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ULR flight

Jan 27, 2017

Qantas tightens the screws on Airbus and Boeing for ultra long range jets

Qantas wants a big jet to do do what no jets can do so far, but will Airbus or Boeing take the bait?

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Concept graphic of a Boeing 777-X

The quest for extremely long range airliners is actually an old story, but a very good one, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has hauled it out of the drawer and given it a tickle for some post Australia Day publicity.

The best of the stories, although it does contain a few minor factual blemishes, is in the Australian Financial Review, which has in the past, run some similar stories inspired not only by Joyce’s predecessor at Qantas, Geoff Dixon, but Virgin Blue co founder and CEO Brett Godfrey.

Mr Godfrey was at one time convinced that existing 777-200LRs could be flown non-stop from Sydney to London.

Which has always been true for that limited edition airliner, or its less unsuccessful Airbus rival the A340-500, which held the scheduled non-stop service record between Singapore and Newark for nine years. But such flights in the 777-200LR or the A345 couldn’t have carried many more passengers than they did crews  between Sydney or Melbourne and London (including mid-flight replacement crews), and perhaps for $100,000 each way, or eight to ten times as much as top premium fares go for these days.

As the AFR makes clear, Mr Joyce wants them to invest some lazy billions on developing a jet as large as current model 777-300ERs or the hopefully soon to go into service largest version of the Airbus A350, the -1000. But it wants the results of that investment to be able to fly for up to three hours longer than the A345 did on its 18.5 to 20 hour sorties between Newark and Singapore depending on forecast winds and the polar or middle latitude options that confronted Singapore Airlines’ flight planners ever day it was in service on that route.

(Singapore Airlines threw in the towel for Newark non-stops in 2013, however will pick it up again in 2018 with an ultra long range version of the A350-900 which it now has in service but too small in capacity for the ambitions set out by Qantas.)

The A350-1000, big enough for Qantas, but needs more range

The only airline with a case for non-stop flights between Melbourne and Sydney to London or New York is Qantas. And it remains a case held hostage by the spending habits of large, rich, indulgent corporations, most of which have moved offshore from Australia if they were ever here, and exhibit infatuations with insisting their executives fly as much as possible in economy class and share rooms in suburban motels rather than super deluxe hotels.

OK, that’s overstating the current inclinations of company travel account managers just a little, but the bit about offshoring is on the mark, is it not?

If Airbus isn’t going to build new technology upgrades for the A380, even thought Emirates said it would buy another 200 of them if it did, it is highly unlikely, as would be Boeing, to build a dozen or so extreme range makeovers of the A350 for Qantas.

And the current A380s carry a wing and a framework that makes them technically capable of being upgraded to non-stop Australia-Europe flights with new technology engines and a few other billion dollar tweaks anyhow!

There are other hurdles for extremely long range models of Airbuses or Boeings to overcome. (Let’s call them XULR jets to differentiate them.) Unless Airbus does an XULR A380, these will be big twin engined jets. They have to be able to suffer an engine failure during a takeoff roll at a velocity too high for the jet to stop on the remaining runway, and climb away on the remaining engine with enough lift to miss tall trees or buildings that might lie beyond, and then circle for long enough to dump enough fuel to reduce the weight of the aircraft to a value that wouldn’t collapse the undercarriage subjected to the higher stress of touching down compared to taking off.

They also need to complete a normal mission to an airport 20-22 hours away carrying sufficient fuel (all the way from Sydney) to have legal reserves for a last minute diversion to another airport after at least one missed approach.

So the challenges set by Qantas for Airbus and Boeing are highly desirable for a tiny cadre of rich or indulged air travellers, but require massive investments from the plane makers for an incredibly tiny fraction of the global market. Much of that latent demand already flies in very long range corporate jets such as the Gulfstream G650 or versions of the Bombardier Global Express.

The flight times of the jet Qantas wants may not be much faster than a one-stop route through Singapore or Dubai either. When an airliner makes an ultra heavy takeoff it is altitude and speed limited compared to a similar sized jet embarking on a flight of 13-15 hours to the US west coast or a Middle East hub. That is just a function of physics. Lifting a heavier load requires more energy, and if you are stuck at altitudes normally reached by small regional turbo-props for a few hours you burn a lot more fuel in a jet engine than you would at higher, more optimal levels.

None of the above says Joyce is wrong in the long run. The vision may well come true, just as it eventually came true, sort of, for the A345 and 772LR jets for flights that wouldn’t quite reach London or New York from Melbourne or Sydney.

The A350-900 ULR will do everything those earlier ultra long range jets did and with more payload for less fuel. But it’s not enough, yet.

Qantas wants 300 passengers.  The difference between a jet than can typically do 19 hours and deliver 180 passengers at the other end with legal fuel reserves in its tanks and one with up to twice as many customers flying for several extra hours can only be bridged with a lot of capital investment that mightn’t be rewarded, or for customers that won’t exist.

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