In 2017, Qantas made a splash when it floated an idea called Project Sunrise. The idea was to fly nonstop from Australia’s east coast to cities like New York, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro. The airline made a call to both Boeing and Airbus to supply a plane capable of making the distance. Since then, Project Sunrise has morphed into a kind of cultish soap opera, both delighting and appalling its many followers.
Best laid plans are interrupted
There was hope earlier this year the end was nigh, at least for season one of the show. Having elected to go with the Airbus A350-1000 over Boeing’s 777X late last year, Qantas was due to give Project Sunrise the tick of approval this month. The airline would sign the contract for the Airbus aircraft and we could all settle comfortably in for season two of the saga – speculating about where and when the first Project Sunrise flights should fly.
However, it’s all come to a skidding halt. Coronavirus has sent Qantas and the wider airline industry into extreme survival mode. As Simple Flying reported, yesterday Qantas has moved to shut down its international network and reduce its domestic network.
Faced with more existential problems, Qantas has pushed Project Sunrise to the back burner.
An airline cannot just push a button and restart tomorrow
There’s a certain amount of momentum that pushes an airline onward. There are forward bookings and forward revenue, aircraft coming online and going offline, scheduling flights, staff, maintenance, and supplies. It is a lumbering beast that you cannot just turn on and off.
A former pilot who has insight into operations at Qantas and is a regular contributor to a local frequent flyer forum said yesterday;
“It’s very easy to shut airlines down, but I expect that it will prove to be much harder to restart them. Even a disruption to international travel as short as 3-6 months would almost certainly result in well over a year of reduced leadings, as people hesitate to travel again.
“My guess is that airlines that do manage to restart after all of this, will be dramatically smaller than they were before and that it will take multiple years to get back to anything like their current size.”
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, said this morning that he did not know how long the present downturn would last for. He’s also expecting the economy to slide into a deep recession.
That doesn’t bode well for Qantas (or any airline) just bouncing back later in 2020.
People will start flying again and demand will bounce back
But the coronavirus led downturn will pass and people will start flying again, perhaps gradually. Project Sunrise isn’t dead in the water. Like much of Qantas, it is in hiatus.
Direct flights appeal to many people because they cut out transit time and maximize destination time. Another takeaway from the coronavirus epidemic is the need to travel from A to B in the quickest manner with the least amount of contact with people along the way.
There will inevitably be more epidemics. But some public health lessons we are learning suggest that future travel will be orientated towards Project Sunrise type flights. You get and the plane and you get to where you need to go – no mucking around with stopovers.
Once Qantas gets back on its feet and people and its planes fly again, they’ll go back to Project Sunrise. Harnessing what’s being learned now, Alan Joyce will have one or two reasons more why Project Sunrise is a good idea.
Regular transmission of the soap opera can resume.