ULR flight

Aug 27, 2017

Qantas faces extra hurdle in doing London, Paris, Frankfurt non-stop flights

Even if Airbus and Boeing come up with what Qantas wants, it could be undone by ATC reform inertia

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

In everyone’s dreams, a beeline between Sydney and London

While Qantas has focused on a shortfall in ultra long range aircraft performance as blocking its quest for viable non-stop flights from Australia’s eastern cities to London, Paris and Frankfurt there is another arguably much more difficult obstacle to overcome.

It is air traffic control reform, primarily in China and the multiple organisational sensitivities that drag down the efficiency of navigation across EU skies.

The Great Circle Mapper site graphic shown at top of page displays the optimum 17,016 kilometer that could be flown between Sydney Airport and London Heathrow.

It runs right into the thick of the dysfunctional (from the airline point of view) ATC jungle over China, well before European skies are traversed. China’s air navigation issues are well discussed in technical forums, and explained by experts in such things as reflecting its defence rather than civil aviation priorities.

What non China airlines might think about the consequences of this is not of any material importance to the PRC. It’s their sky, get over it.

But it could retard an otherwise perfectly direct transit of the PRC by a future Qantas 777-9 LR or A350-900 ULR by an hour, or more, and totally trash the benefits of improved long range performance should Airbus or Boeing indulge the Australian carrier’s wishes for the necessary improvements to be available by 2022.

Between China and the prickly situations that seems to arise all too often in the patchwork air traffic control suppliers in the EU, technological advancement could be neutered by political or administrative retardation.

Not that the current state of affairs across the Middle East for flights via Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha (the home hubs for Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways) is anything but a pain, compounded at times by congestion at the main Dubai airport.

But ultra long range jets approaching the end of 20 hour or longer non-stop flights from Australia need to burn prodigious amounts of fuel just to carry fuel required for mandatory reserves for diversions caused not just by inefficient air traffic control, but sudden airport closures for weather or other reasons, as well as stronger than forecast en route headwinds, and so on and so forth.

On the way, such jets will have been so heavy at takeoff that they will not be as fast for some hours, nor as high flying and thus fuel efficient, as less heavy jets with engines and airframes designed around flights seldom lasting more than 15 hours in the air.

At various times in the past, proposals to fly a radically different route from Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne to say London have been made.

This would involve following a NE heading up to the high arctic of Alaska and Canada, or on some days, NE Siberia and maybe even crossing over the north pole before flying down the other side of the globe to the final destination.

There are insurmountable problems with this concept. It involves in the case of a Sydney to London flight, by way of example, around an extra 1000 to 1300 kilometers and at high arctic latitudes, low velocity NE headwinds are potentially more common than useful westerly breezes.

When things turn nasty in the Arctic, as in nastier than usual, the weather paralysis visited on Europe generally comes in from the NE.

A useful set of tools for toying with routes between Australian and European cities via the North Pole (and South Pole) can be found here. The results overflying Fairbanks, Point Barrow, or points in the Yukon, are daunting.

The economics and maths involved in ultra long flight are pretty dismal at this stage. ATC and airport congestion will quite possibly keep them that way for longer than Qantas, and other airlines, and Airbus and Boeing would like.

But eventually they will be overcome.

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30 thoughts on “Qantas faces extra hurdle in doing London, Paris, Frankfurt non-stop flights

  1. nonscenic

    I’m not sure how much has been done with fuel and engine design to safeguard against the fuel icing problems of prolonged polar flights followed by descents into higher latitude airports (remember BA’s 777 hull loss at LHR). Add to this the increased problems of electronics being affected by solar storms near the poles and the ducks could line up for new episodes of Aircrash Investigation.

    1. JW (aka James Wilson)


      The fuel icing problem that brought down BA38 only affected B777s powered by RR Trent engines. That problem was rectified quite some time ago by modifications to the Trent’s fuel-oil heat exchanger. Newer B777s such as the -300ER/-200LR and the upcoming B777-8/9 are all powered by GE engines that are not susceptible to the icing problem.

      Polar flying isn’t new; every day there are plenty of long haul flights that cross the North Pole or thereabouts on flights between Asia and North America. Reputable airlines monitor the solar activity (‘space weather’) and re-route flights in the event of solar storms that might cause problems. Solar storms not only have the potential to affect aircraft electronics, they can also dramatically increase the occupants’ exposure to ionising radiation. Remember to take your lead underwear!

  2. Jacob HSR

    Some people might be able to sit for 20 hours straight – young people? But then young people tend to have less money and more time than 50 year olds. Which leads to the Colombo option.

    There will be direct daily flights from MEL to CMB from 30 Oct onwards. One benefit is how cheap it will be to get from MEL to LHR via CMB. Another massive benefit is how balanced the journey will be – 650 mins to CMB and another 710 mins to LHR. Rather than 14 hours from MEL to DXB.

    1. Deano DD

      What is stopping Qantas setting up a hub at the likes of Colombo ?
      They, in the past hubbed through Asia and currently hub at LA with flights meeting at LA and offloading pax on to NY
      I totally get that they are attempting to make a point of difference alternative to the ME3 and Asian carriers….
      However, I believe that once someone in J class experiences a 20 hour non stop flight, their next booking will be with a stop over
      My belief is that Qantas should configure their 787s all business for these ultra long haul sectors and they may have a chance of repeat business
      It may be pie in the sky, but I would love to see Qantas rally the Sri Lankan government on the benefits of a Qantas hub at Colombo from all first and second tier Australian destinations to multiple European destinations

      1. Dan Dair

        Jacob / Deano,
        Sounds like an excellent ‘interim’ plan.
        Start to take-back some of the market share lost to Emirates & the other ME2, by offering a hub with a better flight-time balance, whilst we (& qantas) wait for there ULR aircraft to actually be available.?

        I’d imagine that the Sri-Lankan government & particularly Columbo airport would be enthused by the plan & may be prepared to offer concessions on slot-availability & priority-routing in some cases.?

        This seem to me to be a good case for marketing teams to make a virtue out of a necessity.
        The current aircraft HAS to stop somewhere;
        Why not have it stop more-or-less in the middle of the flight.????

        1. Deano DD

          Perhaps this would make an even better business case
          Qantas direct to Europe with luxury 787s business and premium economy only
          Jetstar 787s via Colombo 2 class aimed at the tourist and perhaps a few second hand A380s when they come on to the market
          50% up front in “real” economy and 50% down the back in budget class

          The point of difference could be Australian opps from
          Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane
          Canberra, Gold Coast, Newcastle, Sunshine Coast, Townsville, Cairns, Darwin, Hobart and perhaps Auckland
          Some of the above second tier airports may not justify daily flights but 2-4 flights per week to multiple European destinations one stop may well depart with full loads

          1. Dan Dair

            I’m not convinced that after an A380, ‘350, ‘330 flight from London,
            I’d be enthusiastic to get on a JetStar ‘Sardineliner'(TM) for my final leg of the journey.?

        2. Jacob HSR

          What plan? Air Lanka will fly from MEL to CMB this year. And they already fly from CMB to LHR.

          Not sure how good or bad the airline is but it seem to be the cheapest way to get from MEL to LHR if I muck around on Google Flights (4 Nov 2017).

          Alternatively, Qantas could fly SYD to DEL and British Airways already flies twice a day from DEL to LHR. So, British staff and Aussie staff all the way with no 14 hour leg.

      2. comet

        There is no way Qantas would choose Colombo has a hub. Won’t happen.

  3. patrick kilby

    I think the polar route will be used more often than not depending on winds. I did it on JAL once and one of the more fascinating routes, looking at Siberian forests and coming souyt through Finland. Jacob a few years back KLM flew via Colombo, but not for long. We will see how much traffic Srilankan airlines grabs. Not the best place for a stopover. I prefer fewer stopovers, and if there must be any then a long and a short leg (or vice versa) thus the attraction of DFW over LAX (to East Coast) , and Perth over DXB from next year from Canberra (and one stop fewer). Nothing worse than wandering around in DXB or waiting for the shower queue in the lounge (Moet in hand the only consellation) that never shortens, or the Melb queue, or the Sydney bus.

    1. Jacob HSR

      KLM flew from where to where via Colombo?

      1. J_sh

        I flew on a KLM B747 from MEL to AMS in 1980 or thereabouts, at the time of the pilots’ strike which saw many QF cancellations. Flight originated in SYD. It went via CMB for a refuelling stop then, IIRC, Abu Dhabi. That was when QF stopped in SIN and again in Bahrain. At CMB the plane must have been parked way out on the edge of the airfield because we did not disembark and there was nothing to be seen through the window. Pitch black with what just one or two lights showing off in the distance.

    2. Dan Dair

      I wasn’t imagining an ‘overnight’ in Columbo, just a refuelling stop.
      So, like Singapore, you’d get off the plane for a couple of hours maximum, whilst they refuel
      & most of you get back on the same plane, with a few ‘newbies’, replacing a few who’ve got off (like Singapore).?

  4. Tom the first and best

    Qantas could start with flights to a closer part of Europe, such as Athens or Rome. This would have the benefit of feeding connecting flights all over Europe with little or no back-tracking.

    1. Dan Dair

      I’d suspect that part of the problem with not flying to Holland, Germany, France or England is that the onward connections to the rest of Europe just aren’t there.?
      Sure, you can get to other capital cities, but there aren’t the direct connections to major secondary-cities that these countries can offer.?

      1. Tom the first and best

        Rome Airport has lots of destinations, including many secondary cities in the larger European nations like France, Germany, Spain, etc. The UK has several but would probably have more if it was in the Schengen area. Although many of the smaller regional connections are seasonal (mainly in Summer as Italy is major Summer holiday destination in Europe).


        Athens is similar.


        Vienna is another potential, given all its connections.


  5. patrick kilby

    JACOB as I recall Amsterdam – Colombo-Sydney, it was the flight I took when I had work to do in Sri Lanka. Late ’80s as I recall. It was one of only a few one stop option at the time. QF went via Sing and Bahrain and then shifted to one stop via Mumbai. All pre 747-400, so had to use a mid-point on the journey but pretty average airports.

  6. comet

    This is an excellent story, Ben.

    I haven’t heard it said before, that China’s ATC chaos would thwart Qantas’ plans for direct flights. I wonder if Alan Joyce has considered it. Likely not.

    China is prepared to see its own economy throttled to allow its military preeminence. It won’t care about Qantas.

    1. Dan Dair

      With respect, Comet,
      China has to perceive an issue before it will implement a solution to that problem.
      How can they consider any economic deficiency if they’re not looking past their defensive priorities.?

      Like so much in the world, countries are looking at protectionism, rather than looking at the mutual benefits of world trade links.?

  7. [email protected]

    Every obstacle still points back to Singapore being the ideal spot to aggregate flights from Australia and distribute them to Europe.
    Qantas had that opportunity but chose to leave it and head to the desert sand. That left Singapore Airlines with a good number of flights from all over Australia hubbing in Singapore with no competition. The China problem weighs down on Hong Kong as a hub and all the other hubs can’t match Changi Airport for getting it right.

    1. patrick kilby

      Endeavour, the reason QF prefers to aggregate flights in Dubai is that EK has a greater reach, and SQ is not a QF partner. If it is about aggregating on to QF metal than Perth makes much more sense which is what QF is doing with the 789s.

      1. comet

        The only people that ‘Perth on a 787’ would make sense to are masochists and those into self-flagellation.

        1. Dan Dair

          I would have thought more self-bondage than “self-flagellation”.?

          (I appear to be showing a worrying knowledge of S&M.?)

      2. [email protected]

        Why does Perth make more sense for QF? They then have to make a super long flight that reduces the payload. Singapore was always a great spot to aggregate flights from Australian ports to distribute on to European destinations. It divides the flight times a bit more evenly and eliminates backtracking or side tracking. Anyway, that is QF’s business. SQ will be the winner.

  8. comet

    Off topic: Looking at that great circle map, I pondered and wondered how much threat do North Korean missiles pose to civilian airliners?

    A missile launched over Japan must be travelling through a very busy and congested airspace. With its incredible speed, I assume Japanese ATC gets little or no warning of a missile’s approach.

    1. Tom the first and best

      I believe long rage missile fly at a much higher altitude (the hundreds of kilometres) than commercial air traffic.


      1. comet

        Thanks for that, Tom. I guess airline passengers can look out the window and see a strange contrail moving at high speed above them. North Korean missiles also have a habit of unexpectedly plunging back down to earth.

      2. Dan Dair

        “long rage missile”

        Possibly more accurate than what you meant to say.?

        1. Dan Dair

          I agree with what you were saying.
          The missiles cruise at a much higher altitude than airliners, however there would be ascent & decent corridors where the missile(s) might potentially encounter passenger aircraft in flight.?

          1. Tom the first and best

            The “long rage” must have been sub-conscious.

            The assent corridor would presumably be over North Korea and the decent corridor in well into international waters and thus far from any airports.

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