Qantas has selected Airbus’ A350-1000 over Boeing’s delayed 777X as the preferred aircraft for its ultra long-haul non-stop research flight programme, dubbed Project Sunrise, after making a “detailed evaluation” of both aircraft types.

The Australian flag carrier wants to be able to operate regular, non-stop commercial flights from the east coast of Australia to London and New York, and said today that it will now make a “final go/no go decision” in March 2020 on whether to operate the flights.

The Project Sunrise research flights are also being conducted to test ways to improve the health and wellbeing of passengers and crew on such ultra long-haul flights.

The A350-1000 uses the Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine, which is used exclusively on the A350 and, according to the airline, has a “strong reliability record” after being in service with airlines for more than two years. The airline added that Airbus will add an additional fuel tank and slightly increase the maximum takeoff weight to “deliver the performance required for Sunrise routes”.

Qantas said no orders have been placed so far, but it would work closely with Airbus to prepare contract terms for up to 12 aircraft ahead of a final decision by the Qantas board.

According to Qantas, Airbus has agreed to extend the deadline to confirm delivery slots from February 2020 to March 2020. Qantas said this would provide additional time to negotiate an industrial agreement without impacting the planned start date of Project Sunrise flights in the first half of 2023.

Boeing has been facing delays with its 777X programme. The manufacturer suspended load testing of the new wide-body in September when The Seattle Times and other media reports said a door failed a ground stress test. Then, in November, The Seattle Times reported how the 777X’s fuselage split dramatically during a stress test.

There have also been issues with General Electric’s new GE9X turbine engine that will power the jet.

The Seattle Times added in a report today that Boeing’s disadvantage was the fading chance of its 777-8X, the variant Qantas would use for Project Sunrise, being available in time. The still-to-fly 777X will come in two models, with the larger 777-9X rolled out first. That version is already delayed by a problem with its GE9X engine problem, which pushed out the jet’s first flight from this year into next.

How Qantas decided 

Qantas did not mention these issues with the 777X, though CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement that the A350-1000’s next generation technology has already proven itself in operation.

Joyce said it was a “tough choice between two very capable aircraft, made even harder by innovation from both manufacturers to improve on what they had already spent years designing”.

He added: “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.

“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.

“From the outset, we’ve been clear that Project Sunrise depends on a business case that works. We’ll only commit to this investment if we know it will generate the right return for our shareholders given the inherent commercial risks.”

He thanked both Airbus and Boeing for “the tremendous effort they have put into Project Sunrise”.

Qantas plans to operate three Project Sunrise research flights from October to December this year, using its new Boeing 787-9 aircraft scheduled for delivery during the same period.

The first two research flights, operated from New York to Sydney and from London to Sydney, were completed in October and November respectively. The last of the three research flights will be conducted on December 17 from New York to Sydney.

Qantas said the data for crew would be used as part of final discussions with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), Australia’s national regulator, to approve an extension to current operating limits required for these ultra long-haul services. Based on the information provided by Qantas on its fatigue risk management system, CASA has “provisionally advised” that it sees no regulatory obstacles to the Sunrise flights.

Qantas added that design of the customer experience for flights up to 21 hours would also continue, including new cabins across First Class, Business, Premium Economy and Economy.

The airline said the previous two research flights “have underscored the importance of dedicated space for stretching and movement for Economy passengers in particular, as well as the potential benefits from redesigning the service on board to actively shift people to their destination time zone”.

Qantas first announced Project Sunrise in August 2017. In a speech, published here, Alan Joyce said: “I’m pleased to announce that Qantas will challenge Boeing and Airbus to deliver an aircraft capable of flying regular direct services like Sydney-London, Brisbane-Paris and Melbourne-New York non-stop with a full payload by 2022. This is a last frontier in global aviation. The antidote to the tyranny of distance. And a revolution for air travel in Australia.”

In other news, Qantas has recently announced new frequent flyer partnership with Air France-KLM, and opened a new First Lounge at Singapore Changi Airport.