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Riding out the hops on the Kangaroo Route

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.

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 cost 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 just intimidating. 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. It’s a moment of dread – especially if, like most, you’re travelling in Economy.

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, reembark and face another marathon leg to your final destination.

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 make 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 one of those unfortunate types 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 14,500km 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, bedlinen, the pillows, all designed to be lighter; the galley carts have gone from a hefty 30 kilos down to a svelte 18; even the wall partitions weigh less than in normal aircraft.

It’s all in the name of efficiency, but it also gives the plane a unique feel appropriate to this unique flight. It might sound gimmicky, but a lot of thought has gone into this, and it genuinely shows.

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, while Mumbai is the engine of growth in India. But Cairo has fared less well; thanks to political unrest, visitors remain thin on the ground.

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 – Changi airport, consistently lauded as the World’s best, connects to more than 200 destinations worldwide. 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 game changers.

The first-part of Richard Quest’s journey on the Kangaroo Route airs on CNN Business Traveller at the following times:

  • Saturday, 28th April at 1330 HKT
  • Sunday, 29th April at 0230 and 1930 HKT
  • Monday, 30th April at 0530 and 1630 HKT
  • Tuesday, 1st May at 1730 HKT
  • Wednesday, 2nd May at 0030 HKT
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