The largest version of the A350 now being readied for service

A remarkable breakthrough in the seemingly eternal quest for an airliner that could fly a commercially viable payload non-stop between Sydney or Melbourne and London was reported by Reuters this week, but hardly caused a ripple!

The World of news stories was of course, distracted out of its collective mind by other non-air transport developments.

The Reuters report does however merit very close attention. It has as it indicates caused more than a little excitement in Qantas, which has lusted after such an airliner since before 1989, when it flew a non-viable payload nonstop from London to Sydney in its very first Boeing 747-400.

The nitty gritty of the report is that Airbus says its forthcoming A350-900 ULR or Ultra Long Range twin engine widebody will be capable fairly soon of flying from Australia’s two major cities non-stop to London (which is much harder than from London).

However, the -900 sized A350, which is already flying despite being hostage to incompetent seat manufacturers, and over less epic distances, isn’t as big in plausible ULR capacity as Qantas wants. Nor is the Boeing 777-8, which will be its natural competitor, as it too seems to incorporate the potential for such missions.

Qantas wants the jet in a multi-class 300 passenger format, which given the pressure on available airport slots at both ends of the routes in question is not unreasonable.

But neither Airbus nor Boeing are betraying more than a flicker of polite and ephemeral interest in what Qantas actually wants to do on those routes, or even with non-stops to New York, because they amount to almost nothing when it comes to the overall demand for medium to large long distance jets which don’t need to fly to such extreme lengths.

If you want to kill the economic attractions of a new technology Airbus or Boeing wide-body to 99.9 percent of the market, you burden it with an airframe and other features that all but 0.1 percent of the market would find useless.

In this respect the Airbus plans for the A350 in coming, and potential, ULR formats are more than intriguing. Its shtick is that from 2019 all A350-900s will have the inbuilt potential to be upgraded into A350-900 URLs, thus solving the problem of producing a version of the jet almost nobody wants.

But by then it will also, seat makers permitting, be delivering to clamoring customers the second and larger version of the A350, the -1000, which is closer to, but not close enough to, the size Qantas actually wants for non-stop ultra long range flights, working on the assumption that this larger A350 will also get the ULR treatment fairly soon.

This doesn’t change the impetus of ULR development. It is clear that Qantas will get what it wants from one or both jet makers, provided the world hasn’t gone mad, and the demand for such flights stubbornly refuses to eventuate.

There are some operational issues to overcome in such long duration non-stop flights.

They will require the sacrifice of much more space that might otherwise have been used for passengers for additional pilots, and additional cabin crew. These professionals can’t safely carry out their duties without very careful management of rest periods, and what worked for Singapore Airlines non-stops of sometimes 19 hours duration to and from Newark in A340-500s won’t work for a flight that could readily take every minute as long as current one-stop flights between SE Australia and London via Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Doha.

The idea that such flights could be done three hours faster than one-stop flights today is unfortunately unrealistic. The flights will begin at lower speeds and initial altitudes than those that go non-stop from Sydney to Dallas or Dubai today, and their flight corridor planning will be intensively based on finding the most favorable higher altitude winds, and the least costly over flight navigation charges.

It can be very costly for airlines to use the air space over certain countries, if by flying a little less directly, they will encounter lower navigation charges. Flight planning divisions may need to change the routes selected for specific flights more than once in the 24 hours prior to departure.

The interior of the jets used will also have to be notably more generous in providing toilets than some of the highly questionable cabin formats being seen or proposed on some lesser distance routes today.

These inconvenient truths will tax the attention span of those airlines that seem to regard the normal functioning of the human body in confined spaces as something that can be degraded for the sake of improved cost metrics.

Unless Qantas changes its ways, that flying kangaroo logo may need to be adjusted to one with tightly crossed legs.

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