliminating that stopover has long been a dream for passengers and airlines alike. Technically, it has been possible for a while; Boeing’s 777-200 LR, or Airbus’s A350-500 and A388 could all make the distance - they just didn’t make business sense. But now, that dream is being made reality by, appropriately enough, Boeing’s extraordinary 787 Dreamliner. The ultra-lightweight composite construction, low maintenance costs and incredible fuel efficiency of this technical marvel makes a non-stop journey from London to Perth not only possible, but economically viable. If the journey no longer challenges the stamina of the aircraft, a 17-hour non-stop flight remains a trial of endurance for the passenger. There are only so many in-flight meals and movies a human being can take, especially if you’re among those unfortunate ones who struggle to sleep on planes. I took this test myself last month for a special edition of CNN Business Traveller. Qantas, which runs this currently unique service, has taken a microscope to every detail of the flight in an attempt to mitigate the effects of a 14,500-km journey on the human body.

These efforts begin before one even boards. Qantas lays on pre-flight yoga, in a lounge designed to maximise the amount of sunlight and fresh air that reaches the passengers preparing for their journey.

On the plane itself, everything feels slightly different: the lighting, mealtimes and menu have been completely reconfigured – either to promote sleep or wakefulness, depending on the stage of the journey. In fact, pretty much everything about this plane is out of the ordinary: the crockery, bed linen, the pillows - all designed to be lighter; the galley carts have gone from a hefty 30 kg down to a svelte 18; even the wall partitions weigh less than in normal aircraft!

All this aeronautical innovation doesn’t just impact the passengers. In the old days of the Kangaroo Route, many cities along the way benefited from their stopover status. Places like Rome, Cairo and Mumbai all featured, as did the more contemporary rest-and-refuel point, Singapore – then very much an exotic outpost. Rome remains a robustly vibrant tourist destination, Mumbai is the engine of growth in India and Cairo remains my most memorable stopover from the old Kangaroo Route. Singapore has long benefited from its position as a thriving hub, and this latest aviation development is unlikely to make a big dent in its fortunes. Nevertheless, future journeys to Australia may well be bypassing it, as the hop from London becomes more of a leap.

This isn’t the end of the story; London to Perth is primarily a test. What Qantas and other carriers really want is the shining jewel on Australia’s other coast. Sydney is Australia’s money-spinner and business centre. Non-stop flights from Sydney to London, or even Sydney to New York, are next on the agenda, clocking in at over 20 hours. They really will be the game changers.


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