ULR flight

Apr 9, 2017

A difficult quest for Sydney-London non-stops comes closer to reality

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

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

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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23 thoughts on “A difficult quest for Sydney-London non-stops comes closer to reality

  1. Jacob HSR

    The SIN to EWR (New York) flight had 100 business class seats and no 3rd class seats. So I think everyone on board could sleep on a flat bed and avoid back pain.

    If QF decides that SYD to LHR need not be exclusively business class, they will have to find people who are willing to sit down for 20 hours at a time. Yet the Reuters article says QF will be able to command a premium? Pay more to suffer back pain?

    1. Creeper

      I was reading an article yesterday about Qantas potentially charging a premium for PER-LHR. Considering the majority of traffic originates from MEL/SYD I still don’t know what this premium price is actually giving you, considering there are more comfortable options that are still one stop for a better price (and still gets you there within the same timeframe).

      I can understand charging a premium for Perth based users of the flight, but that’s about it.

      1. patrick kilby

        Creeper the majority of the Perth LHR traffic will be from Perth, Adel, CBR and Mel where the plane originates. I prefer the DFW-SYD flight for East coast US destinations with a 17hr return as I prefer a shorter leg and a longer leg (or vice versa) I don’t think I am alone given the popularity of the flight. A short stop after a shorter flight in a small terminal (Perth) is preferred to a longer stop after a longer flight in a vast terminal (Dubai); and a non stop is even better.

  2. TDeeSyd

    I sense from the first two comments a similar confusion. How many of the people who fly from Australia to LHR would be willing to pay a premium and sit down for 20 hours? Or pay a premium, fly through to Perth (from over east) and sit down for 16+hours? To save 3hrs? How many of the flights per year are modeled by the airline to require a tech stop due to unfavourable winds aloft (therefore defeating its key purpose), or as Ben highlights….to avoid contested (or expensive) airspace.
    No doubt there are smart people crunching the numbers, but i just don’t get it. 10-12 hrs is about my limit in an economy seat, before I start getting itchy for a stroll/beer/both. I watch with interest as always

  3. comet

    The proposed Qantas Perth – London flights using a 787 Dreamliner are a grave mistake.

    I predict it will quickly gain the reputation for pain. It will tarnish Qantas’ reputation, people will soon stop flying on it and the route will be abandoned.

    The only question will be whether Qantas gets its fingers burned and abandons all Ultra-Long Haul, or whether it learns its lesson and adds significantly more space to future ULH flights such as SYD-LHR.

    But there is no doubt whatsoever that Perth-London in a 787 will fail. Nobody in their right mind would fly it.

    1. patrick kilby

      Comet do note United (and others) uses 789s on very long flights. I suspect Perth-LHR will be quite successful as from Canberra, depending on connection time, will save one stop and so a couple of hours off the trip and for me a small terminal (Perth) is much preferred to Dubai or even Singapore.

      1. Dan Dair

        I agree,
        tee whole point, IMO, of the Perth non-stop, will be to ‘suck-in’ all those who would otherwise fly domestically to Sydney or Melbourne for an onward one-stop to London.
        These passengers will fly to Perth instead & then non-stop to London.
        Additionally, these people will be flying to Perth which is slightly closer to London, thus making an additional marginal time-saving.

        Taking time-out on the way isn’t necessarily an option for most travellers. Business people will have time-constraints & many leisure travellers will want to arrive at their destination asap, so a couple of days stopover each way isn’t necessarily a sensible option for a two week holiday on the other side of the world.?

        1. comet

          Dan Dair – If you don’t mind being squished into the narrowest seats in the air for 20+ hours straight, then maybe you should try it and write us all a review.

          1. Dan Dair

            We’ll not be able to see whether it’s going to work commercially until this time next year.?

            In the meantime, QF have plenty of time to evaluate just how many seats, toilets & passenger amenities they’re going to equip these B787’s with.
            They might yet see sense & go back to a seating-format closer to Boeings’ original set-up, for this long-range service.?
            Also, Qantas insurers might have the final say about the likelihood of DVT claims, because of tight seating & long travel times.? It could make the ‘bean-counters’ re-evaluate their calculations.?

        2. Jacob HSR

          I doubt it. PER to DXB is 14 times per week. PER to AUH is 7 times. PER to DOH is 7 times.

          (just type into Google “ADL to DXB” and up comes a nice table)

          So people can already fly to PER to get to Middle East to get to Europe. And GC Mapper website says SYD – PER – LHR = 17783 km. While SYD – DXB – LHR = 17544 km. SYD – HKG – LHR = 17019 km.

  4. ian kemp

    I flew direct on the 747 in 1989. I’m telling you, after 17 hours you just want to get off. Can’t sleep, don’t want to watch another movie, can’t read any more, bored of listening to music – would like to go for a walk but can’t…. Today I live in Perth but if I was going to Europe I’d much rather do a day or two stopover in Singapore or KL. Even Dubai if necessary, but direct – never again!

  5. comet

    Since the days of the Super Constellation, toilets on planes have become progressively smaller each decade.

    So I guess it’s the next step for Alan Joyce to remove some of the toilets altogether from his new 787 Dreamliner that he will put on the Perth-Heathrow run.

    Because of the Dreamliner’s exceptionally narrow seating – with shoulder rubbing shoulder – there will be more people standing in the aisles and congregating around the few remaining toilets.

    What if one of these​ toilets gets blocked, not long after leaving Perth?

    PER->LHR on a 787 Dreamliner is going to be a horror flight of unimaginable discomfort.

  6. Woopwoop

    Deep Vein Thrombosis galore!

  7. Tango

    Singapore is trying one of the 900ER on their Singapore to New York route.

    They can carry all of 177 passengers (quite comfy and spacious) Obviously one of the one off Boutique routes for high paying passengers between to major financial /industrial centers. Beijing to NY maybe another one. Other than that? NY to London done on an A319!

    Quanta’s can squawk all they want, its just not going to happen.

    If anyone identified with Australasian its an Alaskan. We get single aisle to the states and that is all there is to that (granted only 3.5 hours)

    You see markets being fragmented where the old A330 with new engines compete with a much latter 787 on certain segments. So close to equal that the cost of the aircraft plays into it (though not as much as Airbus would like)

    Ben may remember the days, most don’t, we would fly someplace from Alaska to Seattle.

    We had waits up to 23 hours and another one of 17 hours to catch an aircraft out to the Midwest USA. Going nuts with nothing to do and that was on the ground where you could walk /run around.

    I would need 3 books to make 17 hours in the air. Ungh on steroids.

  8. Ben Sandilands

    I haven’t been to Alaska since 1975, much to my regret. Apart from using the wonderful sea-road ferry from Seattle to Petersburg and Ketchikan, I also flew Seatac to Anchorage on a Western 727-200, and from Anchorage to Honolulu on a Western ‘hot rod’, the 707-138 also initially used by Qantas. Within Alaska I took the Wien Air Alaska combi version 737-100 0r -200 up to Fairbanks and then beyond to Barrow, and across to Prudhoe Bay to the site of the North Slope pipeline camp, landing on gravel. There were various Otter and Beaver flights on light float planes as well. I climbed mountains in those days with band of similarly addicted thrill seekers. They were good times, very good times.

  9. derrida derider

    So, if a Syd-LHR is not big enough for bulk carriage, why not make it ultra-luxurious? Get an all-business class 787 or similar to do it, with what would otherwise be a ‘non-viable’ load. The time saved will be enough for corporate slaves to convince their beancounters that it is worth the extra money, and you can treat them like kings for a day to ease their miserable lives.
    That frees your existing 380s, or your new 350s or 777s, to be all cattle class. Really squeeze ’em in tight, treat ’em the way Ryanair does, and have two, not one, stops to periodically decompress the cargo. Not only can people then stretch their legs, consume edible food and empty their bladders in spacious comfort, you save an awful lot on rest crews and fuel load. The extra travel time is actually a plus in persuading those corporate beancounters to send their minions by the luxury vessel.

    1. Dan Dair

      Derrida Derider,
      An excellent marketing idea,
      however, judging from the number of all-business class airlines which have come & gone over the last ten years or so, I suspect any new airline with that business model would go the same way.
      If you can’t make it work on the high-profile, high-frequency, heavy-use & comparatively short trans-Atlantic route, you’re probably not going to make it work on an ultra-long-haul, halfway around the world route to London from Australia.

      1. derrida derider

        But the critical difference from the “comparatively short” Atlantic route is the much greater time saved going nonstop on an ultra-longhaul route. It’s that, not the extra luxury (which is anyway just a by-product of not being able to load your non-stop plane to the gunwales), that will make it attractive to those paying corporate travel bills. Trans-Atlantic business class is all about comfort and prestige, and corporate accounts won’t pay much for that. But they will to get more hours of actual work out of their executives.

  10. Letterboxfrog

    I believe a rebrand to Deep-Vein Thrombosis Airlines would be in order to reflect the impact on passengers on the SYD-LAX route.

  11. Steven Smith

    I haven’t seen any information on (1) where pax LHR-PER-Eastern States/ACT will pass through immigration and (2), whether they need to retrieve luggage and check it in again for the sector within Australia?

    1. Ben Sandilands

      The process will be the same as it is now. If I board a domestic sector that will continue to an international destination my bags are checked through to the final airport (er, well, one hopes so). However I will have to clear passport control and personal security checks at the last domestic airport before I continue, and that as every Melbourne frequent flyer knew and hated, usually involved the frustrating trek from one side of Sydney airport to the other, except on a few flights where the flight used the international gates at Sydney, and those who had boarded in Melbourne as domestic flyers were diverted down their dedicated line where a domestic boarding pass with a prominent stamp meant you didn’t have to go through inbound passport control etc.
      I think your question is very important to the success of the new Qantas service, since they will have to massage the process at Perth to avoid all of the things passengers hated when you flew from Melbourne to the “World” via Australia’s worst airport.

      1. Steven Smith

        Thanks Ben. To clarify though; my question related more to what happens when flying TO Australia from LHR? Any advice?

        1. Ben Sandilands

          Hi Steven,
          My mind is wandering as I navigate chemo I fear. I believe it will be the reverse, just like the process in the US for example. You enter Australia in Perth, and then rejoin the flight, or any other for that matter, as a domestic passenger. Your bags will have to be collected and then rechecked for the onward flight after you go through customs. However it isn’t totally clear to me whether Qantas will keep the PER-MEL leg as international to Tullamarine, and make purely domestic travellers use the old system of a special channel to exit in Melbourne as domestic pax. (That system was so porous in terms of security that I have my doubts they would do that.)

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