Ultra-long-haul flights make their comeback
May 25 2022 05:55 PM
Alex Macheras
Alex Macheras

By Alex Macheras

Following a two-year pause amid the emergence of a pandemic, the only non-stop ultra-long-haul flight between the UK and Australia is back in business. Qantas’ seventeen-hour Perth-London service resumed this week, offering passengers a daily flight between the two cities on Qantas’ Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.
Qantas has just recently confirmed an Airbus long-haul jet order that will enable the airline to launch a handful of the world’s longest non-stop flights, such as London-Sydney – a 20-hour journey. The airline will use a new fleet of twelve Airbus A350-1000s from 2025.
Only a few airlines fly non-stop over such vast distances, which present a host of challenges including the capability of planes, commercial viability, and even the health of crew and passengers.
The jet is the Airbus flagship that will join Qantas’ fleet and ultimately be able to fly non-stop from Australia to almost any city in the world. It first flew with launch customer, Qatar Airways, and is now in service with multiple airlines including Cathay Pacific, and Virgin Atlantic. All in-production Airbus aircraft are certified to fly with a 50% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) blend, with a target to increase this to 100% by 2030.
Ultra-long-haul is seen as the alternative to stopping off at a transit hub – but regular polling suggests there are just as many passengers who are willing to make the journey nonstop, as there are who wish to stop at an airport en route, if only to stretch their legs during the transit.
For Qantas – who are continuing to bet on the ‘non-stop’ market, customers onboard the airlines’ new fleet of A350 aircraft will be treated to luxurious first-class suites with a separate bed, recliner lounge chair and personal wardrobe; a next-generation business suite; a new premium economy seat pitched at 40 inches, a new economy seat pitched at 33 inches; and a dedicated well-being zone designed for movement, stretching and hydration. It has a total seat count of 238, the lowest compared with any other A350-1000 currently in service.
Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said: “For more than 100 years, Qantas has been at the forefront of transforming the way the world travels, particularly through direct flights. Now, the A350 and Project Sunrise will make almost any city in the world just one flight away from Australia. It’s the last frontier and the final fix for the tyranny of distance that has traditionally challenged travel to Australia.
“Our direct Perth-London flights started in 2017 and showed strong demand for the convenience and time savings from this kind of travel if the product and service is right. Pre-Covid it was the longest route on our network and had the highest customer satisfaction on our network. All signs point to that demand increasing post-Covid.
“The Qantas A350 travel experience will be truly exceptional, particularly across the premium cabins. Our first and business class seats will set a new benchmark for premium long-haul travel.
“The first Project Sunrise flights will be from New York and London, but the aircraft will also be able to operate non-stop flights to Australia from destinations such as Paris and Frankfurt”.
With a fuselage that is seven-metres-longer than Airbus’ A350-900 version, the A350-1000 features modified wing trailing-edges and larger six-wheel main landing gear, while retaining the A350 family’s advanced airframe design. The A350-1000 is powered by the world’s most efficient large aero-engine, the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 turbofans. The aircraft boasts the widest cabin body of any class with vertical sidewalls and larger windows creating an extra spacious feel for passengers.
Back in 2017, Qantas announced plans to take on the final frontier of aviation, direct flights from the east coast of Australia to Europe and New York. The airline challenged Boeing and Airbus to deliver an aircraft capable of ultra-long-haul flying, which would “revolutionise” Australian air travel.
The direct flights were labelled “Project Sunrise” a nod to the legendary Double Sunrise flights operated by Qantas across the Indian Ocean during WWII which remained airborne long enough to see two sunrises.
In 2019, Qantas operated three Project Sunrise research flights using its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft to gather ground-breaking data about inflight passenger and crew health and well-being. The flights had limited passengers to minimise weight and followed two Project Sunrise routes — London and New York to Sydney. Qantas gained almost 60 hours of Project Sunrise flying 2022 experience across the three flights and thousands of data points.
The Airbus A350 was selected in December 2019, just weeks before the pandemic, as the preferred aircraft for Project Sunrise flights, with an extra fuel tank to be added to extend the aircraft range.
Fast forward to now, Qantas has reaffirmed its commitment to conquering the final frontier of aviation and confirms an order with Airbus for 12 A350-1000 aircraft, for the launch of Project Sunrise flights in late 2025.
As part of the deal, Rolls-Royce and Qantas have also committed to sign a TotalCare service agreement for the Trent XWB-97 engines that will power the 12 aircraft, providing the airline with predictability and reliability for the services and maintenance of the new fleet.
The Trent XWB-97 is the world’s most efficient large aero engine in service today, delivering a 15% fuel consumption advantage over the first Trent engine, enabling airlines to fly further on less fuel. It is also ready to operate on Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) as they become more available to airlines in the future – and all Trent engines will be compatible with 100% SAF by 2023. The Trent XWB also delivers a “step change” in out-of-the-box maturity and reliability for the industry, consistently achieving better than 99.9% dispatch reliability.
Following its entry into service in 2015, the Trent XWB, which exclusively powers the Airbus A350, quickly became the fastest selling large engine of all time. It has now achieved more than 8mn engine flying hours in service with more than 30 operators, demonstrating its versatility and capability by flying a range of different routes, from short-range segments to ultra-long-range flights of around 18 hours.

* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir

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