Ultra long range – is Airbus about to scoop the prize?

Qantas revelled in record profits this week, but that’s not what really matters to the aircraft manufacturers.

There is more than enough rumour and associated fact to suggest that Airbus right now has the edge over Boeing in two of the much prized competitions for orders.

Qantas has made its Project Sunrise – the ability to fly non- stop from Sydney to London Heathrow – a cornerstone of its future strategy. If they can reach Heathrow, few other places that matter will be out of range either.

Singapore Airlines has just started to take delivery of the first A359ULR to allow it to reach New York non-stop.

Airbus has told Qantas and Air New Zealand that it’s looking to give the A350-1000 the ULR treatment. This would allow greater range – enough to overcome the additional weight. It would also allow enough passengers in three classes to make the flight profitable.

Boeing is working flat out to maximise the 777-8 to meet the airlines requirements and steal away the orders, but few think it can deliver the aircraft before 2023-24 and Airbus will be ready by 2021-22.

Even if it did the 777-8 would struggle to compete with an ULR optimised A35K.

Qantas has said it wants to issue its final requirements by September 2019. There’s no doubt the airline’s already indicated what it wants and the manufacturers are trying their best to meet their ideal.

It may come down to simple things in the end. Is it better to have pilots and crews that can swap from 787-9’s to 777-8’s? Or is it just as valuable to have A330 and A380 pilots swap to A350’s?

For Air New Zealand that question is easier to answer as they’re a Boeing long haul operator exclusively- for Qantas it’s a lot more complicated issue.

The ULR prize has big implications for direct flights around the world. British Airways and other European airlines will be eyeing it closely. Only BA still flies to Sydney – not a single other European airline does. Nobody flies to New Zealand. Both are long overdue direct flights as booming tourism and trade links – especially with Brexit and Britain’s efforts to re-jig its trade mean new opportunities.

And it would mean bypassing the big ME3 carrier’s Gulf hubs. What European airline doesn’t want to find a way of doing that?