Qantas and Project Sunrise: The A350ULR or 777X?

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

After the conclusion of two of the three project sunrise research flights which ended with great success, Qantas has some decisions to make in regards to where they plan to take their fleet to the next level- the addition of an ultra long haul aircraft that can efficiently deliver on Qantas’ expectations to begin direct, nonstop services from New York (JFK/KJFK) and London (LHR/EGLL) to the east coast of Australia, including Sydney (SYD/YSSY), Melbourne (MEL/YMML), and Brisbane (BNE/YBBN).

Qantas' special "Yam Dreaming" livery seen taxiing at San Francisco Airport. Photo by AeroNewsX/David Zhang.

Since the announcement of Project Sunrise in 2017, CEO Alan Joyce had also mentioned in recent weeks more collateral markets to serve from the east coast of Australia, including Paris (CDG/LFPG), Buenos Aires (EZE/SAEZ), and Cape Town (CPT/FACT).

The ideal plane that Qantas has commented on for both Airbus and Boeing to propose, would be able to carry roughly 300 people in a three class cabin configuration, and have a conceptual living space/occupational area in part of the plane’s cargo hold. Additionally, it would need to have both the range and payload to make those long distance jumps with guaranteed assurance of reaching their destinations or a suitable alternative airport.

Rumors seem to have been floating around that Qantas is looking for a fleet of 12 aircraft that could effectively run daily flights to multiple long-haul destinations at a time and be manageable enough to be able to rotate a couple aircraft out of service at a time for scheduled and routine maintenance.

Qantas' global network spans from cities like Los Angeles to New York to Singapore among others. Seen here is one of Qantas' 787s shortly after takeoff from London. Photo by AeroNewsX/Anselm Ranta.

The two most popular and likely models that Qantas has narrowed down their equipment choices to, is either Boeing’s 777X or Airbus’ A350. Both aircraft have pros and cons to Qantas acquiring either type.

Starting with the 777X, it would be a fairly easy and cost effective way for their 787 pilots - many of which already fly the 787 on long haul routes like Perth to London and Melbourne to Los Angeles. They would be able to make the transition from one plane to the other since they will be rated to share a “common type rating". Qantas could also do the same with the A350 as they already have a larger pool of A330 and A380 pilots.

One thing that the 777X has that already sets it apart from the A350 is its size, and in turn it’s capacity to carry the ideal 300+ passengers comfortably that Qantas is looking for in a plane. The plane has the ability to seat 11 passengers abreast in economy with as much seat width and legroom as the A350 can, carrying people in a 9 abreast economy configuration. Airbus would really be in a tight pinch to try and fit 300 people in a three class, premium heavy configuration, while the 777X could, in theory, do that all without an issue.

Photo by AeroNewsX/Duy Khang Tran.

While neither baseline 777-8/9 or A350-900/1000 model has the range (even at their maximum rated ranges) to make the trips, there would obviously need to be some sort of range enhancements. This could be in the form of additional fuel capacity or taking away some amount of load from either plane type to make the routes work. Airbus has the most straightforward approach with making an all-new A350-1000 ULR just for Qantas, while Boeing could easily sweeten the deal with extended range 777X’s in some way or another.

Switching gears to the A350's pros, it’s already a tried and true solution for airlines’ long haul routes, and it only seems to be increasing in popularity. While the 777X certification and entry into service has been delayed quite significantly, it shouldn’t affect the outlook timeline for Qantas’ expected routine ultra long haul services commencing in 2022 or 2023. However, the 777X does have the disadvantage of being a brand new product that will have next to zero total flight hours, and with clean-sheet designed engines it should be more of a gamble that could turn into a huge reward if they play their cards right.

The Airbus A350 is currently the biggest player in the ultra long haul market with Singapore Airlines being the world’s only airline currently using the A350 ULR for routes such as Singapore (SIN/WSSS) to destinations like San Francisco (SFO/KSFO), Los Angeles (LAX/KLAX), and Newark/New York (EWR/KEWR). South African Airways will also begin using their leased A350’s to replace the less efficient A340-600 on the daily nonstop Johannesburg (JNB/FAOR) to New York (JFK/KJFK) flights.

Other notable uses of the A350 include Delta’s nonstop flight from Atlanta (ATL/KATL) to Seoul (ICN/RKSI) and Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong (HKG/VHHH) to Washington, D.C. (IAD/KIAD).

Whichever choice that Qantas makes, both planes will be a huge part in opening doors for other airlines to follow suit in new ultra long haul markets that could be emerging in future years to come.

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