Although Qantas is now plotting a July restart for its international network, something will be missing from the picture: the option to fly first class.
For almost as long as Qantas has been carrying passengers – which means the better part of its 100-year history – the airline has soared the lofty heights of luxury.
The peak of that was perhaps in 1971, when Qantas' first Boeing 747 jumbo jet introduced the exclusive Captain Cook lounge in the jumbo's upper deck 'hump' where first class travellers could mingle, dine, relax, drink, and even smoke.
The Boeing 747 eventually made way for the Airbus A380, which in 2008 became the airline's new first class flagship, with 14 'open' suites designed by Marc Newson.
Qantas was in the process of upgrading its superjumbo fleet – a process which included a refresh for first class, but new seats in business and premium economy as well as two inflight lounges – when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in early 2020.
This saw all twelve A380s immediately grounded, and later moved into long-term storage on the edge of California's Mojave Desert.
That's where they remain to this day, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce says "the A380s have to remain on the ground for at least three years," until there's a sufficient number of people flying to justify the return of the superjumbo.
Speaking at the Reuters Next online forum this week, Joyce predicted international traffic won’t return to pre-COVID 2019 levels until 2023-2024. Even then, their future is not assured.
"There is a potential to bring all 12 (A380s) back (into service), but there is a potential to bring less than 12 back," Joyce told Executive Traveller in May 2020. "That will depend on what the recovery scenario looks like."
It's anticipated that the first A380s to fly again – and perhaps the only ones – will be the six that have already been refurbished, which would pick up duties from Sydney to London and Los Angeles.
For at least the next three years, then, all of Qantas major major international routes will flown by its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.
Many of which have been mothballed alongside the Airbus A380s but can be quickly brought back into service, while others remain in Australia and have been assigned to repatriation flights from London, Europe, the USA, South American and India.
Qantas' new international schedule from July 2021 shows the Boeing 787 taking over former A380 routes such as Sydney-London, Sydney-Los Angeles and Sydney-Dallas/Forth Worth.
However, Qantas' Boeing 787-9 doesn't have first class – only business, premium economy and economy.
The upshot is that Qantas will, for the first time in decades, be flying without first class.
As Alan Joyce has admitted, there's a scenario in which no Airbus A380s will return – perhaps foreshadowed by the airline's decision in August 2020 to write down the value of the A380s and other aircraft by $1.4 billion.
Fortunately, this won't mean an end to Qantas first class – but it could mean a longer wait until it returns.
Qantas was within weeks of placing an order for up to 12 Airbus A350-1000s to begin non-stop Project Sunrise flights from Sydney and Melbourne to the likes of London, Paris and New York, when COVID-19 struck.
The A350-1000s were due to begin those 18-20 hour flights in mid-2023, and would be crowned by what Joyce has previously described to Executive Traveller as "super first class" suites.
"Given the nature of the routes there is definitely a market for first class," he said, adding that "it will be the best product we’ve ever put on an aircraft."
Executive Traveller understands Qantas has planned for six extra-large first class suites in the same 1-1-1 layout as its A380, but closer to the design of Emirates' latest Boeing 777 first class suites.
It's not known if those suites had sliding doors for privacy – one would certainly hope so – but Joyce wouldn't be drawn on this issue, while a Qantas spokesperson would say only that passengers would experience "a leading first class of any airline in the world."
Not just for the ultra-long haul
The original plan was that the Project Sunrise jets would also bring relatively shorter and more conventional routes to Los Angeles and Asia under their wing, with speculation Qantas would order a second tranche of A350s as replacements for the Airbus A380s.
“What we have to have is an aircraft that not only can fly Sydney-London and Sydney-New York, and Melbourne-London and Melbourne-New York, but also can be rotated to do Sydney-Hong Kong and Sydney-LA," Joyce told Executive Traveller in early 2019.
For now, however, even that first round of A350s will have to wait their turn.
While Qantas plans to "revisit" Project Sunrise at the end of 2021 "and look at what's the appropriate time" to set things back in motion, Joyce remains steadfast that his first focus must be to "repair the balance sheet" which has been shredded by the impact of COVID-19, and bring the Red Roo back into the black.
But he remains "very optimistic" on the appeal of Project Sunrise, saying it may be even stronger in the post-pandemic era.
"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."