I’m confused and I’m not afraid to admit it. This week it was revealed that Qantas Airways has taken a step closer to its goal of a non-stop flight from London to Sydney, making the fabled 20-hour route a reality.
Project Sunrise, as the airline has dubbed it, involves configuring an aircraft to fly 300 passengers and their luggage further than any regular service has ever done, with enough fuel to deal with unexpected headwinds and emergencies.
If the first routes prove viable in 2022, direct connections from major cities in America, Europe and Africa to Australia could follow.
But it’s not so long ago that scientists were talking about doing the same 10,500-mile trip in just two hours.
A joint US-Australian military research team sent a scramjet attached to a rocket booster to an altitude of 172 miles at Mach 7.5 – hypersonic travel that’s seven times the speed of sound.
Tests of the technology were carried out at the world’s largest land testing range, Woomera in South Australia, and at Norway’s Andoya Rocket Range, prompting Australia’s chief scientist, Alex Zelinsky, to hail it as “game-changing technology” that “could revolutionise global air travel, providing cost-effective access to space”.
I don’t know which would be better – spending more time with a cabin crew than I’ve spent with my mother-in-law in the past 12 months or catching a two-hour flight from Heathrow to Sydney via Alpha Centauri 2.
From either perspective, there’s no question that advances in airline technology taking place in our lifetimes are mind-boggling.
The scramjet is a supersonic combustion engine that uses oxygen from the atmosphere for fuel, making it lighter and faster than fuel-carrying rockets, making it theoretically possible to travel from Glasgow to New York at a speed of 5,370mph.
Its total journey time would be 35 minutes, five minutes quicker than it will take Scotrail trains to travel from Glasgow to Edinburgh even if the line ever becomes fully electrified.
Equally impressive will be the sort of direct, long-haul aircraft that allows 300 passengers to get up and walk around, visit their children in the creche and work out in the gym before retiring to their bunks for a good night’s sleep.
Whatever way you decide to travel there will, inevitably, be drawbacks. There will barely be enough time to strap yourself in to a scramjet flight to the US before the captain’s announcing that’s he’s about to begin the descent.
No gin and tonic or scalding hot panini, still in its cellophane, and barely time for an episode of the Magic Roundabout, never mind and in-flight movie.
But then imagine spending 20 hours stuck behind a hen party from Coatbridge who, as the plane crosses the Arabian Gulf, are on their thirty-second, high volume rendition of Achy Breaky Heart.
“We’re challenging ourselves to think outside the box,” said Alan Joyce, chief executive officer of Qantas, this week.
All we’d ask, Alan is that you make sure the box wasn’t formerly owned by someone called Pandora.