The long rangers

From March 25, Qantas will start flying Boeing 787-9s, including VH-ZNB (c/n 39039), non-stop between London and Perth. The carrier has plans to fly direct services to Australia’s eastern and southern coasts.
Dipankar Bhakta/AirTeamImages

ON MARCH 25, 2018, Qantas will make aviation history when it starts a direct service between London Heathrow and Perth using its new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.

The flight will be the first regular non-stop air service between Europe and Australia and the longest flight yet operated with a 787. The 7,828 nautical miles (14,498km) route will take around 17 hours, depending on winds. Flight QF10 will leave Heathrow at 13:30hrs local and land at Perth at 13:15hrs local the following day. After turnaround, the 787-9 will fly on to Melbourne. The return sector, QF9, will depart Perth at 18:50hrs local and arrive into Heathrow at 05:10hrs local the next day.

The service will add another first to Qantas’s history of flying longdistance services, which includes operating the first transpacific passenger jet flights in 1959: but the Australian carrier has grander ultra-long-haul plans.

In a recent speech at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, the airline’s Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce revealed Qantas has challenged Airbus and Boeing to produce an aircraft by 2022 that can fly direct to London from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Project Sunrise is the name of the airline’s initiative, a nod to the Double Sunrise flights of the Second World War operated between Australia and Britain. Joyce said: “We believe that aircraft will be the last frontier in challenging the distance that’s always been a problem for the Australian market. We’ve got a great reaction from both manufacturers.”

The sole non-stop flight to date between London and Sydney took place in August 1989 with the delivery of Boeing 747-400 VHOJA (c/n 24354) to Qantas. The flight was a one-off; although the cabin seating and furnishings were standard, the 747 did not have a typical passenger load (only 18 people were on board, including crew) or cargo containers. Airbus and Boeing do have ultra-long-haul products in their current product ranges, respectively the A350-900ULR (Ultra-Long-Range) and the 777-8.

Joyce said both of these aircraft have the range to fly the routes from eastern Australia to the UK, but said: “We believe [they] can’t do it with full payload…We do believe more work is required on both aircraft to get there.”

Qantas is not the only major carrier in the Asia-Pacific region with ultra-long-haul plans. Later this year, Singapore Airlines (SIA) will put the A350-900ULR into service between Singapore and New York JFK, a route of 8,700 nautical miles (16,112km) with an expected flight time of up to 19 hours. Seven of the total 67 A350- 900s to be operated by SIA will be delivered as A350-900ULRs.

The A350-900ULR has what Airbus describes as a “higher capacity fuel system” within the existing tanks to increase fuel capacity from a baseline A350- 900’s 141,000 litres (37,248 US gallon) to 165,000 litres (43,588 US gallon).

The A350-900ULR will also feature aerodynamic refinements and, according to Airbus’ Aircraft Characteristics for Airport and Maintenance Planning document, a higher maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 280,000kg (619,279lb), up from the standard aircraft’s 275,000kg (606,272lb) MTOW.

Its maximum landing weight will be 207,000kg (456,357lb) and its maximum zero fuel weight will be 195,700kg (431,445lb). Operators will have the opportunity to reconfigure their A350-900ULRs to the standard long-haul A350-900 specification, should they require it.

Using the A350-900ULRs will mark a return to ultra-long-haul for SIA. Between 2004 and 2013, the airline operated non-stops between Singapore and New York JFK and Los Angeles using A340-500s. Those flights ended because reduced demand from the premium market flying on the routes and rising fuel prices took away the economic rationale for running them.

According to SIA Chief Executive Officer Goh Choon Phong: “Our customers have been asking us to restart non-stop Singapore-US flights and we are pleased that Airbus was able to offer the right aircraft to do so in a commercially viable manner.”

SIA only opting for a small number of A350-900ULRs, however, suggests the market for ultra-long-range services might be limited in size. One test of the popularity of the new routes is whether enough passengers are prepared to remain airborne for an extended period in one go to make the services worthwhile for the airlines running them. Carriers wanting to offer ultra-long-haul like Qantas and SIA will have to invest in quality cabin products to sell to travellers the concept of being in the air for so long.

The key issue for the manufacturers will be making the economics of any new A350 or 777 derivatives attractive to airlines as they respond to the ultra-long-haul gauntlet that has been laid down.

Mark Broadbent