Qantas orders A350 jets to revive plans for world’s longest flight

The Australian airline will start 20-hour direct commercial flights from Sydney to London in late 2025

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Qantas has revived its plans for the world’s longest flight by placing an order for 12 Airbus A350-1000 aircraft that can fly non-stop from Australia to any city on the world. This comes as the airline and travel industry recovers from the Covid-19 crisis.

The Australian airline will begin direct commercial flights from Sydney to London from late 2025, flagging off its long haul routes, it said in a statement on Monday.

Codenamed Project Sunrise, Qantas had initially planned to start the 20-hour flights in 2023, but the pandemic prevented the airline from placing the aircraft order at the time.

While the first flights will be from New York and London, the airline will also be able to operate non-stop flights to Australia from destinations such as Paris and Frankfurt, Qantas 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,” Qantas group chief executive, Alan Joyce, said.

Aviation was among the industries hardest hit by the pandemic ― with a domino effect on other sectors such as tourism, hospitality and supply chains ― but it is now quickly recovering.

The long-term forecast by the International Air Transport Association shows that in 2021, overall traveller numbers were 47 per cent of 2019 levels. This is expected to improve to 83 per cent in 2022 and 94 per cent in 2023, before exceeding pre-pandemic levels in 2024 and 2025.

Alan Joyce, group chief executive, Qantas. EPA

In 2021, international traveller numbers were 27 per cent of 2019 levels, the industry body said. This is expected to reach 69 per cent in 2022, 82 per cent in 2023, 92 per cent in 2024, and to pass pre-Covid levels with a 101 per cent rise in 2025.

Qantas’ A350s will have a total seating capacity of 238 passengers in four classes ― first, business, premium economy and economy ― with more than 40 per cent of the cabin dedicated to premium seating. It will be the lowest capacity compared with any other A350-1000 currently in service, Qantas said. Competing airlines have more than 300 seats on the aircraft type.

Qantas said its planes will have an extra fuel tank to extend their range so they can fly the distances required.

The airline started direct Perth to London flights in 2017. "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," Mr Joyce said.

Qantas also announced on Monday an order for 40 narrowbody jets to renew its domestic fleet, with firm orders for 20 Airbus A321XLRs and 20 A220-300s as its Boeing 737s and 717s are gradually retired. The deliveries of A321XLRs are expected to start in late 2024, and of A220s from late 2023, the statement said. The order also includes options to buy 94 more aircraft.

"The board's decision to approve what is the largest aircraft order in Australian aviation is a clear vote of confidence in the future of the Qantas Group," Mr Joyce said, without disclosing the value of the deal.

“All of these next-generation aircraft ― through their lower emissions, longer range, less noise and better economics ― will improve how people travel around Australia and overseas.”

The newer domestic fleet will reduce emissions by "at least 15 per cent if running on fossil fuels, and significantly better when run on sustainable aviation fuel", the airline chief said. He added that the Project Sunrise would be "carbon-neutral" from day one.

Updated: May 02, 2022, 11:33 AM