Qantas calls for Ultra Long Range Aircraft – why hasn’t it already happened?

 

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Qantas announced they’d written to Boeing and to Airbus with a requirement, that by 2022 they should enable aircraft to fly from Sydney to London and New York non stop. They also want to be able to fly from Brisbane and Melbourne to London and Paris.

You may ask why has nobody ever done it before?  The answer is they have, but with payload restrictions that make such flights impractical. A 747 did it years ago.

It isn’t just about fuel load, which inevitably would cramp any prospect. If you gave up some cargo space, you could almost certainly put in more tanks, with all the other safety implications dealt with.

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You’d also need crew, at least three, if not four full sets of pilot and first officers, plus sufficient cabin crew with rest space, plus additional water, catering space and quite possibly, somewhere for people to move about without impairing aisles. You’re looking at a 19-20 hour flight minimum, and given geopolitical considerations and random issues, possibly as much as 22.

There’s also another partial solution recently employed by Air India to the US, and already in use by Air New Zealand, rather than fly to London East to West as they do now, stopping in Dubai (though this will change with the 789 route stopping first in Perth), the could fly West to East. By cutting quickly north into the northern hemisphere the prevailing winds can reduce flight times significantly – Air India has saved up to 2 hours but usually between 60-90 minutes.  ANZ stopped flying westward years ago and its Aukland-London route stops in LAX before flying to London.

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Yet there’s more to it than that. With a non stop-aircraft, you could fly out one way and back the other – the circumnavigation route, utilising prevailing winds and jet streams the entire way.

But if you’re Qantas there’s another reason you’d be really happy to have ULR aircraft; you could safely tell Emirates to stuff their partnership deal and wave goodbye. The deal, which went deeply against the grain of Oneworld airline Partners BA and especially Cathay Pacific, started Qantas landing in Dubai to refuel rather than Hong Kong, a better option for passengers perhaps, but one Qantas has never been delighted with and Emirates have exploited to the full.

ULR aircraft would completely short-circuit Emirates, Qatar and Etihad from Europe to Australia, no more transit needs, no wasted time. European airlines might even see an opportunity to return to the market – only one flight a day originates from a European carrier to the land down under at present, BA’s 773ER service flies via Hong Kong. Not one other European major or minor flies to Australia or New Zealand now, but suddenly, it might just become viable again.

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Is it impossible with current aircraft? I think a 777-8/9 or an A350-1000 might be able to cross the full threshold, modified of course, without making it unviable, as long as it  holds the right passenger numbers to keep it economical. The A359ULR ordered by Singapore is a start, but it’s not enough. It will be all about re-engineering some of the interior space and being more creative, modifying engines, tweaking aerodynamics, higher cruising altitudes, maybe nearer 50,000ft to reduce drag even further, and software and navigation management improvements. I really can’t see why it’s impossible. But is it something with a big enough market to make it worth developing? And will the ME3 sit still and let themselves be bypassed without threatening the manufacturer over other orders? Never underestimate the back room politics and arm twisting that will go on to make, or break, any hope of any of it ever taking shape.

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