Qantas, a pioneer in really long flights, announced Project Sunrise. It is, essentially, a challenge to Airbus and Boeing – offer us an aircraft that can fly from Australia’s east coast to London, New York, and Rio nonstop. Flights of around 20 hours duration.
Qantas is getting ready for London to Perth non-stop with their 787s and take about 17 hours. Currently, the airline’s longest flight is between Dallas and Sydney. This is the world’s longest flight at present.
Qantas has eight 787-9s on order. Eight may be an important number to note. Here’s why – the demand for these ultra long flights is tiny. They do not seem to be a big traffic segment. Qantas is not the only airline that has experimented with ultra long flights. Singapore Airlines had a small fleet of A340-500s for nonstop service to the US. These flights did not work out well in economic terms and the sub fleet was sold. Singapore now is going to use a special version of the A350, the A350ULR to do these routes again. But they ordered six. Moreover, these flights will not have economy seats. Airbus did not sell many A340-500s.
Airbus was not the only OEM thinking about ultra long flights. Boeing offered the 777LR. Its range makes it the aircraft with the longest legs. Being a twin, it was a better solution than the quad A340-500. Boeing delivered 59 of these 777LRs. The last airline delivery was in 2014.
Commercial airliners with such long legs, able to cover about a third of the world in one hop, offer tremendous technical ability. But as the market shows, they are niche products.
So going back the Qantas challenge. What can we expect? Airbus and Boeing will react of course – the glove is thrown down. Nobody backs off. But what will the response be? Since Qantas is probably only going to buy under ten, is this even exciting? The short answer is no. Airbus is likely to offer a version of the A350ULR. Singapore will have proven its capabilities by the time Qantas wants the aircraft in service. Airbus is likely to find tweaks with Rolls-Royce to get more range. But we do not expect anything new. Airbus will not make another A340-500.
What about Boeing? It might have the 777-8 ready for the Qantas timeline. The 777-8 is going to offer near 777LR range with more seat capacity. Does the market demand more seats for these ultra long flights? The data suggests not. Even the Qantas 787-9 between London and Perth won’t have first class – exactly the market you’d expect to be willing to pay to be stuck in a tube for 83% of a 24 hour day.
Qantas has offered a challenge. Even if other airlines also take a look at these markets (i.e. Emirates for Dubai-Panama) the OEMs are looking at most likely 100 aircraft maximum. Both OEMs are not going for any moon shots anymore – we are going to be in the derivative world for a while – probably until 2025. Despite the excitement at breaking through commercial aviation’s “last frontier”, it’s mostly a mirage. In summary, we think this niche (a nicer word than mirage) is hardly worth the effort. Know this for sure, Qantas won’t want to pay true retail value for it. Bear in mind these nonstop flights are supposed to save four hours flight time. How much will Qantas pay to save four hours? What will the market pay? The data for the market exists.
Airbus and Boeing are probably not too excited about this challenge. Making the challenge so public smacks of deploying the Al Baker modus. Probably because both OEMs would laugh at a private Qantas request.