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Airbus is considering an ultra-long range version of its A350-1000 jet as an alternative to the A350-900ULR for Qantas’ non-stop flights to New York and London.
Speaking to journalists in Sydney ahead of this week's IATA summit, Airbus Chief Commercial Officer Eric Schulz confirmed that an A350-1000ULR was on the table.
"We know what we can do with the -900 because that's what is done today with Singapore Airlines, and we (will) also look at what we could do with the -1000."
The A350-1000, which made its debut in January this year with global launch customer Qatar Airways, is a stretched version of the -900 and carries around 10% more passengers over an almost-identical range.
Schulz confirmed a meeting between Airbus and Qantas earlier in the week to progress plans on Project Sunrise and how the A350ULR could meet Qantas’ ambitious needs to fly non-stop from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to London, New York, Paris, Capetown and Rio de Janeiro.
One of the models being considered could see bunk beds, inflight lounges and even an exercise space in the cargo hold, using custom-designed 'lower deck modules'.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has previously flagged the notion of a 'sleeping berth' cabin class with dedicated exercise areas to help battle the fatigue of a non-stop 20 hour flight.
"One of the concepts that we have is maybe if we're not carrying freight you do something lower where cargo is on the aircraft, do you have an area where people can walk? Do you have berths like on a train?” Joyce posed.
“Could some of the freight areas we may not use be used as an exercise area? Could they be used for berths for people to sleep in? Is there a new class that’s needed on the aircraft?”
Airbus plans to let airlines convert part of an airplane's downstairs cargo hold into sleeping berths, a lounge, conference room, family room or 'medical care zone' using modules which are interchangeable with a standard cargo container.
However, Schulz says that weight considerations will play an important role in the final configuration of the globe-striding jets.
"I think (Qantas) is interested in this idea but you have to consider what are the operational consequences of this. It takes some weight and weight is what you try to avoid on a mission like this. It's an optimisation between capacity and range, these two are linked, and that's where we working together."
Selling 'Project Sunrise'
For Qantas, the winner of Project Sunrise won't just be about an ultra-long range jet but an all-new product which "doesn’t exist in the market today," Schulz reflects.
"They have to understand how they position and price this product... what kind of cabin configuration, is it three-class, four class, four class plus beds, so it goes back to marketing-wise, how can you sell that product."
Shaping a non-stop jet for flights up top 20 hours won't just be about premium cabins, Schulz explains.
"People sometimes believe it's just a discussion for first class and business class, well no, it's also for economy classes, people stuck together for 17 hours, 18 hours or 19 hours. That's a long time, so you need to ensure you have a product that ultimately the marketing people... believe the market needs and they can sell."
"When you put somebody in a cabin for 8 hours or 10 hours on average, and when you put somebody in a cabin for a journey of 17 hours or 18 hours, you can't expect to have the same space."