Quelle surprise: Qantas plans to fly its Boeing 787 jets to Tokyo and Johannesburg next year, with the Boeing 747 finally making way for its smaller but more modern counterpart.
While an array of state and national restrictions sparked by the coronavirus pandemic have shifted the near-term focus to domestic travel, airlines continue to mark up their schedules and lay down their plans for when international travel resumes.
Qantas has now pushed out its timetable for the airline industry's "northern summer" period, which spans from late March to late October 2021, and as expected, the Boeing 747 is out of the frame.
Sydney-Johannesburg and Sydney-Tokyo, the last remaining Qantas routes assigned to the iconic jumbo jet, now both belong to the Dreamliner: and for business travellers, the combination of the superior Business Suite and the Boeing 787's more comfortable and jetlag-minimising travel experience can both be chalked up as solid wins.
However, it's important to note that what Qantas has published is effectively its standard pre-coronavirus schedule, and that's going to be very different to the actual timetable of 2021 because travel won't automatically snap back to its 2019 state.
Instead, it will return on an almost route-by-route, country-by-country basis shaped around safety and demand. This could also see some flights restarting at three or four days a week rather than a daily service.
In short: pretty much everything is subject to change.
The last Qantas Boeing 747s depart this month
Qantas' original plan was for its final Boeing 747s to be put out to pasture by the end of 2020, to be replaced by the second tranche of Boeing 787-9s which would bring the Dreamliner fleet up to 14.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic saw the jumbo jets grounded at the end of March, along with the rest of Qantas' international fleet – and it was clear that the longer the shut-down and the more drawn-out the recovery, the less likely we'd see the Boeing 747s return to the skies or even make a victory lap of Qantas' major Australian airports.
Qantas now has just three Boeing 747s remaining in Australia, and Executive Traveller understands that throughout June these will fly from Sydney to California's Mojave Desert, where many aircraft are being stored during the global aviation downturn, although other aircraft at the infamous 'boneyard' are stripped or scrapped.
Qantas Boeing 787, Sydney to Johannesburg
Shifting from a Boeing 747 to a Boeing 787 has long been on the cards for Johannesburg as well as Santiago, which Qantas last year announced would be upgraded to the Dreamliner for June 2020.
Speaking with Executive Traveller in June 2019, on the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Annual General Meeting in Seoul, Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce confirmed that the “ETOPS requirements that these (Boeing 787) aircraft are certified to will allow us to do both routes.”
ETOPS refers to the restrictions placed on twin-engined aircraft by aviation regulators, which limit how far commercial flights can venture from a safe landing point on the ground: a cap that's particularly relevant on long over-water flights, and which varies from one aircraft type to the next.
That said, Qantas' Boeing 787s come with 128 fewer seats on board compared to the airline's Boeing 747s, which Joyce views as an opportunity to increase the regularity of its Southern Hemisphere flights.
“It’s a smaller aircraft, the Boeing 787, so it allows you to build up the frequency on those routes. At the moment, we don’t have daily flights all the time on these routes… so for us, South Africa and South America isn’t going to be a problem.”
South Africa and South America were also potential non-stop destinations for Qantas' ambitious Project Sunrise, which has also been put on hold due to the coronavirus.
Qantas Boeing 787, Sydney to Tokyo
Qantas' daily flight between Sydney and Tokyo was another perennially popular route of the Boeing 787, although the introduction of direct Qantas flights to Tokyo from Melbourne and Brisbane steadily chipped away at demand for passengers connecting via Sydney.
Even so, in the pre-coronavirus world, moving to the smaller Boeing 787 could have required that Qantas shift to double-daily flights – although Qantas chief Alan Joyce had previously suggested that a single daily Airbus A380 was also in the running.
“We’d like to go to an A380 (on Sydney-Tokyo), and use the aircraft there,” Joyce told Executive Traveller in mid-2019.
The catch was that Tokyo's Haneda Airport doesn’t allow more than one Airbus A380 to be on the ground at a time. Under the current timetable, the aircraft assigned to Qantas' Sydney-Tokyo route “stays in Tokyo the whole day and then leaves at night, which means no other A380s can be on the ground when it’s there” under the airport’s current policy.
"We need that (policy) changed, and we’re working to figure out how we’d do that," Joyce added.
Qantas freezes its Boeing 787 fleet
As previously reported, Qantas will defer the delivery of its last three Boeing 787-9 aircraft due to arrive by the end of this year, joining other airlines around the world in pushing back on the delivery of new jets until the worst of the coronavirus has passed and the shape of the post-pandemic travel market is clearer.
"It is hard to predict what the demand will look like and recovery is likely to be slow," Joyce has said.
"There's a lot we don't know about life on the other side of the crisis, but our starting assumption has to be that the market won't return to demand levels we had going into the crisis. The market will probably be smaller for some time."
Joyce told Executive Traveller that the airline will launch a sweeping review of its entire international fleet to reshape the airline around post-coronavirus travel demand, because "the Qantas of 2021 and 2022 will not be the Qantas of 2019."
This could include fewer Airbus A380s, with the airline halting its refurbishment plan – only six of the 12 superjumbos have been upgraded with new business class seats and inflight lounges to free up cash in the short term, until it's determined how many A380s will be needed in this uncertain future.
"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."