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Aviation

Qantas non-stop Sydney-London flight on the brink of ‘commercial viability’, a threat to Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong airport

  • Australia’s national airline says Boeing and Airbus making ‘really good progress’ on ambitious set of flights, scheduled for 2022
  • March towards flights lasting as long as 20 hours poses challenge to transit hub airports like Hong Kong’s
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2018, 10:28pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 9:20am

Australia’s national airline has said planes capable of flying non-stop from Sydney to London are approaching commercial viability, paving the way for flights which could threaten not only Hong Kong’s top airline but its airport.

In its most detailed comments on ultra-long-range flying, Qantas said the aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus had made “really good progress” on an ambitious set of flights dubbed “Project Sunrise”, ready for take-off in 2022.

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That goal is progressing well, CEO Alan Joyce said in an interview with the Post.

Qantas is pushing the US and European companies to make planes that can fly 20 hours with 300 passengers, ranging from first class to economy. It aims to fly non-stop from Sydney and Melbourne to London and New York.

“Both [Boeing and Airbus] have made really good progress from where we started in the capabilities of the critical missions from Melbourne and Sydney to London and New York,” Joyce said.

But Qantas has dialled back its demands slightly.

“Our belief is [ultra-long-haul flights are] not going to be full passenger payload and freight, but there is sufficient capability to make it commercially viable,” Joyce said.

The new flights would become by far the longest flights in the world, in distance and time. Singapore Airlines currently holds that title with its recently relaunched non-stop Singapore-New York service, which lasts less than 18 hours but only has business and premium economy seats.

Qantas will aim to place a new order by the end of 2019, aiming for delivery between 2022 and 2023, Joyce said. He said the planes had to be flexible enough to fly Sydney-London and from Sydney to Hong Kong or Beijing.

We’re going to compete vigorously. I think we’re frenemies with Cathay, there’s a bit of that
Alan Joyce, Qantas C.E.O.

Similarly, he said the ultra-long-range model “could be a good aircraft, if the product and the price is right”, to replace the double-decker Airbus A380s in the long run.

The new planes are said to be based on others being built or now in service – namely the Boeing 777X and the Airbus A350-1000 – rather than requiring a radical redesign of commercial jets.

By reducing the need for stopovers, the march towards flights lasting longer than 20 hours poses a challenge to popular transit hub airports like Hong Kong International Airport.

In the next decade, Qantas is likely to increasingly challenge the likes of Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines.

Cathay Pacific currently advertises one-stop flights from Australia to the US.

Sydney-New York via Hong Kong takes at least 26 hours and 15 minutes. The potential for non-stop Sydney-New York would bring flying time down to about 19 hours.

Qantas flies the only non-stop flight from Australia to Europe, its Perth-London route coming in at a little more than 17 hours.

The flights have been 94 per cent full on average since they started in March, and the company has had no problems charging higher fares.

Compared with Cathay Pacific’s one-stop offering, which takes about 25 hours, Qantas can charge 15 per cent more in economy and a third more in business class.

Dr Tony Webber, CEO of the consultancy Airline Intelligence and Research and former chief economist at Qantas, said if the airline could make Sydney-London work it would pave the way for more non-stop flights from Australia’s east coast to Europe.

“Perth-London is the start of a major transformation in flying for the Qantas Group, in conjunction with Project Sunrise. If Project Sunrise is a success then I believe it will have a massive impact on the Qantas business.”

After a major restructure that started earlier in the decade, “the Flying Kangaroo” is soaring, ending the previous financial year with record profits of A$1.6 billion (US$1.2 billion).

In contrast, Cathay Pacific made a loss of HK$1.25 billion (US$160 million) last year, a second annual loss, as it attempts to cut costs. The airline has faced much stiffer competition from a slew of airlines flying with lower costs and cheaper fares.

But it has warmed ties with once bitter rivals Cathay Pacific. Joyce described the pair as “frenemies”, working more closely for the first time as his outfit makes further Asian inroads.

Cathay Pacific can currently advertise and sell destinations to more Australian cities on Qantas flights. In return, Qantas can code-share on Cathay flights from Hong Kong to India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Myanmar, and from the Australian cities Perth and Cairns.

Both airlines would continue to compete and undercut each other’s prices on non-stop flights between Hong Kong and key cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Joyce said.

The pair traded blows in 2015 over the founding of Jetstar Hong Kong, backed by Qantas and China Eastern Airlines, which regulators ultimately did not allow to launch.

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“We’re going to compete vigorously. I think we’re frenemies with Cathay, there’s a bit of that,” Joyce said.

Gilbert Ott, founder of frequent flying website God Save the Points, said a stumbling block for 20-hour flights could be travellers’ appetite to be on a plane for that long.

“I think Qantas has proven that there is a market [for ultra-long-haul flights], but I remain doubtful,” he said. “Point-to-point travel is an incredible new frontier for airlines as more practical and efficient modern aircraft open up increasing routes. But there’s a limit to what passengers can or will endure.”

Travel expert JT Genter from flight review website The Points Guy, who had already used the Perth-London and Singapore-New York services, voiced concerns about comfort on the flights.

He said: “My old request is that Qantas build in a little more room for economy passengers. And not just in seat pitch and width, but also a dedicated space to stretch out.”