Just twelve months ago, Project Sunrise was big news in certain circles. Decisions were getting made, and deadlines were approaching. Qantas’ headline-grabbing ultra-long-range flights looked like beginning in a few years and all was shaping up nicely. Now, the ambitious plan sits indefinitely shelved as the airline flies through the unpredicted headwinds of 2020.
From go to whoa in three years
Back in August 2017, Qantas challenged Boeing and Airbus to deliver an aircraft capable of flying regular direct services like Sydney-London, Brisbane-Paris, and Melbourne-New York nonstop with a full payload by 2022 (later pushed back to 2023). The airline’s CEO, Alan Joyce, called it the last frontier in aviation.
For the next two years, speculations about Project Sunrise swirled among Qantas watchers. Typically, people asked what aircraft would Qantas use, and where would they fly?
The well oiled Qantas PR machine fed the speculation – Capetown, Rio de Janeiro, Frankfurt were possible destinations. There was talk of in-flight gyms, cafes, and bunk beds. Perhaps sensing things were getting raised to unrealistic levels, Mr Joyce later moved to dial down public expectations.
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In that time, Qantas was laying the groundwork
Behind the scenes, Qantas was using Project Sunrise as an IR battering ram to push through workplace reforms. For sure, the ultra-long-range flights did need changes to existing agreements concerning work hours and rostering, but Qantas quietly weaponized Project Sunrise and its potential benefits, threatening to pull the idea altogether if unions did not come to the table and agree to reforms that did not just apply to the proposed Project Sunrise flights but the broader Qantas Group.
Meanwhile, Qantas was also playing hardball with Boeing and Airbus. As it stood, neither aircraft manufacturer produced an aircraft with the legs to fly between, say, Sydney and New York nonstop with an economically viable payload.
Both Boeing and Airbus step up to the challenge
That meant the manufacturers would need to modify existing an aircraft line or come up with something new altogether. Everyone figured it was down to either a modified Airbus A350 or Boeing 777X. Both manufacturers submitted their proposals last November. Qantas knocked them back. Recently departed Qantas International CEO, Tino La Spina said there is a “gap” between what the airline wants to pay and what the airline manufacturers expect the airline to pay.
Qantas was only after 12 planes. But such was the hype surrounding Project Sunrise, both Airbus and Boeing went away like chastened kids and resubmitted their bids just a month later. With Boeing in turmoil and the 777X program under a cloud, Boeing desperately wanted to see their planes get up. Rumor has it Boeing submitted a very price competitive offer. But the smart money was backing Airbus. In time for Christmas, Qantas announced a modified version of the A350-1000 was its preferred aircraft.
Presciently, Qantas held off placing a firm order for the planes, wanting to nail down a few other issues around Project Sunrise, notably the continuing IR issues.
Qantas spins its Project Sunrise research flights
Also, in the latter half of 2019, coinciding with this activity, Qantas ran three Project Sunrise “research flights.” These flights flew from New York to Sydney and London to Sydney nonstop using existing Qantas’ 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft.
Ostensibly, these flights were purely scientific and designed to replicate the conditions of the Project Sunrise ultra-long-haul flights. Qantas was measuring fatigue levels, rostering, optimum meal times, and how the body handles prolonged periods inside an aircraft flying through multiple time zones.
But the flights were widely derided in Australia as marketing stunts. None flew with a full payload. Instead, the flights operated with a handful of passengers all accommodated in lie-flat beds in business class. Rightly, people pointed out that this was not how most people would get to experience any future Project Sunrise flights.
But at the end of 2019, all was looking good for Project Sunrise
Notwithstanding these PR road bumps, Qantas was on track to tie down the loose ends and officially give Project Sunrise the go-ahead in the first quarter of 2020. Across 2019, Qantas international services were flying high, earning the airline nearly US$6 billion in revenue.
But in the space of three months, Qantas had gone from bolstering its international network to suspending it entirely.
After initially delaying the expected Project Sunrise confirmation announcement, Qantas quietly put Project Sunrise on the back burner in May.
“We don’t know how long domestic and international travel restrictions will last or what demand will look like as they’re gradually lifted,” said Qantas’ Alan Joyce at the time.
“International travel demand could take years to return to what it was.”
Project Sunrise suddenly looked shaky on multiple fronts. Revenue, the lifeblood of any airline, was evaporating fast, and expenses needed to get reined in. Those Airbus A350-1000s suddenly looked very expensive. In addition, travel demand dried up fast, powered by health concerns and border closures. No-one knew (and still they don’t) how long this would last. In this environment, no-one expressed surprise at Qantas’ decision. Perhaps the most surprising thing was the lack of publicity the decision got, but people were pre-occupied.
Qantas boss confident about the future of Project Sunrise
While Project Sunrise planes flying in 2023 is out the window, the Qantas CEO is still keen on the idea. He mentioned Project Sunrise as recently as last week.
“Coming out of this crisis, we will be the only Australian airline that can fly-long haul. We want to expand out of this when our balance sheet will allow, and picking up where we left off on Project Sunrise.”
Mr Joyce’s comments did not take anyone by surprise. Despite current problems, he is bullish about the future of both Qantas and flying in general. It’s also worth noting that Project Sunrise will be a defining career mark for a CEO who has helmed Qantas since 2008. Despite his bluster and threatening to pull Project Sunrise altogether at times, it’s always been his baby and something he clearly wants to see through.
So while timelines get pushed back and things are uncertain at the moment, it seems likely that Project Sunrise will go ahead in one form or another. The question is when. Given Qantas does not expect to be flying international routes again until the latter half of 2021 and that it expects international demand to take years to rebound, it may be the second half of the decade before we see Project Sunrise flights take off.