Qantas will create a fleet of up to 12 Airbus A350-1000 jets under its ambitious Project Sunrise, which intends to begin non-stop flights from Sydney and Melbourne to the likes of London and New York in the first half of 2023.
However, no firm order will be placed until Qantas clears the final hurdles of regulatory approval by the Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority and negotiations with Qantas pilots. Qantas says "a final go/no go decision" will be made in March 2020.
“Between the research flights and what we’ve learned from two years of flying Perth to London, we have a lot of confidence in the market for direct services like New York and London to the east coast of Australia," said Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce.
“The A350 is 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."
Also in the Airbus's favour: unlike Boeing's proposed 777X, the A350 has been "thoroughly proven after more than two years in service. This is the right choice for the Sunrise missions and it also has the right economics to do other long haul routes if we want it to."
Under the Qantas contract – worth an estimated $3bn, assuming a discount of around 50% on the A350-1000's $530 million list price – Airbus will add an extra fuel tank to the A350-1000 and slightly increase the jet's maximum takeoff weight to deliver the 18-20 hours of non-stop flying required for Sunrise routes.
As previously reported by Executive Traveller, the Project Sunrise fleet will carry around 300 passengers in all-new first class suites and business class seats, along with premium economy and economy, the latter of which will also have extra leg-room compared to today's economy seats.
So what remains to be squared away before Project Sunrise can be given the green light?
Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority must approve an extension to the current operating limits required for these ultra long haul services. However, the airlines says that "based on detailed information already provided by Qantas on its fatigue risk management system, CASA has provisionally advised that it sees no regulatory obstacles to the Sunrise flights."
Industrial negotiations with the Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) are ongoing, with the airline describing these as "closing the last remaining gap in the Project Sunrise business case." In other words, it comes down to money.
“We’ve done a lot of work on the economics and we know the last gap we have to close is some efficiency gains associated with our pilots," Joyce says. "We’re offering promotions and an increase in pay but we’re asking for some flexibility in return, which will help lower our operating costs."
“From the outset, we’ve been clear that Project Sunrise depends on a business case that works. We’ll only commit to this investment if we know it will generate the right return for our shareholders given the inherent commercial risks."
How Airbus won the Project Sunrise campaign
Airbus has long been confident on the competitive strengths of the A350, and many considered the A350 to be in the box seat compared to the Boeing 777X, which has recently faced a series of delays.
"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 told Executive Traveller in October.
"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."
"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 – 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’.”
Lucas-Ugena also sees the A350-1000 as a solid fit for Qantas' entire network, while Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce has said the Project Sunrise jets would also serve 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," Lucas-Ugena told Executive Traveller. "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."