When Will Qantas’ Project Sunrise Finally Take Flight?

We’ve been hearing a lot about Qantas and Project Sunrise lately. We now know the choices are down to the Airbus A350 or Boeing 777X. We know Qantas will make a decision by the year’s end, and we know Qantas plans on running some Boeing 787-9s on projected Project Sunrise routes in the upcoming months. What has rarely been addressed is the question; when will the Qantas’ Project Sunrise flights finally take off?

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When will Qantas’ Project Sunrise finally take flight? Photo: Qantas.

Before the Project Sunrise flights start, Qantas needs to address several issues.

Picking the right aircraft

Qantas is going to make its aircraft choice by the end of the year. Speculation is that their pick will be announced at the Dubai Air Show. We know it’s down to two aircraft. We also know that Boeing’s offer, the 777X is suffering from production delays.

Most people think those delays will rule Boeing out of the race, but it would be premature to call it for Airbus. Boeing has made a compelling offer to Qantas to counter potential delays – “compelling” probably means a deep discount. It’s well known Boeing is keen to remain in the race.

Featured Video:

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It would be premature to rule Boeing and its 777X out of the race. Photo: Dan Nevill via Wikimedia Commons.

The announcement timeframe is the one certainty we have here.

Making a deal with the pilots

Qantas will need to settle on a new work contract with its pilots. This is known as an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA). Amongst other things, EBA’s cover work conditions for employees. In Qantas’ case, it will need to cover how long a pilot can fly for, provision of rest and rest accommodation, fatigue and risk mitigation.

The current EBA doesn’t meet Qantas’ needs if it is to operate Project Sunrise flights. Generally, Qantas pilots and their union (the Australian and International Pilots Association who represent pilot’s interests in negotiating any new EBA with Qantas) are supportive of Project Sunrise. Qantas will seek to negotiate a new EBA prior to ordering any planes. Union president and Qantas Pilot, Mark Sedgwick, told Australian Aviation earlier this year;

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Qantas needs to have its pilots, present and future, on board. Photo: Qantas.

“For us (the pilots), we are supportive of the project … We feel that these aircraft are going to be important to the future of Qantas, mitigating its end-of-line carrier status, overflying hubs and allowing us to really bring international into its own.”

Getting the Regulator onboard

Australia’s Civil Aviation and Safety Regulator, CASA, will also need to relax its rules on fatigue. Currently, maximum duty hours for pilots and crew is 18 hours.

CASA has made an exception for the QF9/10 Heathrow-Perth-Heathrow flights which exceed this maximum limit. But Qantas will need further relaxation of the rules if it is to fly the ultra-long Project Sunrise routes.

CASA’s concern centers around pilot fatigue and fatigue management. It’s something Qantas is actively studying in conjunction with the pilot’s union and Melbourne’s Monash University. Qantas says it has worked with CASA in the past as flight sectors have got progressively longer. Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, has said of the issue;

“We (Qantas) are obviously having to talk about the regulator, about changing the regulations or having the regulations suitable for this long-haul flying and what does it mean for fatigue risk management for both pilots and cabin crew and how is the company going to manage that.

So there shouldn’t be anything that is uniquely difficult about it. It’s typically what we have done when we have extended the operation each other time.”

Deciding on the right cabins

Qantas has said its flights need to be profitable and that comes down to a combination of factors. Ultra long haul flights suck up a lot of fuel. They go a long way, so they need to carry a lot of fuel (especially at the start of the flights) and that makes them heavy – the heavier the plane the more fuel to fly it. It’s a vicious circle.

There is also an assumption that the flights will be skewed towards premium seats in the style of Singapore Airlines’ Singapore-Newark flights. But this is not necessarily so, as Alan Joyce has said he wants a substantial economy cabin. The configuration of the cabin on the Project Sunrise flights will be a carefully calibrated mix of cabin class and cabin size in order to maximize revenue.

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Project Sunrise flights may not be a premium seat heavy as many assume. Photo: Qantas.

Regardless of where you are sitting on the plane, on such long flights you do need to move. Proposals for bunks, cafes, and lounges have fallen by the wayside, but some kind of relaxation/stretch area seems on the cards to help counter the physical effects of such a long flight.

When will the aircraft be delivered?

You could assume that with the various stakeholders largely on board, all the preceding issues can be dealt with reasonably expeditiously. The key remaining question is; when can the manufacturers deliver the aircraft?

Let’s say Qantas chooses Airbus. It will be announced in late 2019. You might optimistically expect deliveries to commence at some point in 2021. However, if Qantas chooses Boeing, estimating a delivery timeframe for the 777X is a much harder horse to harness. Sometime past 2021 would be my estimation.

This takes us back to the original question – when will Project Sunrise flights finally take off? Best case, maybe late 2021. But factoring in tests, trials and the inevitable delays, 2022 seems more likely.

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DHL

Wouldn’t it make sense for Boeing to just make a longer range 787 (with extra fuel tanks or something)? That would definitely be easiest for Qantas but I don’t know about Boeing. For me though that seems like the most sensible option though I know it won’t happen (I’m pretty sure) – I’ll be happy with whatever Qantas chooses

Bch

The 787 is already pretty maxed out in terms of range with the -9. Boeing is unlikely to be able to squeeze more range out without sacrificing cargo space, without having RR/GE redesign their engines and without the exceeding MTOW for the current design (which in turn would need a redesign in other areas and maybe more weight which leads to a another MTOW increase and so on)

DHL

Ah, I see. Thanks for the clarification! With the 787 now even less in the picture for me, I’m thinking about it this way – since the 777-8 is delayed wouldn’t it make sense for Boeing to offer them a modified -9 with removable extra fuel tanks (like the A321LR)? I say this because it would work as a temporary solution until they can get their hands on the -8, where the existing -9s in their fleet would have the extra fuel tanks removed to become A380 replacements?

Bch

Qantas has pretty much indicated that the choice between the 777X or A350 will come down to cold hard economics. I can’t see Qantas ordering a fleet of aircraft just for project sunrise. Just like the 787 doesn’t just fly Perth-London the sunrise aircraft will need to be capable of doing current a380, a330, and 747 routes as well as sunrise routs. I can’t see them ordering the -9 as a stop-gap but if they order the -8 or a variant of it for sunrise there is a possibility Qantas will order the -9 but I wouldn’t expect to see… Read more »

DHL

Interesting. So which airplane do you think Qantas will order, the A350? It would seem like it would be a good option (the possible long range -1000) but it seems like it would be more difficult to incorporate into the fleet, for one…also how do the economics on a route like SYD-JFK/LHR compare between the A350-1000(long range) and the 777-8?

Also about the 787 – a 787-10ER would actually make a lot of sense – however I don’t know (based on your previous) comment if that would actually be a possibility.

DHL

Also, I personally am able to see Qantas ordering a fleet of aircraft just for PS – if it’s the only airplane in the fleet that can make the route and they have the dreamliner for other long-haul routes, it would make sense for those airplanes just to operate SYD-JFK and SYD – LHR. I don’t know how economical that would be, though

Vince

Economics wise is interestingly in favour of the B777X despite the heavier airframe. As mentioned earlier, the Qantas order will not only be for project sunrise alone. Qantas is also looking for large aircraft capable of replacing their A380 on routes to the other cities in US (SFO,LAX & DFW). The B777-9x will be able to offer slightly better economics than the A350-1000 on these routes. As for the project sunrise offerings, rumour has it that the B777-8x is offering around 280pax while the A350-1000ULR is offering about 260pax. Both offers a similar CASM hence the A350 has the advantage… Read more »

DHL

Wouldn’t the 777-8 have the advantage because there’s more space to play around with? For example, the 777-8 could carry the 260 pax you mentioned the 350-1000 could carry plus some extras on board…

Vince

Nope. Both planes seats around 360pax. When the range is not maxed out. For LHR-SYD, both aircraft have to trade in passangers in order to carry more fuel to fly further. In this case, the A350 needed to trade in more passangers in order to fly the mission but because of its lightweight composite fuselage, it was able to offer similar CASM despite carrying less passanger. On top of that, the A350 is a longer aircraft thus when configured with the same amount of premium seats, it will have more space remaining for the other amenities such as lounge and… Read more »

DHL

Well if the CASM is the same for both aircraft w/ maxed out range and the 777-8 can seat more passengers in this configuration, why even consider the A350 aside from the fact that the delivery times are much better?

Vince

It’s what experience the aircraft can offer. More communal space for stretching and onboard lounge for passenger interaction. These are unused spaces after all. Airbus is going as far as to offer the bunk bed class using the cargo hull which would otherwise be empty. On the other hand, if the CASM is the same, it implies the aircraft seating lesser passengers has the lower trip cost. The bigger your capacity the higher your risk of unsold seats and potential losses. That is a risk that Qantas might prefer to minimise. On top of that, the rest of the orders… Read more »

Vince

Air NZ B787-9 is getting a 6t MTOW hike for their AKL-JFK flight. I wont be surprized if Boeing managed to squeeze another 10T in MTOW to do the SYD-LHR flight.

DHL

Yes…that would make most sense to me. A 787-10ER/LR would, in my opinion, be the perfect airplane for Qantas.

Bch

I’m not the most knowledgeable when it comes to the really deep technical facts but my take from what I’ve read is while a -10 LR would most likely be more efficient the 777-8 is simply able to carry more in fuel, cargo and passengers over a longer range in terms of what it can physically carry and its MTOW. Correct me if I’m wrong but my understanding is that the 777 is able to do it purely by being an utter sledgehammer pig of a jet rather than the scalpel-like the efficiency of the 787

Vince

Yes you’re right. If boeing can significantly increase the MTOW of the B787-9/10 it will become a much more efficient replacement for the B777-200LR. In fact it will give the A350 a run for its money. The B777-8 is purely raw power but not so much of efficiency. It’s 105klbs thrust generated from the massive GE9X engines means the aircraft is only more efficient than the A350 under certain conditions.

Gary

I think they would be better off with the Airbus A350-1000ULR.
If it is anything like all the other Airbus aircraft.
There would be very little training for pilots to have on them.
Since Airbus has commonality with all its aircraft.

Bch

The 787 and 777X have similar type ratings as well. It would be just as easy to have 787 pilots go onto the 777X as it would be to have A330 pilots go onto an A350. I think KLM already do this with a common pool of pilots for the 777/787

David Grant

Quote from article: “Alan Joyce has said he wants a substantial economy cabin”. I don’t disagree, but a 20 hour flight needs a lot of fuel, much, much more than 2x 10 hour flights. As they say, you need more fuel to carry more fuel. Yes, there maybe some savings in intermediate airport charges, but still probably expensive. Therefor, I can only anticipate that the economy fares will be greater than a fare with an intermediate stop. Would be great to read an article comparing Qantas Perth-London non-stop versus an intermediate stop in Singapore, with some $$ numbers on this… Read more »

Bch

So I did a quick look on the Qantas website and in economy, the direct London to Perth on Wednesday 23rd of October was £803 (about $982 at time of writing) compared to £762 ($932) with a stop in Singapore. Not exactly scientific but its less of a difference than I expected.

Smokerr

I really have not a clue as it would look to involved the A380 replacement and how Qantas views the 777x vs the A350-1000 in that role.

Buying (four?) aircraft alone for the Long Route is not viable.

So what is the overall plan not the Sunset Route?

Henry

I’d love to know the fuel figures. The A340-500 over the Pole Newark to Singapore was 180 Passengers, 158+ fuel tonnes used. 170+ tonnes fuel on board. One FL below optimum burnt an extra <4 tonnes and added <20 mins.

Vince

Remember reading the press release from Singapore Airlines citing the fuel used is approximately 110 tonnes for the A350-900ULR.