Like many things across the aviation industry, Project Sunrise came to a temporary but sudden halt this year. The ultra-long-haul flights were to revolutionize the way we traveled and shakeout Australia’s number one airline. Before the brakes got applied, Qantas picked a modified version of the Airbus A350-1000 to operate the flights. The alternative option was Boeing’s 777X. In these things, we always hear about the winner. But what about the losing bid? Why didn’t Qantas choose the Boeing 777X for Project Sunrise?
Boeing was not disadvantaged because the 777X wasn’t yet in the air
There’s a view that the Boeing 777X lost out because the plane was not yet in production. But that may be incorrect. Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, gave an interview to Australian Aviation last year where he said it wasn’t an issue.
“Boeing is not at a disadvantage because this aircraft is an aircraft that is there on paper,” Mr Joyce said at the time. He pointed out airlines frequently buy aircraft off the drawing boards. In Qantas’ case, they did so with the Boeing 707, Boeing 747, and Airbus A380.
“They (Boeing) have to guarantee on the RFP process performance issues. We are pretty good at evaluating the technical data. Just because one is physical and one isn’t, there’s no difference.”
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Both planes could go the distance
Qantas was satisfied both the Boeing and Airbus planes could go the required distances. They couldn’t carry a full payload, but they could carry a commercially viable payload. Qantas was encouraging of Boeing, publicly noting how competitive their bid was. Pundits read that to mean the asking price got deeply discounted.
While everyone loves a bargain, no-one could discount the issues Boeing had with their 777X. Airbus A350s have been flying commercially relatively trouble-free since 2018. In contrast, the production of the 777Xs was delayed and in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Airbus tweaked the technical specs at the last minute for the A350-1000. Their slightly modified version added an extra fuel tank to extend the range and allowed for a larger maximum take-off weight. Airbus also allowed Qantas a grace period before the airline had to sign on the dotted line and pony up some cash.
Airbus was always confident about their plane
When it came down to the wire, Airbus was confident its proposal best addressed Qantas’ requirements.
“We do offer an airplane that is capable of doing the mission with the payload Qantas wants to take, and more importantly, we can deliver it on time,’’ said an Airbus spokesperson at the time.
Airbus also pointed out the A350-1000 was more fuel-efficient than the 777X. Airbus reckoned that with both aircraft types at the end of the runway ready to roll, the A350-1000 would be 45 tonnes lighter and 13% more fuel-efficient than the Boeing 777-9.
Further, whereas the 777X was a derivative plane from the 777 family, the Airbus A350-1000 was a brand new aircraft type with the latest technologies and design.
Qantas never said much about its decision-making process
Qantas never said why they choose the one aircraft type over the other. They praised both bids. But Qantas never publicly spoke about the pros and cons of each bid. In the end, Airbus won out. The Boeing bid was probably cheaper. But the proven track record of the A350-1000 and those little technical specs most likely combined to get Airbus over the line.
Qantas did mention the A350-1000s proven track record and engine reliability. But Alan Joyce said it was a tough choice.
However, with Project Sunrise in hiatus, it’s all a little irrelevant now. Things move fast in the aviation world, even when most of it is grounded. Economics change, new planes come online, demand shifts. The A350-1000 hit the mark for Qantas in 2019. But when Qantas reassesses Project Sunrise, probably in a couple of years, will that plane remain the best plane for the job?