Qantas is hopeful to relaunch Project Sunrise in 2024, following a year's-end review of the business case for the world's longest flights in the post-COVID world.
And the airline is betting that skipping a stopover and spending 18-20 hours in the clean, controlled environment of an Airbus A350 will have even greater appeal once international travel resumes, with Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce suggesting the globe-striding flights would be "the way of the future."
As previously reported, Qantas suspended Project Sunrise in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic – mere weeks before placing an initial order for the Airbus A350-1000s which would tackle the marathon routes – but plans to revisit this decision by December.
"We still want to revisit it at the end of '21, with the potential of doing in '24 probably and onwards," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said overnight during the Aviation Straight Talk Live online event.
Joyce also indicated that the Airbus A350's dedicated Project Cabin cabins and seating had been finalised, saying "we had designed the product, that was designed for ultra-long haul."
That was rumoured to include six spacious private first class suites set in two rows of 1-1-1, similar to Emirates' latest Boeing 777s, which Joyce has previously described to Executive Traveller as "a super first class, something that is a lot better than any product we’ve ever put in the air."
There would also be relatively large business and premium economy cabins plus 'stretch spaces' for all passengers, including economy class, while the new-design economy seats themselves would have more legroom than their current counterparts.
Joyce said the economics of ultra-long range flights favoured outfitting the aircraft with fewer seats.
"Perth-London was the most profitable route on our international network," he noted, while it was also "the longest route on our network, and it had the highest customer satisfaction of any route on our network."
However, the Boeing 787-9 which Qantas flew between Perth and London sports just 236 seats, compared to closer to 300 for other airlines with a three-class Dreamliner, such as Air Canada and Air New Zealand.
"What we discovered is that you can design a product... deliberately giving it more seat space, more premium seats – and the same was planned for the A350, and even more so because you could have flights up to 21 hours operating time."
If Qantas' revised timeline holds, the inaugural Project Sunrise flights would take off less than 18 months after the previously-planned debut in mid-2023 – and come just as the industry expects a return to pre-COVID demand for international travel.
"This is one of the big things that will change in the next decade, and allow us to have a suitable competitive advantage that nobody else is probably going to introduce."
Joyce also expects that the Project Sunrise network would support a sizeable 'sub-fleet' of jets.
"We have three major cities on the east coast – Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. And having flights to London, Frankfurt, Paris, New York, Chicago, Rio Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town from those cities creates a significant sub-fleet, and economics and scale that we think would work really well."
Sunrise vs superjumbo
Despite all twelve of Qantas' Airbus A380s now in hibernation "for at least the next three years", Joyce maintains the double-deckers will still play a key role on major routes – at least until Project Sunrise hits high gear, with a financial assist following a series of write-downs in the value of the A380s
Citing Los Angeles and London as cities with clear-cut "scheduling windows" optimised for flights to and from Australia, Joyce says "an A380 that’s fully or nearly fully written down, if it generates cash will absolutely work."
"We do believe there’s need for that fleet and we do believe that it will generate cash, and it's all going to be about cash when we start up international."
However, if Sunrise eclipses stop-over flights then Qantas could shift the later to smaller aircraft such as the Boeing 787-9 or additional Airbus A350s.
"Over time hopefully we will have enough of the A350 aircraft to fly direct and overfly a lot of the hubs, and that weill take the burden off having the big aircraft needed for those big destinations."