Qantas Prefers Airbus A350 to Boeing 777X, Final Project Sunrise Decision in March 2020

A computer generated rendering of what a future Qantas Airbus A350-1000 Project Sunrise aircraft will look like if the Australian carrier decides the future ultra long haul initiative is profitable. Photo: Airbus

Qantas Airways prefers the Airbus A350-1000 to the Boeing 777X to become its Project Sunrise airplane in the future, however the Australian carrier’s executive board has delayed an actual investment decision until certain details can be solidified until March 2020.

Project Sunrise is a research project that Qantas first started evaluating in 2017, when the carrier’s CEO Alan Joyce challenged both Airbus and Boeing to field an aircraft capable of serving non-stop routes from Brisbane to Paris, Melbourne to New York and Sydney to London. After completing two Project Sunrise research flights–New York to Sydney and London to Sydney–using newly delivered Boeing 787-9s, Qantas confirmed the A350-1000 to be its preferred aircraft “if Sunrise proceeds.”

Joyce said the airline has a lot of confidence that there is a market for the ultra-long haul Project Sunrise routes after completing the two research flights.

“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,” Joyce said in a statement published by Qantas regarding the Project Sunrise selection.

According to Joyce, the next hurdle to overcome before making an actual investment and signing a purchase order with Airbus will rely on “efficiency gains” associated with Qantas pilots. The national carrier is looking to offer an increase in pay for ultra long haul pilots and is also in discussion with the Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) about being able to use Airbus A330 pilots to fly the A350 Sunrise aircraft.

On November 15th, Qantas pilots completed a non-stop Project Sunrise research flight from London to Sydney in 19 hours and 19 minutes. Qantas is offering a pay increase to prospective Project Sunrise pilots, but needs to close the business case on the routes before committing to a contract for the A350-1000.

At the regulatory level, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has “provisionally advised that it sees no regulatory obstacles to the Sunrise flights.”

While no orders for the A350-1000 have been placed yet, Qantas is in discussion with Airbus regarding modifications to the airframe that would need to occur to make Project Sunrise a reality. The aircraft will be powered by the Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine, and will require an additional fuel tank along with a slightly increased maximum takeoff weight to fly the Sunrise routes.

“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,” Joyce said.

A final Project Sunrise research flight from New York to Sydney is scheduled for December 17, and will provide Qantas with nearly 60 hours of Sunrise experience once completed. The most recent research flight from London to Sydney lasted a little more than 19 hours and still had 13,900 pounds of fuel upon landing, or enough for an additional hour and 45 minutes of flight time.

“Airbus has given us an extra month to lock in an aircraft order without impacting our planned start date, which means we can spend more time on hopefully reaching a deal with our pilots,” Joyce said.

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