A generation ago Boeing delivered a reconfigured 747 to Qantas helping the carrier to extend its range from Australia and connect to more cities non-stop. Featuring redesigned fuel tanks and other minor structural improvements, the 747-400ER saw limited production but helped Qantas “fly the ‘roo” further around the globe. This time around, however, it is Airbus that will deliver an extended range opportunity for the carrier. As part of the “Project Sunrise” program that aims to link Australia’s east coast with London and New York City nonstop the carrier announced the A530-1000 as its frame of choice. The Airbus selection eliminates Boeing’s 777X from consideration, though the airline also stresses that no order was placed and a decision on the program remains pending.
The A350 is a fantastic aircraft and the deal on the table with Airbus gives us the best possible combination of commercial terms, fuel efficiency, operating cost and customer experience.
The aircraft and engine combination is next generation technology but it’s thoroughly proven after more than two years in service. This is the right choice for the Sunrise missions and it also has the right economics to do other long haul routes if we want it to.– Qantas CEO Alan Joyce
To deliver the necessary range for the Project Sunrise flights Airbus will modify the A350-1000 to increase the maximum takeoff weight and include an additional fuel tank, extending the range. These steps are very similar to how the 747-400ER was born and also the A350-900ULR, already in service for Singapore Airlines. It is unclear if Airbus will brand the selected planes the A350-1000ULR, though that seems a likely play.
Regulators and Pilots still to weigh in on Project Sunrise
Getting the aircraft on property is only part of the challenge for Qantas. The carrier must still meet regulatory requirements for the new service and gain concessions from its Pilots’ Union to operate the flights. Meeting the demands from Australian authorities does not appear to be a challenge at this time. Qantas expects that an extension to current operating limits will be issued. The company notes that “Based on detailed information already provided by Qantas on its fatigue risk management system, CASA has provisionally advised that it sees no regulatory obstacles to the Sunrise flights.”
Read More: Some Sunrise skepticism
Getting the pilots on board may prove slightly more challenging. Indeed, Qantas calls the pilot contract “the last remaining gap in the Project Sunrise business case.” The airline seeks productivity gains from the pilot group (i.e. more flying from the same set of people) in exchange for a 3% annual salary increase. The carrier also hopes to take advantage of the common type rating for pilots between the A330 and A350 aircraft, using a single pilot group to operate across both types within the airline. Given the relatively low number of A350s expected in the Project Sunrise program the cross-fleeting off crew would likely deliver a significant boost to the carrier’s financial targets.
Assuming the business plan comes together Qantas expects to launch its Project Sunrise flights in the first half of 2023. As part of today’s announcement Airbus allowed for an extra month before a firm order must be received to meet that delivery deadline. A final decision on the order is now expected in March 2020.
Reliability key for Project Sunrise
Qantas called attention to the Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines that power the A350s, noting “a strong reliability record after being in service with airlines for more than two years.” In an era of engine reliability issues and efficiency challenges the selection of a proven product rather than betting on a newcomer (e.g. General Electric’s GE9X that will power the 777X) is a safer choice. That the GE9X engines faced problems in the early testing, delaying the overall 777X program certainly did not help their case for the Qantas opportunity.
But what about the passengers??
Citing two years of service between Perth and London, as well as research performed on a pair of “test flights” so far, Qantas recognizes that the stats quo is not going to deliver the desired levels of passenger experience on board. Addressing that means new cabin designs from nose to tail, but also changes to the inflight service process. The carrier highlights a need for “dedicated space for stretching and movement for Economy passengers” as part of its goals in designing the cabin. What that translates to in practice remains to be seen. Open floor space on an aircraft comes at a high cost. That it could be distributed throughout the cabin for extra legroom rather than a stretching area only occasionally accessed is a tough challenge to negotiate.
Qantas also acknowledges the “potential benefits” of rescheduling the on board service to match the destination time zone rather than that of the origin. This could mean changing which meals are served when and other adjustments to the service process. This type of adjustment has long been favored by travelers, though some/many airlines still insist on serving meals based on the departure time zone, even at the end of 12+ hour flights.