Qantas' ambitious plans for non-stop flights from Sydney and Melbourne to London, Paris and New York are set to take wing, with the airline's international pilots approving a new pay deal which once loomed as a make-or-break for what's been dubbed Project Sunrise.
Qantas says that 85% of the pilots voted in favour of the updated enterprise bargaining agreement, which covers wages and working conditions for flight deck crews on what will be 18-20 hour marathon journeys.
Airline CEO Alan Joyce had previously suggested that should the pilot's union vote down the deal, he was prepared to approach the airline's pilots individually or create a non-union “employment entity” of newly-hired specialist crews dedicated to the Sunrise flights.
With this final hurdle cleared, Qantas is now in a position to lock away its multi-billion dollar order for up to 12 A350-1000s jets, which was due to take place by the end of March but has now been pushed back to as far as December 2020 while the airline focuses on the more immediate and devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We would rather wait for the coronavirus issue to be out of the way before we put a firm aircraft order in for the A350," Joyce explained.
Qantas Chief Pilot Dick Tobiano added that "the extraordinary circumstances facing aviation has seen Airbus agree to extend the deadline on our decision to purchase the A350s so we can both focus on navigating the coronavirus crisis. But when this period has passed, and it will, we will refocus our attention on Project Sunrise and the A350 order.”
Delivery of the first Project Sunrise jets, and the launch of the first globe-striding flights, are slated for the first half of 2023, although further A350-1000 orders could follow as eventual replacements for Qantas' 12-strong Airbus A380 superjumbo fleet.
Inside the Qantas Project Sunrise Airbus A350
Qantas has already completed the design of the A350's cabin configuration, with the aim of "redefining" all four travel classes from tip to tail – topping out with what Qantas has described as a "super first class" suite to cocoon high-end high flyers on these marathon journeys.
"Given the nature of the routes there is definitely a market for first class," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce has told Executive Traveller. "We think it's going to be a super first class, something that is a lot better than any product we’ve ever put in the air," he added.
There's speculation that Project Sunrise' 'super first class' suites may include sliding privacy doors – a flourish already adopted by many airlines for not only first class but in some leading-edge business class cabins.
When Executive Traveller put that to Joyce, he smiled a coy smile and teased "I want to save that for another announcement some day."
The Project Sunrise Airbus A350s are expected to have a relatively small first class cabin of between four and eight suites.
This is in line with a global trend towards reducing the number of first class suites – often driven by softer demand as business class continues to get better – while also allowing a larger physical footprint for each suite.
The Qantas Airbus A350s are also expected to introduce a new business class seat compared to the well-regarded Qantas Business Suite of today's Qantas Boeing 787s, Airbus A330s and, as part of a refit program, the Airbus A380 superjumbos.
Qantas has been consulting with seatmakers on their very latest models, including yet-to-be-released concepts, as candidates for when the first Project Sunrise flights take wing.
Qantas also says the A350's premium economy and economy seats will be far more comfortable and spacious than today's equivalents. "That's all part of the proposition, this aircraft is going to be designed for 19-20 hour flights," Joyce has told Executive Traveller.
"There'll be more legroom," he confirmed, while the Airbus A350's wide cabin should also allow for wider economy seats offering a little bit more room at the hips.
All Project Sunrise jets will also come with superfast WiFi capable of streaming HD video, using similar high-speed satellite technology as Qantas' domestic fleet.
What are Qantas' Project Sunrise routes?
Qantas initially mapped out five likely destinations for Project Sunrise. The long-legged Airbus A350s would depart from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and fly non-stop to New York, London, Paris, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro.
Frankfurt has since joined that shortlist, with Joyce telling Executive Traveller that one plank in Qantas' three-pronged European strategy was "to fly direct, where those direct flights are with Sunrise, and we may only have three destinations we'll ever do that with: London, Paris and Frankfurt."