Here’s Why Qantas’ Project Sunrise Likely Won’t Take Off Until 2023

As the dust settles on the weekend’s Project Sunrise research flight from New York to Sydney, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is looking at a four-year time frame to get the flights up and running. There was some earlier optimism the flights would begin by late 2021, but Mr Joyce now says the Project Sunrise flights most likely won’t take off until 2023.

Qantas doesn’t expect to see Project Sunrise take flight until 2023. Photo: Qantas.

Aircraft won’t be available until 2023

Mr Joyce made his comments regarding the 2023 date to Flight Global. He says the aircraft he needs most likely won’t be available until 2023. Last week, Airbus confirmed it had offered Qantas their A350-1000 for Project Sunrise. Boeing’s 777X is the other contender.

Production of the 777X has been beset by delays but Boeing was reportedly very keen to make a competitive bid for Project Sunrise. Indeed, there has been the suggestion that the commencement of 777-8 production will depend on it winning the Project Sunrise bid. Qantas has previously said that Boeing’s bid was “compelling” – a phrasing many took to mean deeply discounted. 

While the A350-1000 is up in the air and flying revenue flights, the 777X is far less advanced production-wise. Test flights of the 777-9 are tentatively scheduled for 2020 and the 777-8 sometime thereafter. Then, the inevitable kinks and flaws have to be identified and ironed out. The aircraft will have to satisfy regulators and, given Boeing’s current issues, it’s fair to say the regulators will exercise maximum diligence (and time) when certifying any aircraft in the future.

It’s down to the A350-1000 or 777X for Project Sunrise. Photo: Qantas.

With this in mind, Mr Joyce is giving himself plenty of wriggle room time-wise. He said;

“The plan we’re working towards is making a decision on the business case by the end of this year …. and it will likely be [flying] from 2023 when the aircraft are available.”

Internal Qantas workplace issues to iron out

Qantas remains committed to making an announcement on the winning bid by 2019. It’s possible Mr Joyce and his management team may be quietly thankful for the long lead-in time. He’s always said he’ll pull the project if he can’t make it economically viable. Project Sunrise may have all the hallmarks of a vanity project, but its premise is to make Qantas money.

Another key problem for Mr Joyce is extracting a workable workplace agreement from the pilots union. Whilst the Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) has been broadly supportive of Project Sunrise, it acknowledged that 20+ hour flights were going to be grueling on the crew and it wants a workplace agreement to operate the Project Sunrise flights that factors this in.

Qantas management has to nut out workplace agreements with its pilots and crews to operate the Project Sunrise flights. Photo: Qantas.

Qantas, for its part, needs to keep costs reigned in and its pilots are already handsomely paid. A workplace agreement with special provisions was struck to operate the long haul Qantas 787-9 flights and those flights have proved commercially successful for Qantas. Mr Joyce and AIPA need to work out another workable agreement for Sunrise.

Alan Joyce in his Qantas jammies, doing interviews and looking positively benign on last weekend’s flight. Photo: Qantas.

But disquiet amongst union members earlier in October led to the union negotiators been replaced in what one local media outlet called a coup. And Mr Joyce has threatened to walk away – not just from the union and talks, but from Project Sunrise. It’s big, Mr Joyce said, but not too big to fail.

“We are hoping the have a good dialogue with them (the pilots union) but we can’t put an order in for a new aircraft unless we know the business case is going to meet the thresholds … It’s a very exciting project but it is not too big to fail and if we don’t have a business case we won’t do it because that’s what our shareholders expect.”

Walking away would be embarrassing

Walking away would be a shame and embarrassing for Mr Joyce after all the hype surrounding Project Sunrise. That hype reached a peak on the weekend with the New York – Sydney flight. Whichever way you look at it, the flight was a historical triumph. It took nineteen hours. Two hundred and thirty years ago it took ten months in a leaky boat to reach Australia. That technological advance should not be underestimated or downplayed.

But the flight has attracted criticism for being all spin over scientific substance. While historical, 40 passengers (all in business class) and 10 crew looked to be engaged in a series of lite science experiments that were more about generating PR and quantifiable results. Pictures emerged of the passengers doing expansive stretching exercises in an empty economy cabin. 

Passengers taking over the galley to exercise. How’s that going to work on a full flight? Photo: Qantas.

Stretching and exercising no doubt helps combat fatigue on long flights, but how’s that going to work when real flights will have full economy cabins full of scratchy tired passengers? While the 787-9 can’t make the flight fully laden with passengers, until Qantas sees how a planeload of passengers in economy class handle the tight confines and rushed service on 20+ hour flights, research flights like last weekend’s flights are kind of gimmicky and even pointless. They don’t reflect the reality of long haul flying for the vast majority of passengers.

Maybe the next research flight, all the “passengers” should be squeezed into economy class, across a few rows, all 3-3-3 mimicking full capacity. That scientific experiment would probably provide very different results.

Mr Joyce wants to take away the results from the weekend to digest. He said;

“I think this (the flight) will be really good whatever happens with Sunrise.”

Mr Joyce has four years to pull this off, to convert the hype into substance. If he does, it will be a huge win for him. He’s probably the most motivated person around to make this work.