Qantas retired its last 747-400 in a blaze of publicity earlier this month. The plane had more farewells than an aging Vegas crooner. But it is safely off the premises now, and everyone can move on. However, the plane’s departure does leave a couple of questions in its wake, including what aircraft will Qantas use to fly to South Africa?
Before Qantas grounded its international fleet earlier this year, a daily Boeing 747-400 service jetted back and forth between Sydney and Johannesburg. It was a long-standing and popular service, not least because it was the only service between Australia’s east coast and South Africa.
It also enjoyed the unique distinction of being the only scheduled service in the world to overfly Melbourne in a north-south direction. Further, the flight’s deep dive into the sub-Antarctic regions made it the world’s most southerly scheduled passenger service.
That a jumbo jet operated the service only heightened its appeal to bucket-list travelers and those who regularly flew the route.
Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.
The Dreamliner will replace the jumbo jet
When the services resume, the 747-400 will get replaced by the 787-9 Dreamliner. It’s a nice enough plane but not the same. However, the Dreamliner can fly 14,800 kilometers, giving it the legs to cover the 11,060 kilometer flight across to Johannesburg.
Boeing’s Dreamliners can now operate up to 330 minutes from an airport. For several years, the limit had been 180 minutes. That meant the Dreamliners couldn’t do deep runs out across the oceans. It meant the 747-400 stayed on the long lonely cross-ocean trips such as those to Johannesburg and between Sydney and Santiago.
But the relaxation in the ETOPS rules was another nail in the coffin for the Qantas 747 fleet. Last year, the airline announced the 747-400 would get swapped out for the Dreamliner on the 13 hour Santiago run. The same fate was on the cards for the Sydney – Johannesburg route. Well before Qantas’ present woes, the airline had announced it would be retiring its remaining jumbo jets in 2021. The year from aviation hell saw those plans brought forward.
Looking beyond the next year or two
But looking beyond the next year or two and flying resuming, what’s likely to happen to Qantas’ South Africa bound services over the next decade?
South African Airways international flights remain suspended, including their service to Perth. The future of South African Airways and whether it ever lands in Perth again is an open question. But if they vacate the route, it’s one Qantas would likely pounce on. Qantas and Perth Airport have been involved in a long-running brawl over unpaid aeronautical fees. Supposedly they’ve now buried the hatchet.
Until the detente, Qantas had refused to lay on additional international services out of Perth, including a mooted service across to South Africa. When travel conditions improve, that’s a route worth keeping an eye on.
Throwing Cape Town into the mix
Also worth factoring in is the probable A350-1000 Project Sunrise order. That got put on the backburner earlier this year, but you could expect a return to the subject at Qantas HQ once things improve. South Africa is one of the countries thrown into the Project Sunrise mix. The airline has talked about flights between Sydney and Cape Town, saying it would “love to fly there.” It has been quite a few years since Qantas last landed in Cape Town. At one point, they serviced Africa’s most southern city as a tag flight from Johannesburg.
If Cape Town does go ahead later this decade, what are the implications for the Dreamliner service to Johannesburg? Can the market sustain two daily flights from Sydney to South Africa? Would the A350 run to Cape Town out of Sydney and the Dreamliner to Johannesburg from Perth? And where’s Melbourne in the mix? Australia’s second city is soon to have a larger population than Sydney, and its airport has been booming.
There are a lot of variables in play, but if there’s one takeout from this year, it’s that predicting the future is a tricky business. When flights between Sydney and Johannesburg resume, we’ll see 787-9 Dreamliners on the route. Beyond that timeframe remains an interesting guessing game.