When Qantas chose the Airbus A350-1000 as the flagship of its future fleet, beginning with non-stop Project Sunrise flights to London and New York, in December 2019, the airline had no idea that Covid-19 was about to change the shape of travel for years to come.
Both the A350 order and Project Sunrise were subsequently put on hold less than five months later as Qantas began to right-size its fleet, and its capital expenditure, against an uncertain future.
"We do think there's still a good business case for it, and a good opportunity," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce told Executive Traveller. “We think there is a huge potential for Project Sunrise, but the time is not right now, given the impact that COVID-19 has had on world travel."
"We certainly won't be ordering aircraft for that this year, and we'll keep a review on when is the appropriate time, when has the market recovered, when is Qantas in a position to commit to more aircraft and more capital."
Here's a rundown of Qantas' plans for the Airbus A350 and how it still might take off, if a few years later than first planned.
Qantas' Airbus A350 order
Both the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 777X were candidates for non-stop Project Sunrise routes from Sydney, Melbourne and potentially Brisbane to London, New York, Paris and a handful of other cities including Frankfurt, Capetown and Rio de Janeiro.
The specific models under consideration for those 18-20 hour flights were the Airbus A350-1000 and the Boeing 777-8
Although Singapore Airlines flies the Airbus A350-900 non-stop to New York and Los Angeles in a special ultra-long rage version known as the A350-900ULR, that jet is fitted out with only business class and premium economy.
Qantas opted for the larger A350-1000 model with plans to have all four classes – first, business, premium economy and economy – while Airbus extended the aircraft's range by adding an extra fuel tank (although it declined to brand this globe-striding version as the A350-1000ULR).
Joyce praised the A350-1000 as being "a fantastic aircraft and the deal on the table with Airbus gives us the best possible combination of commercial terms, fuel efficiency, operating cost and customer experience. The aircraft and engine combination is next generation technology but it’s thoroughly proven after more than two years in service."
Qantas' Airbus A350 fleet
Qantas' initial Airbus A350 order was for "up to 12" Airbus A350-1000s, which were to have been delivered from early 2023, with the inaugural Project Sunrise flights to London and New York launching by mid-2023.
However, further A350-1000 orders were tipped to follow as eventual replacements for Qantas' 12 Airbus A380s, which at the time where expected to be retired from the late 2020s – although some of the superjumbos may now be put out to pasture ahead of time due to a predicted post-coronavirus slump in air travel.
"There is a potential to bring all 12 (A380s) back (into service), but there is a potential to bring less than 12 back," Joyce says of the airline's flagship jets. "That will depend on what the recovery scenario looks like."
Although Qantas never shared its Airbus A350 seat map, Executive Traveller understands that the jets were to have around 270-280 seats. Prior to halting the A350 order Qantas confirmed it had completed the design of the A350's cabin configuration, with the aim of "redefining" all four travel classes from tip to tail.
Qantas' Airbus A350 first class
Joyce described the Qantas Airbus A350-1000's top-shelf offering as being a "super first class" suite to cocoon high-end high flyers on the marathon Project Sunrise journeys.
"Given the nature of the routes there is definitely a market for first class," he 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."
There was speculation that the A350 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 Qantas Airbus A350s were tipped to have a relatively small first class cabin of between four and eight suites, 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.
Qantas' Airbus A350 business class
The Qantas Airbus A350s were 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 had been consulting with seat-makers on their very latest models, including yet-to-be-released concepts, as candidates for when the first Project Sunrise flights take wing.
The bar was already set high by the superb Qsuites of fellow Oneworld member Qatar Airways, and as more and more airlines launch their latest business class with privacy doors, Qantas may feel competitive pressure to add doors to the Airbus A350 business suite.
Qantas' Airbus A350 premium economy, economy class
Again with the bum-numbingly long Project Sunrise flights in mind, Qantas was believed to have spec'd out spacious designs for premium economy and economy class.
The former was to said to approach 42 inches of pitch, compared to 38" on the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787, giving passengers ample room to stretch out their legs and even cross their knees.
The economy class seats were also said to offer more legroom with about 34" of pitch, compared to 31-32" on the Qantas Airbus A380s and Boeing 787s, and at 18" across would slightly wider as well.