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Qantas settles on A350-1000 for its ultra long haul ambitions

Boeing loses out on this Project Sunrise race, although no orders have been placed with Airbus, yet.

What Is Qantas’ Project Sunrise?

Qantas’ Project Sunrise is essential a challenge aimed at planemakers back in 2017 for an aircraft that has the ability to fly non-stop, with full payload, from Sydney and Melbourne to London and New York.

Project Sunrise maps

Being geographically challenged, Qantas has traditionally serviced faraway destinations with a stop in between, such as Sydney-Singapore-London and Melbourne-Los Angeles-New York.

Currently the world’s longest flight is operated by Singapore Airlines’ A350-900ULR on its Singapore-Newark service. That flight covers a distance of over 9,500 miles and takes about 18 hours each way.

Singapore Airlines A350 business class seat (source: Singapore Airlines)

Qantas’ own longest flight at the moment is the Sydney-Dallas Fort-Worth service, an 8,400-mile service served by an Airbus A380. This will soon be overtaken a new Brisbane-Chicago service that Qantas is starting from April 2020, which will top out at some 8,900 miles, taking between 16 and 17 hours.

The project name is a nod to the original Kangaroo route in the 1940s from London to Australia, where passengers saw two sunrises through the 27-hour multi segment journey.

Qantas goes for Airbus

Both Boeing and Airbus were obviously heavily invested in this project, having responded favourably and presumably excitedly when Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce first announced the challenge back in 2017. Both aircraft makers put forth their best long-haul aircraft for the challenge: Boeing with its Boeing 777X, and Airbus with its A350.

Render of Qantas A350 (source: Qantas)

Two years on, Qantas has selected the A350-1000 as the preferred aircraft after a very detailed evaluation of both the Boeing 777X and Airbus A350, if Project Sunrise proceeds.

Qantas said that the A350 uses the Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine, which has a strong reliability record after being in service with airlines for more than two years. There will also be an additional fuel tank and slightly increase the maximum takeoff weight to deliver the performance required for the ultra-longhaul routes.

No orders have been placed but Qantas said it will work closely with Airbus to prepare contract terms for up to 12 aircraft ahead of a final decision by the Qantas Board.

Airbus has extended the deadline to confirm delivery slots by a month, from February 2020 to March 2020. This would allow Qantas to launch these Project Sunrise flights in the first half of 2023 as planned.

Is Project Sunrise definitely taking off?

There is a very strong caveat in Qantas’ latest update, and that’s because there are some critical items that Qantas needs to check off even before placing the orders.

First, regulatory. Qantas has so far operated two test flights – one from New York and one from London – using a very light payload on its Boeing 787-9s, which they said the findings will be used in discussions with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority for discussions on policy changes, such as operating limits required for crew.

Next, unions. Qantas will also have to negotiate the operating terms with the pilots union, AIPA. As Lucky from One Mile At A Time has pointed out, the discussions are likely to center on productivity and efficiency gains, including the ability to use the same pilots across A350 Sunrise aircraft and the existing A330 fleet. In my understanding, there will also be other ‘bread and butter’ issues to sort out with a new fleet, such as seniority and allowances.

Also, the economics of the new fleet. Qantas management will have to present to its board on how this new fleet – and ultra longhaul services – will unlock financial benefits for Qantas Group. Ultra longhaul service generally becomes very unprofitable when fuel prices go high (as it did years ago), so this is where a flexible seating configuration will allow Qantas to utilise the aircraft for other (shorter) routes as well.

Final thoughts

The long-running PR exercise that Qantas has been wielding in the last three years is finally entering its final phases, and we have a winner in the form of Airbus – for now.

In any case, it is still far from a done deal as to whether Qantas will indeed embark on a new fleet. There are still plenty of hurdles to clear, so the next couple of months will be exciting to watch.

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Travel junkie, coffee addict, bothering on being an alcoholic.

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