More airlines looking at ultra-long-range routes

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June 07, 2018
More airlines looking at ultra-long-range
The Airbus A350-900 ULR. Photo: Airbus.

At least three airlines are interested in the kind of ultra-long-range mission Qantas wants to operate on its Project Sunrise flights, Airbus has revealed.

The Australian carrier has asked both manufacturers to develop a “hub-buster” aircraft capable of flying Sydney-London and Sydney-New York non-stop.

Read all things on the table for Qantas Project Sunrise cabins.

The ultra-long-range flights are outside of the envelopes of even the newest Airbus and Boeing planes but Qantas has said it is confident the manufacturers would be able to meet the technical specifications and it will be able to launch the service by 2022.

But it may not be alone.

“There is an interest from other operators for an ultra-long-range mission to look at these options and to look at these possibilities,’’ Airbus chief salesman Eric Schulz said at the International Air Transport Association conference in Sydney.

Asked if Airbus was talking to other operators, Schulz confirmed it was and said there at least three with networks that could use an ultra-long-range aircraft similar to Project Sunrise.

The European manufacturer is racing against US rival Boeing to come up with an aircraft that can do the job for Qantas. One of the difficulties is that Qantas wants the aircraft to be a 300-seater, so it asking to transport a sizeable payload over a long distance.

Boeing believes it has the better planes. Its Boeing 777-8 and 777-9 have yet to fly but will be coming on stream before Qantas wants to start the service.

Boeing’s website puts the range of the 350-375-seat (in two classes) Boeing 777-8 at 8700 nautical miles (16,110km) and that of the bigger, 400-425 seat 777-9 at 7600nm (14,075km).

Airbus also has two models, the A350-900 which Airbus says seats up to 325 people and has a range of up to 8100nm (15,000km) and the A350-1000, which the company says seats up to 369 people and has a range 7950nm (14,750km).

Airbus also has the A350-900 Ultra-Long-Range which has a modified fuel system that boosts fuel carrying capacity by 24,000 litres. Airbus puts its range at up to 9700nm (18,000km).

The problem with these figures is they do not reflect the day-to-day reality of airline operations.

Singapore Airlines will be flying the A350ULR non-stop between Singapore and Newark, New Jersey, from October — a distance of 15,300kms — but will have just 162 seats on board, although these will be the heavier premium economy and business seats. This compares with Singapore’s standard A350-900 configuration of 253 seats in three classes

Qantas, which is looking for a multi-class 300-seater, will ignore the publicly available specifications  to look specifically at what the planes can do for the missions it wants it to operate,

the payload it requires and the conditions in which it will likely fly.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce told reporters at the IATA AGM the project was making good progress with both plane makers a technical evaluation would be finished this year.

his would allow the airline to go through a request for proposal (RFP) process that would allow the airline to place an order for the aircraft in 2019 with delivery slated for 2022.

Schulz noted that Airbus already had aircraft in the market that can be modified for ultra-long-range missions.

“The advantage we have is we have an A350-900ULR  which is already flying with Singapore Airlines,’’ he said. “It is doing Singapore to the US which is quite similar in terms of trip and operational challenges to the one we have.

“The aircraft does a little bit less than what Project Sunrise will require but we know how to drive this. And then we have other developments within Airbus that we will bring to the table at the time.

“it’s actually good news if my competitor believes they have the only product because I am convinced we have at least one, if not two products that could do the mission as well.”

The second option would see the bigger A350-1000 modified to do a ULR flight.

“So basically we are looking at both options,’’ Schulz said. “The clear difference between the two would be what would be economically viable for Qantas, in this particular case, and for other operators.”

Airbus is also offering the option of being able to “demodify” the 900ULR to help maintain its value in the secondary aircraft market.

Schulz noted this offered flexibility to airlines.

On the question of the gap between what the aircraft can do now and the Qantas requirements, Schulz said this would depend on how seat count was balanced against range and this was why Airbus was looking at both the -900 and the -1000.

“Qantas are still maturing their process,’’ he said. “It’s not a straight process because it is so on the extreme of the enveloper, it’s a process where you get there  by iteration.

“So at the beginning, Qantas could have the temptation to put many, many seats but then the reality might be different.’’

Pointing to the London to Sydney route, Schulz said other unknowns included interest in the flight, pricing and yield.

He was also non-committal on suggestions Qantas could look at options such as sleeping berths in the new aircraft, pointing to the potential weight penalty of such a move on a ULR flight.

WATCH: Wing clouds make for stunning video.

Boeing marketing vice president Randy Tinseth said conversations with Qantas on the technical aspects of Project Sunrise were ongoing

He believes Boeing has an advantage with its 777-8 and bigger 777-9 aircraft.

“We know we have the most capable aircraft in the market, so that puts us in a good place,’’ he said “But of course, what they’re asking us to do is actually beyond the capabilities of even the 777-8,  which will be by the far the longest range airplane in the market.

“So we’ve put the challenge in front of our engineers, and you know they love these kinds of projects, and asked ourselves, what could we do with an aircraft in order to meet some of those long-range missions.

“And we’ll just have to see how it goes as we get into the next phase of discussions with the airline.’

Tinseth pointed to the aircraft’s all-new composite wing and new GE9X engines as pluses.

“As it sits today, we have airplanes that have more range and capacity than our competition and not just a little, but significantly,’’ he said.

Tinseth said Boeing was pleased with the progress General Electric was making with engine tests and said the 777 program was generally performing well.

“The program, in general, is on track, if not a little bit early,’’ he said. “We’ve had to do some extra work on the wing and work though some issues there as we go through those first couple of airplanes.

“But in general, the program’s performing well.”