Qantas Project Sunrise: here's what you need to know

Let Executive Traveller get you up to speed with all the facts on Qantas' non-stop Project Sunrise flights.

By Brandon Loo, May 5 2020
Qantas Project Sunrise: here's what you need to know

Qantas is set to change the face of commercial flying with Project Sunrise: an ambitious network of non-stop flights linking Australia's east coast capital cities to London, New York and beyond.

Here's what we know about Project Sunrise so far.

This guide will be updated with the latest information as it becomes available. As of May 2020, Project Sunrise is on hold.

What is Qantas Project Sunrise?

Project Sunrise is the admittedly very catchy name for plans by Qantas to launch non-stop flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to London, New York and a handful of other destinations.

These will be the world's longest flights, with passengers facing a bum-numbing 18 to 20 hours between take-off and landing.

Has Qantas confirmed the launch of Project Sunrise?

Although Qantas announced its Project Sunrise proposal in August 2017 and has dedicated years of research to the concept, the airline has now officially put Project Sunrise on ice indefinitely, due to weakened travel demand amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more: Coronavirus puts Project Sunrise on hold

This unfortunate move comes even as Qantas pilots previously approved an enterprise bargaining agreement covering wages and conditions for flight deck crews on what will be 18-20 hour marathon journeys, with 85% of the pilots voted in favour of the updated deal.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is ready to launch what will be the world's longest commercial flights.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is ready to launch what will be the world's longest commercial flights.

Which aircraft has Qantas chosen for Project Sunrise?

Qantas planned to take delivery of "up to 12" Airbus A350-1000 jets beginning in early 2023 for the globe-striding Project Sunrise flights, but this is no longer going ahead due to Project Sunrise being shelved for now.

"We certainly won't be ordering aircraft for that this year," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said, "and we'll keep a review on when is the appropriate time, when has the market recovered, when is Qantas in a position to commit to more aircraft and more capital."

These jets were to be fitted with an extra fuel tank and undergo additional engineering tweaks in order to fly non-stop for up to 21 hours, which Qantas considers will be the longest Project Sunrise flight (allowing some leeway for extra flying time caused by strong headwinds and unexpected delays in landing).

Airbus will fit the Project Sunrise A350s with an extra fuel tank to deliver globe-striding range.
Airbus will fit the Project Sunrise A350s with an extra fuel tank to deliver globe-striding range.

At a list price of US$366.5 million per jet, that represents a massive outlay of US$4.4 billion, although airlines typically receive a discount of up to 50% off the sticker.

Qantas has confirmed that it has completed the design of the A350's cabin configuration, with the aim of "redefining" all four travel classes from tip to tail.

Will the Boeing 787 be used for Project Sunrise flights?

No, although the Boeing 787 Dreamliner will continue to fly some of Qantas' other longest routes such as Perth-London, Brisbane-Chicago (starting in April 2020) and, from June 2020, Sydney-Santiago.

The Boeing 787 notched up some of its own long-range cred on the three Project Sunrise 'research flights', which in late 2019 flew just over 19 non-stop hours from New York and London to Sydney. However, in order to conquer those endless kilometres, the Dreamliners could only carry around 50 people.

Even in business class, 20 hours of non-stop flying takes its toll.
Even in business class, 20 hours of non-stop flying takes its toll.

Review: Non-stop from New York to Sydney on Qantas' Project Sunrise research flight

Will the Qantas Airbus A350 replace the Airbus A380?

Qantas' Airbus A350s won't be solely dedicated to the Project Sunrise routes – they'll also be able to take on relatively shorter and more conventional routes to Los Angeles and Asia, which will become important as Qantas retires its Airbus A380s towards the end of the 2020s.

“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," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce has told Executive Traveller

This is one reason why Qantas chose to fit out the A350s in a four-cabin configuration, because "all of the seats have to be usable for those routes", Joyce explains – in contrast with Singapore Airlines' decision to kit out its own long-legged Airbus A350 jets with only business class and premium economy.

Qantas currently has 12 Airbus A380s in its fleet, so the airline would need to place the trigger on a sizeable second tranche of A350 orders when it's time for the superjumbos to be put out to pasture.

What are Qantas' Project Sunrise routes?

Qantas initially mapped out five likely destinations for Project Sunrise. The long-legged Airbus A350s would depart from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and fly non-stop to New York, London, Paris, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro.

Qantas is ready to add Frankfurt to the Project Sunrise route map.
Qantas is ready to add Frankfurt to the Project Sunrise route map.

Frankfurt has since joined that shortlist, with Joyce telling Executive Traveller that one plank in Qantas' three-pronged European strategy was "to fly direct, where those direct flights are with Sunrise, and we may only have three destinations we'll ever do that with: London, Paris and Frankfurt."

Also read: Making a better case for travelling on a non-stop 20-hour flight

Will Project Sunrise replace Qantas' Perth-London Boeing 787-9 flights?

No, the non-stop Perth-London flights featuring the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner will remain on the Qantas timetable.

"What we’re seeing, which is really encouraging, is how well Perth-London is doing, particularly with our passenger traffic," Joyce has told Executive Traveller. "Over 75% originates or terminates in Perth for that flight."

"So what that has shown is that we can do Project Sunrise in addition, we wouldn’t take Perth-London out." 

Will Project Sunrise replace Qantas' London-via-Singapore flights?

Qantas' non-stop Project Sunrise flights to London won't replace the long-standing stopover flights from Sydney to London via Singapore.

This means that Qantas will simultaneously be running three routes between Australia and London:

  • the non-stop Boeing 787-9 from Perth to London (with the option for Melbourne-based travellers to begin this with a domestic Melbourne-Perth leg)
  • the long-range Airbus A350-1000 Project Sunrise fleet flying non-stop from Sydney, Melbourne and potentially Brisbane to London
  • the Airbus A380 superjumbo from Sydney (with connections for Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth) to London via Singapore
Singapore will remain as a popular Qantas stop-over between Australia and London.
Singapore will remain as a popular Qantas stop-over between Australia and London.

How much extra will Project Sunrise flights cost?

The convenience and time-saving of a non-stop flight to the likes or London and New York will come at a cost. Qantas has suggested the Project Sunrise services will carry a premium of "20 to 30 per cent" compared to stop-over flights which break their journey at Singapore or Los Angeles.

Could those direct flights also cost you more Qantas frequent flyer points? It's too early to say.

Qantas' current system is based purely on distance or 'zones', which means the number of Qantas Points needed would be the same for a one-stop (Sydney-Singapore-London) or non-stop (Sydney-London) journey.

Of course, there's nothing to stop Qantas from making an exception for Project Sunrise and adding a 'points premium' to those flights.

When will Qantas Project Sunrise flights start?

Qantas originally planned for the first Project Sunrise flights to begin "in the first half of calendar 2023". Under that timetable, the airline would take delivery of its first long-range Airbus A350 jets sometime between January and June 2023.

Of course, this is no longer the case as Project Sunrise is paused because of coronavirus.

The first Project Sunrise flights will likely be the attention-grabbing 'hero routes' of Sydney-London and Melbourne-London – aka the Kangaroo Route, which will for the first time be done in a mighty, continent-vaulting leap – alongside non-stop flights from Sydney and Melbourne to New York.

What will be the Qantas Project Sunrise flight numbers?

Given that Project Sunrise flights will be on Qantas' flagship routes, we expect they'll carry equally-significant flight numbers.

Our tip is that the non-stop Sydney-London service will inherit the prestigious QF1/QF2 badge, which has traditionally been assigned to the Sydney-Singapore-London flight.

Likewise, we'd expect the non-stop Sydney-New York flights to launch as QF3/QF4 (today those numbers belong to Qantas' Sydney-Honolulu route which in the 1960s used to continue to San Francisco, Qantas' primary US hub for several decades before it switched to LAX).

Expect a reshuffle of the board as Project Sunrise routes take up the flagship flight numbers.
Expect a reshuffle of the board as Project Sunrise routes take up the flagship flight numbers.

What does Qantas 'Project Sunrise' name mean?

Project Sunrise is named after the ultra-long flights which Qantas operated during World War II, stretching from Perth to Ceylon for up to 32 hours.

These tests of endurance were pivotal in maintaining the flow of mail and communication between Australia and the UK after the Japanese invaded Singapore.

Passengers would see two sunrises during the epic journey, and upon landing were inducted into the 'Secret Order of the Double Sunrise'.

Membership to that club will be far less exclusive once the Project Sunrise flights start carrying close to 300 passengers as they criss-cross the globe.

Will Qantas Project Sunrise jets have first class?

Yes, in fact the Airbus A350s chosen for Project Sunrise will include what Qantas has described as a "super first class" suite to cocoon high-end high flyers on these marathon journeys.

"Given the nature of the routes there is definitely a market for first class," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce has told Executive Traveller. "We think it's going to be a super first class, something that is a lot better than any product we’ve ever put in the air," he added.

Qantas' current (Airbus A380) first class was launched in 2008.
Qantas' current (Airbus A380) first class was launched in 2008.

There's speculation that Project Sunrise' 'super first class' suites may include sliding privacy doors – a flourish already adopted by many airlines for not only first class but in some leading-edge business class cabins.

When Executive Traveller put that to Joyce, he smiled a coy smile and teased "I want to save that for another announcement some day."

The Project Sunrise Airbus A350s are expected to have a relatively small first class cabin of between four and eight suites.

This is in line with a global trend towards reducing the number of first class suites – often driven by softer demand as business class continues to get better – while also allowing a larger physical footprint for each suite.

What do we know about Qantas Project Sunrise business class?

The Qantas Airbus A350s are also expected to introduce a new business class seat compared to the well-regarded Qantas Business Suite of today's Qantas Boeing 787s, Airbus A330s and, as part of a refit program, the Airbus A380 superjumbos.

Qantas' current Business Suite.
Qantas' current Business Suite.

Qantas has been consulting with seat makers on their very latest models, including yet-to-be-released concepts, as candidates for when the first Project Sunrise flights take wing.

The bar has already been set high by the superb Qsuites of fellow Oneworld member Qatar Airways, and as more and more airlines launch their latest business class with privacy doors, Qantas may feel competitive pressure to add doors to the Airbus A350 business suites, given that they'll be flying from 2023 through to at least the late 2030s.

For Project Sunrise business class, Qatar Airways' Qsuites will be the seats to beat.
For Project Sunrise business class, Qatar Airways' Qsuites will be the seats to beat.

Will the Qantas Airbus A350s have premium economy and economy?

Yes, and Qantas has indicated those seats will also be far more comfortable and spacious than today's equivalents. "That's all part of the proposition, this aircraft is going to be designed for 19-20 hour flights," Joyce has told Executive Traveller.

There'll thankfully be more legroom compared to Qantas' current premium economy seat (shown here) as well as in economy.
There'll thankfully be more legroom compared to Qantas' current premium economy seat (shown here) as well as in economy.

"There'll be more legroom," he confirmed, while the Airbus A350's wide cabin should also allow for wider economy seats offering a little bit more room at the hips.

Will the Qantas Project Sunrise Airbus A350 be equipped with WiFi?

Yes, the Project Sunrise jets will also come with superfast WiFi capable of streaming HD video, using similar high-speed satellite technology as Qantas' domestic fleet.

This is expected to be rolled out slightly ahead of the Airbus A350 deliveries, as Qantas currently doesn't offer WiFi on any of its international routes.

Read more: Qantas to launch super-fast international WiFi by 2021

Will the Qantas Project Sunrise jets have exercise areas and sleeping bunks?

The Qantas Project Sunrise Airbus A350s will include a stretching area where passengers can limber up to help battle non-stop flight fatigue.

Joyce has described it as "an area for a number of people to stand up and do exercise: there’ll be video screens with stretching exercises to work on, and an area that the scientists have thought out that’ll be more of a ‘hydration station’.”

“Of course, if you want a drink, you can still have a very expensive Australian wine, or beer at your seat, but if you want to work off some calories, you can go to this area to stretch, so it’s the perfect combination.”

However, the notion of installing below-deck sleeping bunks in the Airbus A350's cargo hold was abandoned during the extensive Project Sunrise feasibility studies.

 Joyce first floated the idea of railway-style 'sleeping berths' in March 2018, shortly after the launch of the airline's non-stop Perth-London flights. 

"One of the concepts that we have is maybe if we're not carrying freight you do something lower where cargo is on the aircraft, do you have an area where people can walk? Do you have berths like on a train?” he posed.

“Could some of the freight areas we may not use be used as an exercise area? Could they be used for berths for people to sleep in? Is there a new class that’s needed on the aircraft?”

Joyce readily admitted these were “out there” ideas but said "there's a lot of 'out there' thinking that's going on" surrounding the ambitious Project Sunrise, although in June 2019 he ruled out the use of below-deck space for Project Sunrise, saying "the package we looked at – putting things in baggage holds – didn’t work."

Perhaps spurred on by Qantas' initial interest, Airbus has revealed its own plans for custom-designed 'lower deck modules' with everything from sleeping bunks to a social lounge, a meeting room or family room and even a 'medical care zone'.

Designed to be interchangeable with a standard cargo container, the modules would let airlines convert part of an airplane's downstairs cargo hold into passenger facilities to suit the needs of different routes or even different times of the year, such as peak travel seasons.

Airbus estimates that 32 bunk beds could fit under the main deck, with primarily appeal to passengers in premium economy and economy who would buy the beds as an “upgrade for sleeping”, although these areas couldn't be occupied during takeoff or landing.

Photo gallery: See how Airbus wants you to sleep, work and play in the cargo hold

Additional reporting by David Flynn and Chris Chamberlin

Brandon Loo

Brandon is our Perth-based writer with a focus on frequent flyer points and travel guides. On his travels, he enjoys tucking into local delicacies, discovering new cocktails, and making aeroplane food look good on camera.