Australian flag-carrier Qantas announced on Friday that it had chosen the Airbus A350-1000 as the preferred aircraft for its so-called ‘Project Sunrise’ ultra-long-haul flights that could connect global cities like London, Paris and New York with Sydney and Melbourne. Qantas had pitted Airbus against rival aircraft manufacturer Boeing to pitch aircraft for the project, with both recently sent back to the drawing board to work out issues with their proposals.
While Qantas is yet to place a formal order, the airline was won over by the A350’s Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines which it claims have a strong record for reliability. Boeing had been pitching a reworked version of its next-generation 777X which is currently undergoing testing and isn’t expected to start flying commercially until mid-2020 at the earliest.
To enable the A350-1000 to fly the kind of distances required for Project Sunrise flights, Airbus will need to add an additional fuel tank and slightly increase the maximum takeoff weight.
If Project Sunrise does go ahead, then Qantas intends to order 12 A350-1000’s which would cost $4.39 billion at list value. Qantas would, however, receive a significant discount on that price.
The big question, however, is whether Project Sunrise will, in fact, go ahead at all and a final decision isn’t now likely to be made until March 2020. On the to-do list include important tasks like:
- Gaining regulatory approval to push crew operating limits even further than the present
- Convincing pilots to sign up to a new contract that demand productivity improvements
- Designing an onboard experience that keeps passengers happy but still makes money
“The A350 is a fantastic aircraft and the deal on the table with Airbus gives us the best possible combination of commercial terms, fuel efficiency, operating cost and customer experience,” commented Alan Joyce, chief executive of the Qantas Group and the man widely regarded as pushing for Project Sunrise to happen.
But in recent months and weeks, Joyce has become far more cautious about Sunrise and has consistently signalled that it’s not a done deal.
“From the outset, we’ve been clear that Project Sunrise depends on a business case that works,” he explained today.
“We’ll only commit to this investment if we know it will generate the right return for our shareholders given the inherent commercial risks.”
Airbus hasn’t yet publicly commented on the Qantas announcement but the airline revealed that it had been given an extension of one month to make its final decision and lock-in an aircraft order for deliveries to be made in 2023. Qantas suggested the main issue stopping it from pushing ahead with the order was finalising an industrial agreement with pilots.
Qantas says it has offered pilots a 3 per cent pay rise and promotion opportunities but wants efficiency improvements and productivity increases. The airline also wants to be able to use Project Sunrise pilots on standard Airbus A330 flights. Negotiations with the AIPA pilots union continue – the union has declined to comment about the ongoing talks.
From a regulatory point of view, Qantas has used data from several Sunrise test flights to prove that current crew limits can be extended even further. According to the airline, CASA has provisionally advised that it sees no regulatory obstacles to the Sunrise flights.
“Can I thank both Airbus and Boeing for the tremendous effort they have put into Project Sunrise. It was a tough choice between two very capable aircraft, made even harder by innovation from both manufacturers to improve on what they had already spent years designing,” Joyce commented earlier today.