Qantas Ultra Long Haul Flights – The A350 vs 787 vs 777X

With the news that the Qantas Project Sunrise plane will be selected by the end of this year, our brains are going into meltdown trying to figure out which plane Alan Joyce will pick. Will it be the proven A350, or a modified version thereof, or the yet to be released 777X? Or could there be a third contender on the table – the 787 Dreamliner?

Project Sunrise
Project Sunrise calls for a very special aircraft. Photo: Pexels

Although Project Sunrise is still of a way off yet, it’s been mooted that Qantas will select the aircraft to fly the route by the end of 2019. Building on the success of the Perth to London direct route, Qantas will be looking for an economical workhorse that offers exceptional passenger comforts and can go the distance.

There are really only a few aircraft that fit the bill – the forthcoming Boeing 777-8 (or, as many are calling it, the 777X), the Airbus A350-900ULR or the 787 Dreamliner. There has also been talk about an ultra long range version of the A350-1000 too, although nothing is confirmed at this stage.

So which aircraft is the money on? Will CEO Alan Joyce stick with his favorite American made aircraft, or will he go back to Airbus to take care of the long haul? Let’s compare and find out.

The Airbus offering

Currently, Qantas have only 40 Airbus aircraft in their fleet. These are 28 A330 family aircraft and 12 super jumbo A380s. They were due to take an additional eight A380s but cancelled their order earlier this year as it became clear there were more adaptable offers on the table.

Qantas A380
Qantas previously operated the world’s longest flight using an A380. Photo: Qantas

Although Airbus is certainly the underdog in terms of current fleet, they have a great track record for very long haul flights with Qantas. Back in 2014, Qantas operated the world’s longest passenger flight on the world’s largest passenger aircraft between Sydney and Dallas/Fort Worth. Although they only held the crown for around 18 months, to be overtaken by Emirates’ new Dubai – Auckland service, its testament to their close working relationship in the past.

Airbus A350
The Airbus A350 could be a contender. Photo: Wikimedia

The obvious choice for Qantas is the proven A350, either as a -900ULR or an as yet undeveloped tweak to the -1000 to make it capable of the range. The -900ULR has been well proven by Singapore Airlines on the current world’s longest route (Singapore to Newark). However, an A350-1000 with the additional stretch would give Qantas more space to play with.

A350-1000
Could a modified A350-1000 be the one? Photo: lynothehammer1978 via Flickr

Space is something Qantas are keen on. They’ve already taken suggestions from passengers, which resulted in an incredible list of wants, including a creche, a stretching and exercise zone and, of course, a bar.

The best of Boeing

In terms of current fleet, Qantas are a heavily Boeing focused airline, with 91 in service currently. However, these numbers are  somewhat skewed due to their massive fleet of 75 737-800s, mainly used for domestic routes.

In terms of widebody aircraft, they have only a handful from Boeing. Eight 747-400s are in service, as well as a small fleet of eight 787-9 Dreamliners. They still have another six Dreamliners on order too.

777-9x
The forthcoming 777X could fit the bill. Photo: Boeing

Of course, this doesn’t take into account planes which don’t exist yet, and with the 777X quietly revealed back in March, lots of airlines are getting very excited over this new addition to the Boeing lineup. In theory, it’s the ideal candidate for Qantas and their Project Sunrise goals; spacious, with epic range and amazing fuel efficiency.

777X
Will the 777X be able to meet Qantas’ deadline? Photo: Boeing

The downside of the 777X is that it’s not ready yet. Cathay Pacific were one of the first to order the 777-9X, confirming a total of 21 aircraft for their long haul fleet. They expect to receive their first plane in mid-2021. Lufthansa and Etihad were before them in the queue, with 45 orders between  them, and in total , as of March 2019, there are 291 firm orders on Boeing’s books.

That presents a problem for Qantas. As much as Boeing would no doubt love to be part of the world’s longest flight, they’ll be hard pushed to get other airlines to give up their place in the production queue so that Qantas can have their Project Sunrise aircraft in time for their 2022 deadline.

Does that mean the 777X is out of the running? Maybe not, or maybe there’s a compromise that Boeing can make…

The curveball?

For Qantas’ ultra long haul flying right now, the Dreamliner is their go-to aircraft. In March last year, they started flying between Australia and Europe nonstop using a 787 Dreamliner. The Perth to London route has proven to be amazingly popular and has certainly given Qantas a taste of what the Dreamliner can do.

Qantas 787 Dreamliner
The 787 Dreamliner has done very well for Qantas so far. Photo: Qantas

So, is it possible Boeing could present a modified version of the 787 as a potential Project Sunrise aircraft? In theory, if a Dreamliner was total freight-free underneath and light on passengers, it could just about scrape the trip. Getting rid of cargo would also free up all that down below space to be used for something different; something Airbus is already planning to introduce by 2021.

However, we don’t think the Dreamliner is going to be the one, at least not the ultimate one. For a start, Qantas probably want more passenger capacity than even a modified version could offer. But, if the 777X were to be the preferred plane, perhaps the 787 could be used as a stop gap to allow Qantas to launch the route by their planned date?

What do Qantas want?

Clearly both Airbus and Boeing have the capabilities to come up with the perfect plane for Project Sunrise. However, any solution proposed to Joyce will need to be highly customized to tick all the boxes on Alan’s wish list.

Alan joyce
CEO Alan Joyce has a long wish list for his aircraft. Photo: Qantas

Apart from the gyms, bars and childcare facilities, Qantas have some wishes of their own for the Project Sunrise plane. According to Live and Lets Fly, they are looking to include new flight planning software to optimize routes as well as ‘healthy’ cabin configurations to keep passengers well for the 22 hour flight.

Aside of the Qantas wish list, there are some hurdles to overcome before the flight can be launched too. According to AirlineRatings.com, this mega long haul flight will require an additional set of pilots, perhaps as many as six, in order to crew the trip. Regulatory changes would also need to be addressed. At a conference in Sydney this week, Sky News reports Mr. Joyce as saying:

“We have [to make] changes to pilot contracts, because you can’t fly for 21 hours in a day. We have [to make] changes with the regulator. We think we will have all of that lined up, hopefully, this year, so we can pick the model for that aircraft.”

No doubt Qantas will be thinking about their timescales too. With aircraft selection due to take place by the end of the year and flights pegged to start in 2022, it’s up to Boeing and Airbus to convince the carrier that they not only have the best product for the job, but that they can deliver it in time too.

6 comments
  1. What about an A380, with no freight, additional fuel tanks, and maybe a little light on passengers (heavy on premium)? Plenty of room and comfort, and the additional operational costs (4 “ceo” engines) adequately compensated by the higher fares typically associated with direct flights?

    1. If tQuantas ‘route with a Dreamliner between Australua & Europe is a big success ,why wouldn’t Boeing stick with the Dreaminer 787? Nigel,didn’t Airbus stop the roduction of the A 380 ? Anyway Quantas might choose the A 350 because it concerns an extreme long haul and Boeing does not go well with the adjective “spacious” does it or because of a bit of diversification .
      By the way iVrgin Australia is postponing its order of 48 Boeing 737 MAx to 2 years (2021).

    2. NIgel,

      Although the A380 with its large interior would make an ideal aircraft to provide unmatched levels of comfort for ultra long haul travel, fact remains that the A380 could never make that trip even if they carry less passengers and no cargo. The sheer size of the airframe coupled with its 4x engine configuration makes it one of the most fuel intensive aircraft, burning roughly 12 tons of fuel per hour. The A380 with its typical passenger payload is just simply not enough to trade for the additional fuel required for the ultra long trip. To put it in simpler context, even the A380-private jet carrying only the saudi prince does not have the capability to fly directly from Sydney to London.

  2. The $10,000 question is how to balance the fare with the service, and the airplane with the lowest per passenger fuel consumption will be the best candidate. The A350-1000 cannot be made light enough, because you cannot take any of the weight out of the lengthened fuselage. The 777-8 will have the most efficient wing. The wing is the thing. Given a type, all lengths have the same wing, so if you take the short model (because it weighs the least) and you take all the freight off, you have the most lift to spare for extra fuel. That would be the 787-8. The 787-9 weighs 10 tons more than the 787-8 so in addition to fueling the airplane and passenger load, you also have to fuel that extra weight for the duration of the flight. I think the short airplane wins, 777-8 or 787-8. The A380 is a complete No Go because as is you cannot make money without a full passenger load. The dead weight of the A380 is higher per passenger than any of the new twins, and the emphasis on Project Sunrise demands the least amount of airplane so that the most amount of fuel can be spent on payload.

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