Qantas has announced it’s chosen Airbus to carry out its ultra long-haul flights, as the airline prepares for its final test flight.
On December 17, the third research flight in Project Sunrise will depart New York for Sydney, and when the 20-odd hour flight lands, it will mark 60 hours of logged in-air data.
Qantas wants to launch non-stop flights from Sydney and Melbourne to New York and London, and said it will make a final call on whether it’s feasible by March 2020.
The test flights have been operating as flying laboratories, as Qantas works to tick health and safety boxes to get the routes over the line with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).
On Friday, as the airline released the latest details in the project, it indicated CASA looked set to approve the routes – despite previous concerns aired by the pilots’ union that pilots would not be able to get enough rest on the long-haul flights in order to operate safely.
Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said he held a lot of confidence in the successful future of direct flights from the east coast to New York and London – but stopped short of officially signing off on the project.
“From the outset, we’ve been clear that Project Sunrise depends on a business case that works. We’ll only commit to this investment if we know it will generate the right return for our shareholders given the inherent commercial risks,” Mr Joyce said in a statement.
Airbus comes out on top
Qantas has always said it was tossing up between the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 777X for which craft it would commission to fly the routes.
The test flights have so far been on board Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, but aviation expert Neil Hansford tipped to The New Daily last month that it would be Airbus that would be chosen in the end.
No orders have been placed yet, but the airline and aircraft manufacturer will be in talks to deliver a contract for up to 12 planes by March 2020 – a month’s extension on the original plan. All going smoothly, the planes should be ready by the time Project Sunrise is scheduled to take off at the start of 2023.
The A350 packs Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines, plus an added fuel tank and slightly heavier takeoff weight to meet the routes’ requirements.
Aside from aviation ins-and-outs, the interior of the planes is still being finalised. All classes will get new cabin designs, influenced by test flights’ findings that room for stretching and movement of passengers is key.
“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,” Mr Joyce said.
“The aircraft and engine combination is next-generation technology, but it’s thoroughly proven after more than two years in service. This is the right choice for the Sunrise missions and it also has the right economics to do other long haul routes if we want it to.
Pilots not on board – yet
There are still industrial negotiations to be resolved with the Australian and International Pilots Association for pilots who will fly the Sunrise routes.
The union has raised concerns about whether or not pilots will be able to get enough rest on the flights in order to fly as safely as possible.
While the test flights have focused heavily on preventing pilot fatigue, the union said it doesn’t believe three flights are sufficient to find an answer.
“Qantas is proposing to fly some of the longest routes in the world,” Captain Shane Loney, union safety and technical director, told The New Daily earlier this year.
“What we need is a scientific long-term study into the impacts on crew so we can make sure (ultra-long route) flying is as safe as we and the airline can make it.”
Qantas said it was offering 3 per cent annual pay increases and promotional opportunities for long-haul pilots.
The union was contacted for comment.