Houston, we had a problem. After having to leave passenger bags behind when departing Dallas/Fort Worth because its Boeing 747-400ER aircraft didn't have the fuel range to reach Australia with a full load, a separate Qantas flight, QF7, diverted to Houston yesterday. That's over 400 km to the southeast of DFW airport.
The problem this time was thunderstorms in the Dallas/Fort Worth area -- which, given that Dallas is at the foot of the notorious Tornado Alley, aren't uncommon.
The map above from the US weather association NOAA shows Dallas in the second most tornado-prone zone. For a good part of the year, the north Texas area is hit by severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.
The storms meant that Qantas' 747, at the end of its range and without enough fuel to circle Dallas for long enough for the thunderstorms to pass by, had to divert to Houston.
A Qantas spokesperson admitted to Australian Business Traveller that the flight eventually arrived two hours and twenty minutes late. With a planned arrival time of 1350, that means the plane wasn't on the tarmac until 1610. And as any US-bound traveller knows, there's usually over an hour of customs, immigration and baggage pleasantries to go once you're off the plane.
So how many passengers missed their onward connections -- the same ones Qantas was trumpeting as the reason to fly through oneworld partner American Airlines' Dallas hub -- and had to stay overnight in Dallas? Qantas didn't answer that question.
(We do hope they had our guide to interesting things to do in Dallas to hand, though.)
The Dallas Disaster
Qantas uses its longest-range planes on the route: the ER model of the usual 747-400. Qantas is the only airline that ordered these special aircraft from Boeing. With an extra fuel tank, its maximum range fully loaded is 14,205 km.
That leaves only 401 km of extra fuel over the shortest possible distance between Sydney and Dallas: 13,804 km. Aviation insiders tell us that Qantas is flying the plane deliberately light -- to increase range -- but clearly the balance hasn't been struck yet.
Other airlines who made better decisions on their aircraft purchases could make that flight, or similar flights, of course.
Qantas might protest that it was expecting Boeing 787 aircraft -- which have been continually delayed by Boeing's construction problems -- but existing aircraft from both Boeing and Airbus could easily make the route.
Boeing 777-200LR aircraft -- LR for long-range -- flown by US airline Delta would have nearly 3000 km of fuel left on the Sydney-Dallas run.
Of course, Delta would try to run the flight out of its home hub in Atlanta, which is 14,942 km from Sydney. With the 777-200LR having a full range of 17,370 km, it's still well within the aircraft's capabilities.
Similarly, the longest-range Airbus, the A340-500 that Australians will see used by Thai, Etihad and (outside Australia) Emirates, Singapore Airlines, has a maximum range of 16,060 km. Airlines with those planes could reach Dallas easily.
Other airlines with large 787 orders -- including Japan Air Lines, ANA and British Airways -- have quietly received planes from Boeing while they wait for the 787.
Business travellers -- especially people whose bags followed on via the LAX flight on the more comfortable Airbus A380 -- will be wondering why Qantas hasn't pushed Boeing for interim discounts on 777-200LRs so they can fly the Dallas route properly.