Australia has recently reopened its borders to international air services for the first time in almost two years, sparking good news for Qantas Airways. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s flag carrier was forced to shelve ‘Project Sunrise’, an ambitious plan to establish direct ultra-long-range passenger flight services between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, the airline is hoping that ‘Project Sunrise’ flights could soon be ready for take-off.
But how has the project, which had been postponed several times since it was officially announced in August 2017, developed over the years? And what do we know about the project so far? AeroTime investigates.
Testing a direct ‘double sunrise’ flight
Qantas Airways has been offering flights between Sydney (SYD) and London (LHR) for almost 75 years now. The flight was long enough for passengers to witness two sunrises. But it was not the most pleasant of experiences when it came to comfort, as the airline had to make several refueling stops at various airports during the duration of the flight.
However, as aircraft range has increased exponentially over time, the total duration of the journey between the two continents has significantly shortened. From an initial 58 hours (about two and a half days) and seven stops, the current duration of a trip between SYD and LHR airports has been slashed to around 24 hours with only a single refueling stop. The launch of ‘Project Sunrise’ could be a real game-changer when it comes to both passenger experience and flight duration, as a direct service between these two destinations will further reduce the time it takes to complete the journey.
‘Project Sunrise’ is focused on regular direct long-haul services, particularly on routes between Sydney-London, Brisbane-Paris, and Melbourne-New York. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the airline had already completed three research flights between Australia, the UK, and the US. Initially, the project was scheduled to take-off in 2023.
The first non-stop direct research flight was conducted by Qantas Airways in November 2019 and took 19 hours and 19 minutes. During the flight, which took off from London and landed in Sydney, the carrier tested pilot performance as well as passenger comfort and well-being aspects on board an ultra-long air service. By removing the need for a refueling stop, Qantas proved that it is possible to reduce the journey between London and Sydney by almost five hours. Furthermore, the service was still long enough for passengers to enjoy those magnificent double sunrises.
The dilemma of selecting the right aircraft
Back in August 2017, Qantas pitted Boeing and Airbus against one another, challenging the planemakers to produce a long-haul aircraft cable of flying on its proposed new routes.
The airline’s main requirement for the jet was that it must be capable of flying up to 21 hours and more than 10,550 miles (16,979 kilometers) on a non-stop flight between Sydney to London.
Since flying such long distances without refueling stops is a tough operational challenge, Qantas needed time to consider which wide-body jet could provide the necessary range, efficiency, and comfort capabilities. In 2019, the new non-stop ultra-long-haul service was considered a hugely ambitious project, attracting plenty of attention from international media.
Each new ‘Project Sunrise’ update made headlines across aviation news. But most media attention was focused on one question, which aircraft model would Qantas chose to operate its new ultra-long-haul routes?
Both the Airbus A350-1000 and the Boeing 777X-8 were candidates to operate the 18 to 20-hour-long non-stop routes. Initially, it seemed that Qantas favored the 777X option, but later the carrier changed its mind.
Boeing’s new flagship airliner was expected to complete its first test flight in 2019 and enter service in 2020. But several factors, including technical issues with its GE9X engines, the pandemic’s effect on production, and plane certification issues, led to multiple delays with aircraft development. The manufacturer postponed aircraft deliveries for airline customers until 2021, then until 2022, then 2023, and once again to 2025.
But in March 2020, the airline decided to opt for the Airbus A350-1000, a competitor equipped with extra fuel tanks. At the time, Qantas had been considering ordering 12 A350s, valued at $317.4 million per unit at list prices.
But selecting an aircraft wasn’t the only issued faced by Qantas.
Issues with pilot fatigue management and staff salaries
Ultra-long-haul flights require specific pilot training and workload management. The Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA), a trade union that represents the interests of Qantas Airways flight crew, raised concerns over fatigue risk management issues and payment. Negotiations between the airline and AIPA were slow and took around seven months until the final solution was found.
In early spring 2020, all parties finally agreed on a new pay deal for flight crew willing to operate on ultra-long-haul flights. However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused international restrictions and uncertainty about the future of air travel. Qantas decided to put its ‘Project Sunrise’ on hold, hoping to gradually move forward with its plans in 2022.
Qantas reveals launch date for non-stop flights
Qantas officially resumed development of ‘Project Sunrise’ in May 2022, after publicly confirming that it had placed a formal order for 12 Airbus A350-1000 jets.
In a recent statement, released on May 2, 2022, Qantas announced that ‘Project Sunrise’ flights are expected to link Sydney (SYD) and Melbourne (MEL) with destinations such as London (LHR) and New York (JFK) via a non-stop service for the first time in late 2025.
“Throughout our history, the aircraft we’ve flown have defined the era we’re in. The 707 introduced the jet age, the 747 democratized travel, and the A380 brought a completely new level of comfort. The A350 and Project Sunrise will make any city just one flight away from Australia,” Qantas Group chief executive officer, Alan Joyce said. “It’s the last frontier and the final fix for the tyranny of distance.”
Powered by the latest generation Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 turbofan engines, which, according to the manufacturer, are 25% more fuel-efficient than previous generation aircraft. The A350-1000s will be capable of flying 238 passengers in four-class configuration. The carrier also said that aircraft cabin will be specially configured to improve passenger experience and comfort during extra-long flights and will include a well-being zone in the center.
The major Australian airline expects that these newer aircraft and engines will deliver “extraordinary performance in terms of sustainability”. Deliveries will start in 2025 and will be completed by 2028, the airline added.
Qantas estimates that planes operating ‘Project Sunrise’ routes will reduce emissions by at least 15% if running on fossil fuels and could be reduced even further when powered by Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).
“The A350-1000s will bring us closer to our commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Project Sunrise will be carbon neutral from day one,” the CEO said, adding that the airline plans its capital expenditure for Project Sunrise to peak at $1.2 billion in FY26.
Who currently holds the title for ‘world’s longest direct commercial passenger route’?
Currently, the title belongs to Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY) flight SQ24, which connects Singapore (SIN) and New York (JFK). The route, which was launched by the airline in November 2020, takes up to 18 hours and 50 minutes of non-stop flying and covers around 15,349 kilometers (9,537 miles). When launched, the flight was operated by a Singapore Airlines Airbus A350-900 wide-body plane, but in January 2021, the carrier changed the plane to A350-900URL [ultra-long-range].
However, as ‘Project Sunrise’ prepares to launch in 2025, competition looks like it is hotting up. Perhaps Qantas’ ultra-long-range offering could be the one to usurp the title. Watch this space!