UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to see planes jetting between London and Sydney this summer. He wants to set up air-bridges to various cities in Europe and further afield, including Sydney. It’s an ambitious plan, and PM Johnson would like to have the air-bridges in place by the end of June.
PM’s air-bridge stalled at the gate
Presently, both British Airways and Qantas have suspended their flights between London and Sydney. There are a handful of Gulf and Asian carriers offering some services via their hubs. Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad will all get you there. Now Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are allowing some transit traffic through their home airports, it is possible to fly to Sydney on them.
However, a formidable obstacle means PM Johnson’s thought bubble is stalled at the gate before it even pushes back. Australia’s borders remain closed to all but its citizens and some essential travelers. Even that group has to go into a mandatory 14-day quarantine in government guarded facilities. The position is unlikely to change in the immediate future. It’s not an entry policy set up to welcome travelers or encourage airlines to set up new flights.
But some travelers are still making the trip. Primarily they are citizens of their respective countries returning home. The airlines that are running flights are said to be lightly loaded. Qatar Airways, which has kept up a continuing presence on the London-Sydney route, is operating its flights on the sector at around 40% capacity.
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Could lightly loaded planes run on the route?
That raises an interesting theoretical scenario. With aircraft so lightly loaded, could they operate nonstop on the London-Sydney route under PM Johnson’s air-bridge?
Last year, Qantas proved it was possible to fly nonstop between London and Sydney. In November, as part of its Project Sunrise “research flights,” the airline flew a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner between the two cities. The plane, which can usually carry 236 passengers, was lightly loaded with around 40 people.
The research flights purportedly studied the effects of ultra long haul flying on both passengers and crew. But Qantas was criticized at the time – 40 people cozily ensconced in lie-flat seats in business class doesn’t represent the reality of ultra-long-haul flying on regular flights.
But now, with social distancing requirements and fast-changing passenger expectations, aircraft could remain lightly loaded for the time being. Using Qatar’s 40% passenger loads as a benchmark, that would see around 100 people on a Boeing 787-9 flying the London-Sydney route.
The idea hasn’t got wings
That’s over double the number of people the Project Sunrise research flights were carrying. When that Dreamliner from London touched down last November, it had about 6,300 kilograms of fuel left in its tanks, enough for approximately one and three-quarter hours of flying.
So flying the sector nonstop at 40% capacity is going to be a stretch from a fuel perspective. That’s before anyone goes near the economics of such a flight. Unless passengers are prepared to pay fares several multiples of what they usually pay, airlines will lose money hand over fist running under this scenario.
The entire concept is just a thought bubble inspired by PM Johnson’s thought bubble. It’s unrealistic. Notwithstanding the border and quarantine issues, the capacity of current aircraft is quite there yet – near, but not quite there.
PM Johnson may make it to Europe this summer, but he might find his wings clipped if he wants to go further. He can build all the air-bridges in the sky he wants; it’s just no-one much will use them.