Could The Virgin Group Beat Qantas To Project Sunrise?

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Could Qantas be beaten to realizing Project Sunrise by an aggressive Virgin airline? The Virgin Group has the means and the motivation, but are they able to move fast enough? Let’s explore.

Project Sunrise
Virgin Atlantic and Qantas may go head to head on Project Sunrise. Photo: Simple Flying

Is Virgin interested in Project Sunrise?

Project Sunrise is the goal to launch direct routes from London and New York to the east coast cities of Melbourne and Sydney. Qantas has been at the forefront of testing this concept, and has recently conducted three test flights with unloaded Boeing 787-9s. Qantas is also seeking either an Airbus A350-1000 or a Boeing 777-8 to operate these routes from Airbus and Boeing respectively.

Recent comments by Virgin founder Richard Branson highlight the potential rivalry on this route and raise the question if the Virgin Group would be up to the challenge.

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“They need competition! Whether Virgin Atlantic might compete with them [Qantas] or Virgin Australia might, or a combination of the two, we will!” – Sir Richard Branson

virgin
Richard took a moment to speak to the press. Photo: Simple Flying

Could Virgin actually fly direct?

Currently, Qantas uses the Boeing 787 to fly between Perth and London, a market that Virgin Atlantic could operate in a heartbeat. They already have the same aircraft as their down-under rival.

Aas for Project Sunrise, this is where it gets a bit more complicated. On paper, with a distance of 17,800 km (9,600 nautical miles), this is no easy feat. Looking at their longest-range aircraft, Virgin Atlantic’s Airbus A350-1000 (the same type offered to Qantas by Airbus earlier this month) has a recommended range of 8,700 nmi (16,100 km), and the Boeing 787-9 that has a range of 7,635 nmi (14,140 km).

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Virgin Australia, Virgin’s down under counterpart, only operates Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A330s, neither of which can make the journey directly. Thus the options in their current fleet don’t really align perfectly with the operational conditions. At least not with full aircraft anyway. 

However, Qantas was offered an unmodified A350-1000 from Airbus to make the trip… an aircraft that Virgin already has. So theoretically, Virgin could deploy an A350-1000 direct to Sydney tomorrow if they wanted (ignoring permissions, etc).

Has the airline ruled it out? Not exactly.

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“We are always evaluating new routes for our customers and Australia is a fantastic destination, however, we are unable to confirm anything at present” – Virgin Atlantic Spokesperson to Simple Flying

project sunrise route
The distances and times of the flights from London and New York Photo: Qantas

What has been Qantas’ response?

Qantas, who has now completed some test flights and recently rejected Airbus and Boeing’s designs for Project Sunrise aircraft, took the time to respond to Richard Branson’s claims. Speaking to The Australian, Qantas’ CEO Alan Joyce laughed off the challenge, claiming that Virgin had neither the expertise nor the aircraft to compete.

“I think Richard is generating publicity, but I have to say, he will find it very difficult to compete against us because we have got this amazing crew, we have these amazing pilots, we’ve got this expertise at long-haul flying that no other airline in the world has … I don’t think Virgin can do it. I think we will kill them on this one if we had to.”

Qantas completed its first test flight on project Sunrise between New York and Sydney.  Photo: Mertie via Flickr

What about other airlines?

However, whilst this article is primarily about Virgin taking on Qantas for the Project Sunrise crown, we should also examine that other possibility that a completely unexpected rival might swoop in before either have had a chance to react.

But who would that be? It would be an airline from either Europe or North America, who has the widebody aircraft capable and the desire to do so.

Simple Flying reached out to a few to get their comments on the matter.

American Airlines

First, supercarrier American Airlines; could they offer direct flights from New York to Sydney?

American Boeing 787
American Airlines will be using Boeing 787 aircraft on new flights to New Zealand. Photo: Boeing

As American Airlines is a Qantas partner (and a fellow founding member of One World) it is highly unlikely that they would go out of their way at incredible expense to beat the Australian flag carrier.

“We’re always evaluating our network based on supply and demand, but at this time there are no plans to add nonstop service to Australia from east coast cities. We’re looking forward to starting a new service to Christchurch from LAX and Auckland from DFW next summer, and continuing to operate to Australia from LAX. And we’ll continue to work closely with our joint business partner, Qantas, to offer our customers the best schedules to the places they value the most.” – American Airlines Spokesperson

United Airlines

But what of fellow American rival United? Would they see the benefit of direct service to Australia from New York?

United
A United 787-10. Photo: United
United currently operates nonstop service between Australia and our U.S. hubs in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston. We continuously review opportunities to grow and expand our global route network” Explained the United spokesperson to Simple Flying. “We look forward to partnering with Air New Zealand to offer customers the first-ever nonstop service between New York/Newark and Auckland, New Zealand. Beginning in late 2020, Air New Zealand and United Airlines will connect customers to Auckland for the first time. “
Turning to Europe…

British Airways

British Airways seems like an easy contender, they already operate a Boeing 777 flight daily via Singapore to Sydney, surely they could operate another aircraft direct?
Upon seeking comment for this article, the spokesperson at British Airways offered this very vague reply “We regularly review our schedule to ensure that we are flying to destinations popular with our customers.” 
However, we should take that with a grain of salt as, again, they are partnered with Qantas and appear to be satisfied that all their flights to Australia are limited to Sydney only.

Lufthansa

Lufthansa, one of the powerhouse airlines of Europe, could foreseeably offer routes from Australia to their hub in Frankfurt, giving passengers an easy way to access most of Europe.

Lufthansa 777X
Could Lufthansa change their 777X order to some Boeing 777-8 aircraft?. Photo: Lufthansa
“Lufthansa is not considering to fly to Australia itself, as we can rely on a couple of other Asian airline partners. Connecting both networks at Asian hubs offers our passengers much more possibilities and connections as well as a larger choice of destinations in Australia as if we would offer our own connections. This co-operation is proven over many years and very successful”. – Lufthansa Spokesperson to Simple Flying

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand seems like the only airline in the world currently planning actual Project Sunrise ‘Lite’ flights, with a direct route from Auckland to New York in October 2020.

“Our non-stop flight will cut travel time by around three hours, putting New Zealand in easy reach of New York and the US Eastern Seaboard,” says Air New Zealand Acting Chief Executive Officer Jeff McDowall in the Air New Zealand Press Release. “It’s terrific we can make a seamless journey a reality for Kiwis wanting to experience New York and Americans keen to explore New Zealand and we’ll work with United to grow the route and visitor numbers in both directions.”
Whilst it’s not all the way to Sydney or Melbourne (its three hours longer to reach Australia), so far this is the quickest way between these two cities.
Overall it seems that many other airlines are reluctant to invest in the concept apart from Qantas, with many citing existing agreements with partners in Australia or New Zealand as reasons why they would not even consider it. For now, it seems for now that the battle for Project Sunrise is squarely in Qantas’ court.
What do you think? Would you like to see another airline complete the journey before Qantas?
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