Airbus has made its final pitch for Qantas' ambitious Project Sunrise project, proposing a fleet of A350-1000 jetliners capable of flying non-stop for up to 20 hours from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to London and New York.
The long-range jets will have a capacity of around 300 passengers in four cabin classes, from new first suites through to economy, unlike the two-class (business and premium economy) layout of Singapore Airlines' slightly smaller Airbus A350-900ULR jets, which dart daily between Singapore and New York for almost 18 hours.
"The A350-1000 is the perfect airplane to answer (Qantas') ultra-long range challenge with significant passenger payload," Airbus Head of A350 Product Marketing Maria Lucas-Ugena tells Executive Traveller.
"It is by far the most capable, large wide-body aeroplane flying today, it is also more capable than the future (Boeing) 777x," Lucas-Ugena added.
"It is extremely light, compared to what the competition can offer, and when it comes to range capability and economics and everything that is needed for such a long flight, weight is most important. It can take off 45 tonnes lighter than the competition. That implies huge savings in terms of fuel (and) emissions."
However, Lucas-Ugena would not commit to the proposed Sunrise A350-1000 being a modified ULR version with increased fuel capacity.
"In 2022 we are introducing a higher maximum take-off weight (for the A350-1000), and 8,700 nautical miles with 375 passengers is something that the airplane will be able to fly in 2022."
If Airbus sticks to a standard non-ULR version of the A350-1000, it would reduce the number of seats – closer to Qantas' target of around 300 – to further extend the range to reach the 9,200+ nautical miles required for the longest Sunrise route of London-Sydney.
The Irish Times reports that Qantas Group CEO met with Airbus executives last week, and later confirmed "We’re working on the price of the aircraft and the performance of the aircraft and we’re nearly there."
Lucas-Ugena tells Executive Traveller that Airbus "is working with Qantas very closely" on the cabin design and travel experience "for passengers and crew well-being."
"In terms of noise, air quality, cabin pressure and humidity levels, all of that is on the A350 and it's unbeatable, today and tomorrow even. What we have been discussing with Qantas and would be driving with Qantas (are) some of the different features that such a long flight will have to have, for the passengers and for the crew as well."
What the A350-1000s won't have space: sleeping bunks and social areas in the cargo hold, despite initial forays by both Qantas and Airbus into creating bespoke 'below-decks' passenger modules which could replace cargo containers.
“The package we looked at – putting things in baggage holds – didn’t work,” Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce told Executive Traveller in June this year.
Instead, there'll be a communal area on the main deck "for a number of people to stand up and do exercise: there’ll be video screens with stretching exercises to work on, and an area that the scientists have thought out that’ll be more of a ‘hydration station’.”
Airbus A350 vs Boeing 777X
Airbus is going up against Boeing to supply Qantas with a fleet of globe-striding jets, although the Project Sunrise aircraft will also be rostered onto relatively shorter routes such as to Los Angeles – one reason why Qantas has insisted on a conventional four-class configuration.
However, Boeing has pushed back development of the extended-range 777-8 which was initially eyed for Project Sunrise and a 2022 launch, while the larger 777-9 has faced a series of delays and is not expected to make its first test flight until 2020.
In stark contrast, Lucas-Ugena says, "we have the airplane ready right now" – and, Airbus says, the A350-1000 is also a better fit for Qantas' entire network and as a replacement for the A380 superjumbo, which are expected to be retired towards the end of the 2020s.
"We consider the airplane can operate economically and flexibly on the entire long-haul wide-body network of Qantas, which is something that the 777-8 couldn't do with the right economics. So I think that would be a tactical decision to go for an airplane that can serve in an efficient manner not only on those ultra-long range routes but anywhere else in the network."
And while Airbus vs Boeing is mathematically a 50/50 split, Lucas-Ugena believes that Airbus has more than an even-money chance to snare the prestigious Project Sunrise contract and help Qantas carve out this "final frontier" of aviation.
"If this is to be based on pure aircraft evaluation, I would say yes. We have an aircraft that is very efficient, very capable and much superior to the competition, so we are confident."
Qantas will this week begin the first of three Project Sunrise 'research flights' with a Boeing 787-9 carrying just 50 people (including crew), and no cargo, flying from New York to Sydney for 19½ non-stop hours, with a similar London-Sydney service scheduled for November.
The airline is expected to make its choice on which aircraft will fly the commercial Project Sunrise routes by the end of this year, with a proposed launch date of 2022-2023, although Joyce has noted that Project Sunrise "is not a foregone conclusion", circling back to the all-important bottom line: "This is ultimately a business decision and the economics have to stack up... we’ll be making the final YES-NO decision on Sunrise by the end of this year."