Qantas plans to "revisit" its non-stop Project Sunrise flights at the end of 2021, with airline CEO Alan Joyce expecting that direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to London, New York and Paris will have even more appeal in the post-COVID world.
After years of planning an ambitious network of 18-20 hour flights, and working with Airbus on a special ultra-long range version of the A350-1000, Joyce says he was "within a couple of weeks of placing the order for the aircraft" when the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
"But we're still very optimistic on that," Joyce remarked at today's Reuters Next online forum.
"People in the post-COVID world will want to fly direct" rather than make stopovers, "which I think makes the Project Sunrise business case even better than it was pre-COVID."
"At the end of 2021 we can revisit (Project Sunrise) and look at what's the appropriate time" to set things back in motion.
That will include taking on an initial fleet of up to 12 Airbus A350-1000s, which will be fitted with an extra fuel tank in order to tackle the globe-striding routes.
However, "we're obviously not going to put an order in until we see the international market recovering," Joyce cautioned, noting that he doesn't expect the airline's international traffic to return to 2019 levels until 2023-2024.
Ironically, this overlaps with the original timeline for the inaugural Project Sunrise flights, which were due to take wing in mid-2023 – so the new dawn of Project Sunrise may come at just the right moment.
Joyce said that the airline's marathon Perth-London Boeing 787 flight, which has been suspended while Australia's borders remain closed but is now scheduled for a July 2021 restart – "was the best route on our network... with the highest customer satisfaction rating."
"We think we'll have the same dynamic on Sydney-London, Melbourne-London and Sydney-New York."
The Qantas Airbus A350s were also to mark the debut of new-design 'super first class' suites, business class and premium economy seats and even a wider economy seat with a few extra inches of legroom plus a dedicated stretching area "for exercise".
It was speculated that Qantas would order a second tranche of A350s to replace its Airbus A380 superjumbos towards the end of the 2020s as the double-decker jets headed for retirement.