Airbus’ Surprising Plan For Operating World’s Longest Flight

Filed Under: Qantas

A couple of months ago there were rumors of Airbus developing the A350-1000ULR, though it looks like the aircraft manufacturer has a different plan.

Airbus & Boeing Competing For “Project Sunrise”

Qantas wants to launch the world’s longest flights, nonstop from Melbourne and Sydney to London and New York. This is known as “Project Sunrise,” and they’ve asked both Airbus and Boeing to submit their proposals for planes that could operate these 10,000+ mile flights nonstop.

Currently the world’s longest range aircraft is the A350-900ULR. This plane is exclusively operated by Singapore Airlines, on their routes from Singapore to Newark, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Based on what we’ve known up until now:

  • Airbus’ proposal would involve some sort of a modified version of the A350
  • Boeing’s proposal would involve some sort of a modified version of the 777X

Airbus had even confirmed over the summer that they had a concept capable of meeting Qantas’ needs, and a bit after that there were rumors that they had developed an A350-1000ULR. This would essentially be the standard size of the A350-1000, but it would have a higher takeoff weight and more fuel tanks, just as Airbus did with the A350-900ULR.

Well, it would appear that this is no longer their plan.

Airbus To Improve The A350-1000

Runway Girl Network is reporting that Airbus’ latest proposal to Qantas for their Project Sunrise flights will be… the A350-1000. That’s right, not the A350-1000ULR, or anything else, but rather the standard A350-1000.

How is that possible? Well, over the lifetime of an aircraft it’s normal for improvements to be made that can improve the efficiency of it.

By making minor improvements, Airbus thinks they can increase the range of the A350-1000 from 8,000nm to 8,700nm by 2022.  This is for a configuration that seats about 375 people.

This additional range would be possible thanks to an increased maximum takeoff weight, which would create an incredibly versatile aircraft — the extra weight could be used either to increase the cargo capacity, or could be used to increase fuel. There wouldn’t need to be any extra fuel tanks.

Is That Enough, Though?

It’s pretty impressive that Airbus plans to increase the range of the A350-1000 by 700nm, which will make this an even more spectacular plane. However, is that enough to meet Qantas’ needs?

Some Project Sunrise flights would cover a distance of 10,500+ miles, which is 9,100+ nautical miles. As you can tell, that’s above the range of the plane. You also have to factor in the headwinds that they will face on westbound flights (from New York to Sydney and from Sydney to London).

The catch is that the 8,700nm range is based on 375 seats, and Qantas will likely have a much more premium-heavy configuration. So with fewer passengers the plane would also have increased range. That being said, would the increase in range from that be significant enough to mean that the plane could fly nonstop in headwinds without a major payload restriction?

It makes you wonder just how sparse of a configuration Qantas will choose. For example, Qantas’ 787-9s have just 236 seats, while other airlines, like Air Canada have 298 seats on their 787-9s (and Air Canada also has a three cabin configuration — some airlines, like TUI, have 345 seats).

Qantas’ 787 business class

If Qantas “only” puts 280-300 seats on the A350-1000, would that add enough range to make these routes feasible?

Bottom Line

I’m even more curious than before to see how the Airbus and Boeing Project Sunrise proposals go. While the proposed improvements to the A350-1000 sure are impressive, it’s questionable if the plane would fully meet Qantas’ demands, even with a less dense configuration.

That being said, one huge benefit of this would be how versatile the plane could be — it could efficiently fly from Sydney to New York, and could also efficiently operate shorter flights in premium markets (whether to Hong Kong or Tokyo or Singapore) with incredible cargo capacity.

Generally if you’re creating a ULR aircraft with extra fuel tanks there’s an opportunity cost to that on shorter flights, but that wouldn’t be the case here.

  1. They need to be certain: people paying 12-15,000 for a ticket are less than thrilled by delays/cancellations/diversions using the ‘headwinds excuse’, as QANTAS discovered when its Dallas service was plagued with problems in the early days.
    Joyce would sell a seat in the toilet if he could get away with it, so it is to be expected that the economy cabin will be gruesomely painful and, not unreasonably, the mandated lighter load configuration will be most evident up the front.

  2. FWIW: Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has previously noted that the Sunrise jets will need to have “300+ seats” in all four classes (first, business, premium economy and economy) [], as these jets won’t only do the new marathon Sunrise routes but will also fly current flagship routes such as SYD-LAX and, potentially once the A380s retire, SYD-SIN-LHR.

  3. @Paolo the number of people paying full flex fares (to get to the 12-15k figure you mentioned) is an extremely small minority of passengers.

  4. @Sorin
    Yes, but J fares SYD-JFK via LAX are routinely over AUD 10,000, and I would expect a premium on anything direct to NYC. I agree it’s the top end of the market, hence my point that those consumers are unforgiving about delays, given they’re very much driven by time. I go on the ‘milk run’ service these days, so it’s not going to bother me much.

  5. They might not even have to fly westbound on these flights, the SQ EWR flight routinely flies only Eastbound, especially in the winter when winds are strong.

    Beyond that I also think this is Airbus taking advantage of Boeing being in a tough spot right now. Boeing won’t be able to put forth a true Project Sunrise competitor in time for when Qantas needs it. They can’t even get the 777x off the ground for flight tests this year. So why over-engineer a plane for one customer?

    I’m sure Airbus has done the math and the model work, and with paper enhancements can get this plane to fly 300 passengers to NYC or London, at the very least on an all Eastbound track with strong tail winds. I would think they could also make it westbound with northern summer-time headwinds as well, as they otherwise wouldn’t pitch it.

    Unless Boeing has something up their sleeve, it looks like Airbus takes the cake here. And with a plane that will also be attractive to other customers as well, and not an over-engineered monster that only Qantas desires.

    One things for certain, you won’t catch me on a 20+ hour flight, even if you paid me to fly in first, thats for sure.

  6. I don’t know what all of the fuss is about. Airbus must realize that ultra long-haul flights are marginal. They are some of the last routes to be initiated during boom years and among the first to be cut during recessions and/or spikes in fuel prices. That’s probably why they’ve elected to simply improve the -1000 and to not create a whole new sub-model.

    Boeing is behind in multiple aircraft launches, but I think it’s acceptable in this case.

  7. Maybe they should test the plane and their choice configuration with Perth to LAX. at 9,336 it would be their longest route but still considerably shorter than SDY to LHR and JFK.

  8. No modifications?

    What Airbus didn’t tell you is how much weight penalty there is and how much fuel efficiency drops.

    Yes the plane can make the journey. The question is, can it make money.

  9. They might be planning something else to implement such as modular fuel tanks that can be added or removed on demand. But that seems like a massive uphill battle to get those approved.

  10. I think Ben is still confusing nm and statute miles. The figure returned from gcmap is in nautical miles, so the Project Sunrise flights are 10,500+ nautical miles, well above the stated range.

  11. How much does the range increase for every 100 pounds of payload removed? Just because an aircraft has 375 seats doesn’t mean you have to sell all of them for every flight. The seat itself weighs 75 pounds, and can’t be removed quickly and easily. But the passenger plus luggage plus on-board amenities must weigh between 200 and 300 pounds.

    Flying empty seats for long distances may not be profitable, because not enough passengers will want to pay 25% more for the luxury. But developing a new aircraft for a limited market may not be profitable either.

  12. @Ross

    The cost for increasing the range can be as little as redesign fuel tanks, mod the same engines, balance the new stuff and get certified. Selling few planes (at a ULR price premium) would likely offset that already. Why do you think a “1968 design” 737 is still flying after 50 years. Selling a new variant, especially using the same engines is much cheaper than developing a new aircraft.

    For your weight theory, why add seats if you cannot sell them. Behold the SQ ULR. The math is also not a simple sliding scale (nothing is, a very unpractical consultant jargon) between payload and distance. What you probably don’t know is aerodynamics. The location of fuel and how it depletes affect the balance of the plane and thus the aerodynamics. With bad aerodynamics the plane burns more fuel. So not only do you factor in how much dead weight fuel you carry, you have to figure out how to balance fuel efficiency the whole 20 hours. The problem with these rare birds is no one is there to very the claims. QF can’t tell if Airbus is rounding up too many numbers until they operate them, which of course will be too late to back down.

  13. Airbus know what they are doing…leave it to them and I am sure they will do better than Boeing 777 option….

  14. It seems the plane would need so many more tons of fuel to make these flights nonstop that the economy is questionable . Right from the start I hear twenty hours on one flight and know I will never be there .

  15. @Eskimo – excellent response. Those of us who were unlucky enough to try to work with the 340-500 in our fleets still wake up sweating at night (Airbus’ first attempt at ULR). AC had 267 seats in theirs and it would barely do YYZ HKG with the full load and residual cargo was 10 kg. No you didnt misread that, Dont know why Bus people even bothered with that last figure. Problem with removing seats is that the initial seating configuration was fine tuned to optimise profits. Take seats away and you had better be damned sure the premium masses will show or the airplane is doomed. Also forget a pricing premium for the ULR variants. SQ may have got suckered into that but Joyce is too shrewd a businessman to fall for that strategy.

  16. @skedguy

    sked probably have something to do with RM? 🙂 I would imagine the nightmare, a no win for RM. The best to do is minimize the red.
    I always wondered did any airlines paid extra for the 345 or was it bundled along 330 or it was worth the showboat. So how much did the Bus people oversold the specs before the 77W comes to save the day.
    Another thing I also wanted to know does SQ/TG ever fly them using the reserve fuel for the extra range? i.e. seasonal head winds but they need to push it beyond the limits everyday.

  17. “It’s pretty impressive that Airbus plans to increase the range of the A350-1000 by 700nm, which will make this an even more spectacular plane. ” Think you mean 700 km, lucky

  18. I think Qantas might be holding off to see what Boeing can come up with. And as such Airbus isn’t going to commit into developing an ULR variance just for Qantas when they ain’t even going to commit into buying one. So they are saying here you go, we can try make it work with an improved A350-1000.

    It would be quite something for Qantas to already have all these PR promotions for their Dreamliners and then have to order A350 for Project Sunrise. So in reality, and for fleet consistency, they are probably preferring to have a 787-9ER or a 787-10ER instead.

  19. “This additional range would be possible thanks to an increased maximum takeoff weight”

    Does this mean they are just putting more fuel into existing fuel tanks, meaning the plane could always do this trip without modifications?

  20. Do not forget that any direct JFK service would also mean the end of the LAX-JFK connector (QF11) and the costs that were involved in running that nightmare. Qantas was able to reduce some fuel and staffing costs by using the 787 but it is pretty clear that premium passengers are willing to pay for direct one airline service to New York.

    The NYSE express will happen. If AJ can return the long range economy configuation to 34″ pitch, he may just be able to convince the leisure market to pay extra to sit in the back of this bus.

  21. From my own understanding of what Alan Joyce has asked of Airbus, he wanted 300 seats. The current stock standard A350-1000 has a “given” range of 16100km / 10000 miles. The mods in the pipeline are a 5T MTOW jump from 316T to 321T. At initial stages of flight the A35K is burning 6.4T fuel per hour and at the latter stages of a flight of almost max range, the aircraft would be some 100T+ lighter and thus burning about 4.4T per hour. The tanks already have a 124.5T capacity for fuel. By having 300 pax on board they calculate the assumed pax weight, baggage, food and sanitary water provision at around 135kg per passenger. This is effectively knocking 10T off the passenger load. The operating weight empty is 155T. If you add 300 pax and assume 135kg per pax allowance, you arrive at 40.5T giving a zero fuel weight of 190.5T. That allows for a max fuel load of 124.5T and arriving at 315T. With 124.5T of fuel, the A35K flies further than everyone actually realises. If you allowed 120T of that fuel for a journey and are burning 6.4T per hour in early flight and 4.4 T at the end, that averages at 5.4T per hour over the flight. So to fly for 20hrs that aircraft will burn 108T. The A35k will quite easily cover LHR-SYD in about 19hrs. And that is before you factor the unused 12T of fuel (without the 4.5T fuel reserve) and the 6T of unused MTOW. The figures show a 300 pax A35K in current config with 321T MTOW will absolutely nail the route with enough in reserve to cover an extra 2 hrs of headwinds and with 5T of cargo thrown in. That is why Airbus don’t really need to call it a ULR. It ALREADY IS A ULR!!!

  22. @Nate Dogg

    Quite insightful. Again like I said, the problem is only actual operations can confirm those numbers and there are no actual ultra long haul operations yet. Same happen to the 787 when they first operate, Boeing oversold its efficiency.

    TBH, if you go look at the ‘numbers’ for the heavier A340-500. It could have easily be flying 250+ pax SYD-JFK.

    Oh and apparently your A350 is flying in a planet with no winds, and it doesn’t need any crew, !!!! 🙂

  23. @ Eskimo

    I actually explained the fuel consumption figures that have come back from both Qatar and Cathay using their A35K’s. Airbus themselves sent the A35K on a round the World tour to get route proving figures also. As you can see, allowing a 135kg allowance per pax doesn’t mean that is fully used. It is allowing for every pax at 95kg, baggage, food and beverages and sanitary water. That is never going to be the case so the weight and baggage of the 2 crews on board is accepted into this allowance.
    You need to remember also that the construction of the A350 also allows a higher cruise altitude. There is less likely to be strong headwinds but just in case, there is 12T of ‘unused’ fuel factored into this as well as the unused 6T of the MTOW allowance. So in any instance if Airbus decided to put a 5T additional fuel tank in the hold, they would get an extra hour in the air. With no headwinds, a 300 pax A35K at 321T MTOW actually has legs to do 22hrs with no aggro.
    Are we going to assume that every pax is using up their 135kg allowance and that the aircraft is going to get hammered by headwinds adding 3hrs to the trip? It is very highly unlikely.

    Airbus have a track record of under selling the capabilities of their aircraft and Boeing over selling. People are now going to see why Boeing have announced a delay to the 777-8. Nothing to do with the engine aggro. It is technically obsolete before it has been built when up against the 321T A35K.
    That is why Airbus are basically just offering the stock standard A35K to Qantas. It does the job that Qantas asked under Project Sunrise and Airbus massively understated its capabilities.

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