The Business Case For Qantas Project Sunrise: Ultra Long Haul Flying

Australian airline Qantas launched its ambitious Project Sunrise in 2017, with the aim of offering commercial passenger flights between Australia’s largest cities and London and New York. Test flights began in 2019, but the pandemic has delayed the launch of services. However, Qantas, and other airlines, are confident in the ultra-long-haul business model. Challenges remain in making it work, but post-COVID, the case could be even stronger.

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Qantas has used the 787 for Project Sunrise research flights but will operate the A350 commercially. Photo: Getty Images

The rise of ultra-long-haul

Qantas drew attention in 2019 when it operated its first direct flight from Sydney to London. At just over 17,000 kilometers, this significantly exceeded Qantas’ current longest route of 14,500 kilometers for Perth to London – and Singapore Airlines Singapore to New York route at 15,358 kilometers.

These 18-20 or more hour flights are classed as ultra-long-haul. With the increasing capabilities and efficiency of aircraft, it is an area we are likely to see much more development in.

Extremely long flights, though, are not new. There are plenty of examples of long-duration flights before the introduction of jets (although distances covered are much greater now).

In fact, Qantas holds the record for the longest commercial flight route – an amazing 32 hours nine minutes from Perth to Ceylon with a Consolidated Catalina flying boat. And TWA operated the Lockheed Constellation from London to San Franciso, with an incredible flight time of over 23 hours.

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Fights were much longer during the flying boat era. Photo: State Library of Queensland via Flickr

Qantas and Project Sunrise

It is not surprising that  Qantas is taking a strong interest in ultra-long-haul flights. To reach key cities in Europe and the US, passengers need to fly with stops or take several flights. Direct non-stop flights would be a great bonus – and something Qantas hopes customers will pay for.

Qantas launched Project Sunrise in August 2017, with the aim of flying non-stop from Australia (including the eastern cities of Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane) to cities such as London, Paris, and New York. The project came with a request to both Boeing and Airbus to develop an aircraft that could meet this requirement.

Battle between Boeing and Airbus

Qantas wanted an aircraft capable of direct flights, with a four-class configuration and capacity of around 300 passengers. Both manufacturers have been working with Qantas to develop aircraft. Boeing’s proposal is based on the 777-8 and Airbus’ on the A350-1000.

Test flights in 2019 took place using a Boeing 787-9 to both New York and London.

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Qantas currently operates 11 787-9 aircraft, but it won’t use them for these longest flights. Photo: Qantas

Towards the end of 2019, Qantas selected the A350-1000 as its preferred option for these flights. This will be modified with additional fuel storage and increased maximum take-off weight.

According to Qantas, the engines were a significant factor in the decision, with positive experiences operating the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines for two years previously. Before the pandemic, it was considering an order for 12 aircraft, but it has not yet placed a formal order.

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Qantas has selected the A350-1000 for Ultra long-haul use but has yet to order.  Photo: Qantas

Project on hold

Travel obviously slowed during the pandemic in 2020 and into 2021. Going into 2020, Qantas had ambitious plans for Project Sunrise that year and next. Even by late 2020, it remained bullish on plans. But in February 2021, the airline confirmed that flights would be delayed until at least 2024. He said;

We still want to revisit it at the end of ’21, with the potential of doing it [introducing scheduled Project Sunrise flights] in ’24, probably, and onwards.

The closed borders remain the biggest challenge to launching longer flights. Until vaccination rates in Australia pick up and there is confidence in borders opening and staying open, long-haul flying will suffer. You just need to look at other ultra-long-haul routes to see this in practice.

Singapore Airlines’ A350 route from Singapore to New York was suspended from March to November 2020. And in April 2021, it made headlines when it operated the route with more crew than passengers onboard. Cargo is, of course, an important consideration on routes like this, but it still highlights the challenges faced by airlines operating such routes.

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Like other airlines, Qantas has grounded much of its fleet during the pandemic. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Financial pressure at Qantas is also a factor. With continuing uncertainty over when international flying will resume, the airline sensibly does not want to be spending and committing to a new project.

Ultra long-haul post-COVID

Looking beyond the pandemic, though, the case for Project Sunrise and ultra-long-haul flying in general, remains strong.

The main argument for such long flights is, of course, is the appeal to passengers. Qantas expects passengers to be willing to pay for such long but direct flights. Currently, Qantas flights to London or the US east coast cities require stops in Singapore or the west coast cities (with the exception of London to Perth flights). There are also, of course, plenty of stopover routes possible with other airlines.

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Direct flight from London Heathrow to Syndeny could be standard. Photo: Qantas

Ultimately, the success of such long point-to-point flights will be very route-specific. Other airlines, though, challenge their popularity. In an interview with Simple Flying, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker explained, for example, how he didn’t see Singapore Airlines’ direct flights to New York as a threat. After the route started, passenger volume remained stable on connecting routes, and in his view, many passengers prefer the option of breaking the journey.

Coming out of the pandemic, it seems likely this business case will be even stronger. There is built-up passenger demand for flights, from business, leisure, and VFR passengers, even on the longest routes.

And with travel restrictions likely to remain in place for some time and subject to continuous changes, passengers will be attracted more by direct flights. Minimizing transit points and stopovers will lessen the paperwork and tests required and reduce passengers’ exposure and chances of coming into contact with the virus. A recent study for the Journal of Air Transport Management supported this, predicting higher seat load factors and yields on ultra-long-haul routes post-COVID.

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With changing restrictions and health concerns, passengers are likely to be more attracted by direct flights. Photo: Getty Images

Challenges of ultra-long-haul

The technical capability of aircraft is hopefully sorted, but that is not the only issue with scheduling such long flights. For routes to work commercially for Qantas (and other airlines that look at such long routes), there are plenty of other considerations. Some of the main ones include:

Oil prices

Fuel prices remain a major factor in long-haul flying. The oil price has fallen during the pandemic and remains low in 2021. But rising prices have taken their toll on airlines in the past. The increased in price in the years after the launch of the four-engine A380, for example, was a significant factor in its decline.

Of course, we can’t predict where prices will be in the future and what impact they will have. But airlines will minimize risk to some extent through price hedging. And the increased efficiency of the A350 will help in the event of price rises – at least in comparison to fuel-thirsty quadjets.

Passenger (and crew) comfort

While the business case is based on passengers wanting the convenience of direct flights, will they really want to spend 20 or more hours in their seats? Unlike Singapore Airlines with its A350ULR, Qantas will be operating all four cabins and not just a business-class heavy configuration.

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20 hours in business or first class is much easier – what about economy? (This Qantas business class on the 787). Photo: Qantas

Some early ideas from Qantas (based on passengers input) included bunk beds, gyms, work and café spaces, and even a creche. But as reality hit, the airlines dropped these. Some simpler ideas, such as better noise-canceling headsets and virtual reality headsets, are more likely to be retained.

Cabins will be changed, though – hopefully, to include more space away from the seats for stretching or relaxation. But new designs have not yet been released. Getting economy right will obviously be key to making it work for passengers – many would prefer to make a stop than sit in a standard cramped economy cabin for that long. Qantas’ Media and Communications chief, Amanda Bolger, explained this, saying:

“It will be an entirely new cabin design for each class, a new opportunity to rethink the ideal cabin environment based on the ultra-long-haul nature of the Project Sunrise flights.”

Passengers and crew on the test flights have been monitored and subject to various experiments, with the aim of improving cabin experience. We have seen images of them stretching and being guided through yoga sessions, for example. There has also been plenty of experimentation with menus and appropriate catering.

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The LHR flights featured test menus. Photo: Qantas

Again, we need to wait to see what is put in place for commercial flights. But ultimately, exercise and food remain very much the passengers’ choice. And with 300 passengers onboard, how much space will there be for group stretching and yoga sessions?

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Test flights allowed plenty of space for exercise, but how will this work in reality? Photo: Qantas

Crew conditions

Pay and work conditions for crew is another consideration in the business case. Scheduling crew for 20-hour flights comes with plenty of challenges. Qantas has said it does not want to use multiple crews for the flights.

Pilots started negotiations in 2019 unhappy with previous conditions for direct Perth to London flights (amongst other concerns, they were not compensated for night flying as on other routes). Qantas, at one point, was preparing a fallback plan where it would hire crew through a separate employment entity. In March 2020, though, the airline reached an agreement with pilots over pay and work conditions. We have not seen the details, but 85% of pilots have agreed.

If things remain on track, these 20-hour flights could be operational in a few years. Key to passenger adoption will be the price and the onboard facilities. Are you excited to see these coming, or does that long in the cabin sound like a terrible experience? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. 

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