The world's longest flights aren't intended for 'cattle class'

Qantas’ non-stop services from Sydney to London and New York can only be profitable with plenty of passengers flying business.

By Businessweek, October 18 2019

The question about Qantas's plans to start 20-hour direct flights from Sydney to London and New York isn’t why any passenger would want to take the route – it’s why any carrier would want to offer them.

For all the hardship of spending a day cooped up with the body odors of a couple of hundred other humans, long-haul flying isn’t a particularly attractive business for airlines, either.

Qantas’s international unit made just 10.7 centes of revenue per seat, per kilometer flown in its last fiscal year through June, of which 10.3c was eaten up on operating costs.

The long-haul shortfall 

If you fly the roughly 17,000 kilometers between London and Sydney and buy a decent bottle of liquor at duty free, the A$70 you’ll spend will quite possibly be more money than the operating profit Qantas made on your ticket for the entire flight. Qantas’s Jetstar budget carrier makes about twice the profit per kilometer that the international business brings in, and its mainline domestic unit is five times more profitable.

So what gives? Establishing ultra-long-haul routes is no easy task. Qantas is modifying in-flight menus and lighting patterns and using its staff as guinea pigs in a test flight this weekend to examine how passengers will cope with such a long journey.

Also read: Qantas' non-stop New York-Sydney flights will also be a 'jetlag lab'

Costs don’t explain it. Indeed, they’re likely to be somewhat worse on direct ultra-long-haul flights than on more conventional routes. On a fully-laden twin-aisle passenger jet, fuel will often weigh more than all the passengers and cargo.

Breaking the journey and refueling en route at a hub airport is a good way of keeping costs down, because it means that you don’t have to carry fuel for the second leg of the flight.

Qantas will run non-stop 'trial' flights on the proposed flagship Project Sunrise routes.
Qantas will run non-stop 'trial' flights on the proposed flagship Project Sunrise routes.

Revenue, however, is a different matter. Qantas’s domestic business is so profitable because it has a single struggling rival, Virgin Australia. Despite flying more passengers in the 12 months through June than it did six years earlier, Australia’s domestic aviation network operated fewer flights.

That’s possible because the muted competition between Qantas and Virgin gives them the discipline to keep a lid on capacity growth, allowing more people to be squeezed onto each plane and keeping prices high.

International routes aren’t normally like that. At least a dozen different airlines typically compete to ferry passengers between Australia and Europe, and those with hub airports mid-route can easily serve multiple destinations in a way that would be crippling to an end-of-line carrier like Qantas.

The partnership between Qantas and Emirates, which started in 2013, was intended to get around this problem by funneling the Australian carrier’s passengers onto the huge network operated by its Gulf partner. While that’s helped return the international unit to profit, margins are vanishingly thin.

Beating the tyranny of distance

Ultra-long-haul flights are best understood as a way for the likes of Qantas to reverse the disadvantage that this tyranny of distance engenders. It will never have the network and operations to compete with the geographic advantages of hub carriers in moving passengers between Australia, Europe and North America.

However, if it can tempt the more profitable premium passengers away from hub airports with a more direct route, it at least has some ammunition on its side next time it enters negotiations with Emirates about how to share revenues from their flights.

You can see this even just looking at its aircraft seat maps. About 18% of the seats on the Boeing  787-9 that Qantas uses to fly from Perth to London and on routes between Australia and the U.S. are in business class, with another 12% in premium economy. That’s a larger share of high-margin seats than on the planes that had previously been the workhorses of its international network.

It’s probably right to be skeptical that spending 20 hours in economy class can be as glamorous as Qantas’s elaborate pre-testing makes it sound. The only way airlines can make decent money flying to the far side of the world is by letting business class subsidize the rest of the cabin. If you’re flying coach, these flights aren’t really aimed at you.

Spending 20 hours and 30 minutes on a plane, even in business class isn't that appealing. Maybe i'm in the minority.

American Airlines - AAdvantage

02 Jun 2019

Total posts 10

Even though Qantas now says they are going to have economy and First Class on these flight along with J and Y+ how is that going to work ? JFK and LHR nonstop are going have more Business Class then current Qantas airplanes and more Y+, economy passenger will take the LAX or DFW flights to the USA and Singapore flights to the UK and connect.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 407

Sydney if you connect through LAX or DFW a lot then another three hours in the air is much welcomed compared to the stressed transfer process with three different and often long queues, even for those in economy.

21 Aug 2019

Total posts 22

DFW is painless usually but LAX can be terrible

KLM - Flying Blue

05 Feb 2019

Total posts 34

Some of these ultra-long-haul flights, have been around, successfully for many years now.

Sydney to London will take 20:30, which is two hours and thirty minutes more than the Auckland to Doha flight.

Auckland – Doha Flight time: 17 hours, 50 minutes

Singapore – Los Angeles Flight time: 17 hours, 50 minutes

Houston – Sydney Flight time: 17 hours, 30 minutes

San Francisco – Singapore 17 hours, 35 minutes

Singapore – Newark 18 hours, 30 minutes

KLM - Flying Blue

05 Feb 2019

Total posts 34

A clean and comfortable aircraft, in all cabins is fundamental

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Mar 2015

Total posts 122

There's absolutely no way I would travel on one of these ultra long range flights!

I have been flying very regularly for over 50 years now and I find that about an 8hr flight with a 3 hr stopover or better still an overnight then continue the rest of the flight is by far the most comfortable and refreshing way to do long haul.

Even a 3 hr transit in the lounge to breath regular air, have a shower, walk around and have a nice snack is the way to go.

Sure the journey takes a bit longer but I always feel so much better when I arrive at my destination. The difference is worth every little bit of inconvenience, it's that much better.

I have done 14hr flights on occasions when there was no choice and I hated every minute of it.

Ultra Long Haul / Long Haul ----- NO WAY

03 Jan 2012

Total posts 88

To get from a civilized place like Perth to another civilized place like London without having to faff about for 3 hours in some distant corner of the 3rd World is definately the way to travel IMHO.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Mar 2015

Total posts 122

I would hardly call Singapore, Doha, Abu Dhabi or Dubai 3rd world airports. Ideal for a nice resting transit.

Each to his own, it's obvious some prefer direct very long haul for convenience and put up with the discomfort but most I have spoken to don't particularly enjoy it .

Joe
Joe

03 May 2013

Total posts 396

As long as it's an Airbus I'd consider the haul(in F or J only). If it's a 777/787 forget it. I wish the technology had been advanced enough, say 5-10 yrs, to have allowed the A380 to be developed with longer range.

21 Aug 2019

Total posts 22

The 787 is not too bad but 777 is a really noisy craft. When will Boeing make a quiet aircraft?

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

20 Feb 2017

Total posts 22

Today the Dreamliner travels at the same speed as the 707 did in 1959 - 60 years ago!

Sure they travel a lot further but who wants to be in a tune for 20 hours with coughing people spreading germs and screaming children. It's a nightmare.

Not my idea of fun and comfort.

QANTAS is PR department is trying to put a god spin on all this but in reality it's the opposite.

I will not travel on ultra-long haul flights.

Bring on Supersonic travel again !! SYD/LAX in 6 hours or less

British Airways - Executive Club

23 Mar 2018

Total posts 4

How much does an airline have to pay to stop at a transit airport? For example, how much would Singapore charge for QF1/2 each day?

If this cost is high, then Qantas would be saving here if they go point to point.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Mar 2015

Total posts 122

There's absolutely no doubt about it direct very long haul flights are the best cost wise for the Airlines.

My points were simply that I prefer a short stopover or overnight so that I feel far more refreshed when I arrive than on these long haul flights.

Economically there's no contest, long haul direct is the go for Airlines.

21 Aug 2019

Total posts 22

Firstly congratulations to Qantas for putting this flight on. It may be PR with some science behind it but it's looking towards the future of aviation. There will be plenty who prefer a stop to break up the journey but for the time constrained an overnight stop is not convenient. My trips to London are split between Perth and Singapore from Sydney. OK Perth Airport is not Changi but it's highly convenient transfer and painless. Changi is one big airport and the trek from gate to lounge and back adds to my daily steps but frankly is just a chore these days. The alternative I use is HK and there the distances are even more. LAX as an entry point can be bad to a nightmare. DFW is fine but again a transit. For mine, point to point is better and just adds a bit more time on top of existing flight times such as Perth London or Sydney DFW.

20 Oct 2019

Total posts 1

Id like to see you write up a survival flight when you have flown economy in the middle seat for 19hrs on a full flight. Oh, and with crying babies and children! Lining up for the bathroom.

Exercise? How do you expect that when flight us full.

Chilli. What happens for passengers that are allergic to chilli? Yes there are real people that are allergic to chilli not just those that can't handle the heat.

16 Jan 2018

Total posts 71

They need to forget Y+ and first on these flights to make them work. 40-50% is going to be taken up by J cabin, and the rest should be an enhanced Y. 2-4-2 abreast with 33-34” pitch and an extra inch recline. While it's still not ideal for that length of time, JL has this kind of set up on many of their 787's. You can command a higher pricing on this type of seat as everyone will want to avoid doing a gate security check in Singapore our immigration and security at Tim Bradley. Plus they will have a ‘better' economy for their flight.

British Airways - Executive Club

23 Mar 2018

Total posts 4

Is your description of this enhanced Y product not just premium economy?

I personally think Qantas should follow SQ's lead and just have Y+ and business on these ULR flights.

10 Jul 2015

Total posts 9

Agreed. SQ only offering premium and business on its ULR aircraft is my preference but that doesn't meet Joyce's requirements for ~300 passenger

23 Oct 2019

Total posts 1

I would leave from MEL. If the choice is MEL-SYD-LHR on QF with transit in SYD or MEL-SIN-LHR on SQ with transit in Changi (2 + 19) vs (8 + 13) it's a no brainer you would choose SQ. Great for SYD not for the 4 million people who live in Melbourne,


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