Could Qantas Pilots Veto 20+ Hour Flights?

Filed Under: Qantas

As most of you are probably well aware, Qantas wants to fly nonstop from Sydney and Melbourne to New York and London. While it seems like good progress is being made, could the project possibly be killed before any planes are even ordered?

What Is Qantas’ Project Sunrise?

Currently the world’s longest flight is operated by Singapore Airlines’ A350-900ULR, as the airline flies nonstop between Singapore and Newark. That flight covers a distance of over 9,500 miles and can take up to 18 hours.

For quite a while Qantas has been talking about how they’d like to be able to fly nonstop from Melbourne and Sydney to London and New York. They call this goal “Project Sunrise.”

The catch is that currently no plane exists that can operate these 10,000+ mile, 20+ hour flights nonstop. Qantas has asked Airbus and Boeing to develop planes capable of operating these flights, and right now it’s looking like Airbus is close to announcing the A350-1000ULR, which they say would meet Qantas’ specifications.

Qantas has said that they hope to decide on a plane for the project by the end of the year, and launch flights by 2022. Qantas will shortly even be operating some test flights from New York and London to Sydney, which they’re doing with very lightly loaded and newly delivered 787-9s.

Obviously there are lots of hurdles to overcome:

  • Qantas needs to find the right plane (which they’re close to doing it seems)
  • They need regulatory approval for the plane and routes
  • They need to get their employees onboard with this, because it requires new contracts
  • The route needs to be financially viable

Well, those last two points are proving to be a bit of a challenge, it seems.

Could Qantas Pilots Block Project Sunrise?

Qantas’ CEO Alan Joyce is a crafty guy, especially when you look at how he has negotiated with unions in the past (including shutting down the airline in 2011).

Last week while talking about Project Sunrise Joyce said that the airline could cancel the project unless their pilots agree to amended workplace employment conditions and a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA).

I do think both sides see this as an opportunity to gain leverage:

  • Pilots have expressed concern over safety and fatigue on these ultra long haul flights, and some pilots also have sour grapes following their 2015 contract negotiations
  • Since this translates to growth (meaning more jobs for pilots), presumably management wants some concessions and an agreement that won’t be too costly here

Back in 2015, management and the union spent many months negotiating a new agreement, as the company was looking for a 30% improvement in “productivity” from pilots.

The pilots union has already said that they think the timeline that Joyce wants for negotiating this new contract is “challenging,” especially as Qantas is potentially looking at ordering planes within months.

So really both sides have leverage here, the question is who will play their cards better.

Read into this how you will, but it’s also interesting to note that the New York to Sydney research flight will be operated by Qantas’ (lower paid) London based flight attendants, and they’ll be flying a very circuitous roster to make that happen. So we could also see issues with the flight attendants union.

What Do Pilots Want From Qantas?

AIPA, the union representing Qantas pilots, is “cautiously optimistic” about this new project. As a representative for the union explained a while back:

“We think the value to Qantas and the strategic benefit goes beyond this pilot EBA negotiation. Obviously we are willing to negotiate and discuss how they feel our contract may assist, but the strategic benefit to Qantas is clear and transcends the pilot contract in itself.

For the pilots in the operating seat after a 20-hour plus flight, if you are arriving in the northern hemisphere in bad weather clearly you are going to need peak performance. So the on-board rest will be vitally important.”

I don’t think pilots will use this to necessarily directly request a pay increase, though there are a couple of other ways they could bargain:

  • Currently a long haul flight has at most four pilots (so that each can rest for nearly half the flight), though given the length of these flights, could we see them request 5-6 pilots instead?
  • On ultra long haul flights Qantas has one captain, one first officer, and two second officers, while other airlines might have two captains and two first officers (or some other combination). The benefit for Qantas is that the second officers are on a considerably lower pay scale, since the second officers aren’t as experienced. Could we see the union negotiate that these flights need additional “senior” pilots, whether that comes in the form of two captains, all captains and first officers, or some other combination?

Keep in mind that pilots typically can fly at most 1,000 hours per year, so we’re talking about 80 hours per month. Assuming the aircraft type used for these routes is exclusively used for ultra long haul flights, the pilots will basically be operating two trips per month. Admittedly they’re very long flights, but this will essentially be a part time job in terms of days off.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as this is definitely something that needs to be figured out before Qantas places an order for a new plane.

Bottom Line

The prospect of Project Sunrise is exciting, though there are still quite a few hurdles for the airline to overcome. Pilots have some leverage here for sure, though at the same time Joyce is known to be a pretty tough negotiator.

It will be interesting to see what kind of conditions management and the pilots union agree to for these flights.

  1. Everyone will (eventually) come to the party and I expect the flights will be a great success all-round (for Qantas, their staff, and for passengers that want to be on these flights). However, we know that first we have to sit through the merry-go-round that is employment contract negotiations and the like. My prediction – the pilots will get a fraction of what they ask for – just enough to keep them happy (let’s face it, they’re already very well paid), and Alan Joyce will be getting huge pats on the back (and bonuses in the bank account) when the flight are operating and profitable.

  2. Any change with the pilot work rules for this route will most likely have an impact on a lot of their longhaul flights. If they change the mix of pilots to include only one second officer here then it will probably spread to other flights as well, increasing the costs on those flights as a side effect

  3. Regardless, if/when these flights actually happen, they won’t last long through the next recession and/or spike in fuel prices.

  4. I’m not sure I could fly 20 hours in a large private jet much less first/business in a commercial aircraft and for economy, I’d have to be sedated.

    And no, I’m not someone who has also flown up front. In my 20s/30s I’ve done economy to the mideast a few times (from the states). And it was not my thing.

    There are lots of things in life you can do but it doesn’t mean you should.

  5. It would be interesting to see what the thoughts were on the frequency of the flights. If it was daily to both London and NYC how many planes would that require for each routing? And then how many pilots/FAs required due to layover time, etc.

    The logistics alone are fascinating on this routing.

  6. Given the need for more pilots & flight attendants, where do they all rest? Do all new long-haul planes have crew rest areas and if so where are they and how big?

  7. LHR-SYD is my commute most months.

    I won’t be using a non-stop flight no matter how attractive Qantas try to make it look. I value the transit stop and don’t usually opt for anything less than four hours.

  8. I definitely see the benefit of having such a long long haul possibility. The current Kangaroo Route takes forever, so any cut in the time would be more than welcome. However, only in premium class, please. I’m not sure if it goes against the Human Rights Bill to cram people for more than 20 hours in an economy class seat. 😀

    I also can imagine that they will need a crew cabin for the cabin crew at some point. Being at a workplace for 20+ hours on end (and that isn’t even just having active duty) is really killing.

  9. rich, importvikings, many others always.

    People who fly on these ultra longhaul flights in economy are indeed exist. Yeah, not everyone has that much money to fly in premium cabins. And I have to say, I love flying longhaul in economy, they are absolutely bearable. Okay, I am still in the first half of my twenties, so this might change by age, but currently I have no problem with it, not to mention many of the people in my age can’t even afford flying Ryanair.
    QF A380s has the best economy seats of any airline I’ve ever flown. The shoulder space is huge, legroom is more than enough. Recline is okay (AF 777s has more recline). I easily could spend 20+ hours in those seats.

    I never understood those who are bragging about how they do spend all their life in business/first airplane seats, and making fun of people flying coach.

  10. I’d like to see the opinion of a pilot about this topic.
    I believe they can help us understand that a 20 hour long flight is more work than the 20 hours they spend onboard (+ 2 hours upfront: briefing, planning, checking etc. + I do not know how much time afterwards).
    Plus they arrive to a completely different time zone, they need to get proper rest before flying back.

    So you may say that they’ll do just 4 flight segments a month to fly 80 hours a month (“part time job”) but that would also mean spending 6-9 days in the outpost each time, far from family, trying to recover.

    But again: I’m not a pilot, I’d love to understand what they think about it.

  11. Crew ( cabin crew & pilots) having to work nearly 24hr shift (including the before shift brief & after shift duties) how is that legal?!

  12. Didn’t the Qantas pilots feel betrayed by Joyce lying to them in the last negotiations? The big problem with doing that is it poisons the next round, since he already proved himself untrustworthy. I also read that Qantas’ version of negotiations has been “This is what you’re offered. Take it or leave it because it’s the only offer you’ll get.”. Joyce may be wiley as you say, but that tends to be a poor negotiation stance unless he’s in a position to beat the pilots down again.

  13. Loving longhaul in economy, as Carlson does, needs to be qualified. As he said, he’s in the first half of his twentys; everything is an adventure! I have reached a point in my life where every flight over 1 hour is too much. I am a small, big guy; 6’00 and 225lbs. Every seat is cramped, and not worth it, including my season tickets CFL team, and my NHL teams. I have vowed that the financial pain is worth the comfort of flying in an upgraded cabin and seat. And, Sydney is too far to drive!

  14. I’m not sure how this is going to pan out – I just don’t see negotiations happening before the need to place orders for this aircraft – As it’s unchartered territory for both cabin and flight crew fatigue will be a huge obstacle ( two crews per flight ?) Wait and see

  15. Following closely, an A380 pilot posted a rational breakdown that says the current stopover flights require 7 pilots – 3 on the Sydney/Melbourne to Singapore and 4 over to London. QF currently use Captain, F/O and 2 x Second officers. Pilots seem to want 2 x Capt, 2 x F/O and 1 x S/O on Sunrise, and to mandate that crew decide the roster in advance so 1 x Capt and 1 x F/O arrive on duty ready for sleep. With 5 on board, no one pilot is in the cockpit more than 11 hours (they say).

  16. I was relatively frequent on the old SQ SIN-EWR A340 all J non-stop 18 hours. Great flight: morning departure, lunch, snooze for a few hours, wake up over Alaska, early evening arrival. It was expensive but worth it….no jet lag of any consequence, able to get up and go after a sleep in NYC ( compared to being in a bit of a fog when going via LAX)
    But now, not being under the same time constraints ( and paying for my own tickets), I prefer a stopover if not exactly a milk run. Consequently unlikely to use the QF service ( unless by some miracle award seats became available)…and not in Y in a million years, even if it’s ‘free’

  17. @Carlson
    “I never understood those who are bragging about how they do spend all their life in business/first airplane seats, and making fun of people flying coach.”

    Well, please tell me where I’m bragging about sitting in business or first all day long. Really, please quote me. I just see your assumption that I do, and that’s very preoccupied of you.

    Honestly, I have to fly a lot of economy and economy plus/extra on long haul when my employer or customer pays and I’m usually a complete wreck after 10+ hours in such a seat. I always have to bring a tranquilizer and some diclofenac. As such, to me the prospect of flying 20 hours in such a seat/cabin is just pure horror. Especially since one of my talents is ending up sitting next to an orangutan who is out to destroy my kidneys, while having a kid with ADD in the seat behind me, whose only mission usually is to destroy my seatback and thus my back.

    I once had a chance to book a flight from HEL to AKL via DOH at a bargain rate (under 600 euro for a return) but the idea of sitting 17 hours in economy, even with QR, which I think has good long haul equipment in economy, made me decide not to. Especially not after sitting in an A320 for 6 hours. Unfortunately, business class was 5 times as expensive and I didn’t have enough points to pay with that instead, so I just didn’t book. 🙂

    So yeah, please tell me once more where exactly I brag about sitting in First all the time. And to top it off, show where I look down harshly on passengers in economy. Do you really think I look down on myself?

  18. @import the vikings

    Apologies if you actually did fly next to an orangutan(ESA?). Otherwise who do you call an orangutan? That is rude and racist.

    Also depending on how valuable you are, if flying long haul, ask your employer and client to put you up front. With jet lag, timezones, lack of rest my productivity goes down but my rate per hour doesn’t. Not to mention, I can also (have to) work in the air. Which is a bad thing since pre wifi, flying is where I can really disconnect.

  19. I cant think that Pilots or Cabin Crew would want to operate a flight thats over 20+ hours. Even with rest.

  20. I’m not on board with this, and I love flying. I’ve got no desire to do that journey in one segment, particularly the return (LHR-MEL), which kills me for about 48 hours when I get home. Having most recently made the trip just over a week ago, it’s still fresh in my mind how exhausting it is (and that was flying J).

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