Ultra Long Haul flying: aircraft options and routes?

Qantas 787-9 is being used as a test bed for ULR routes and already performs well on the Perth-London route

You might be surprised to know that Qantas first real Ultra Long Haul Flight, the Perth to London route, operates at a very successful 94% of capacity and it’s premium pricing to save you that 4 hour lay over in the middle of the journey – as much as 40% more than a stop-over flight, is keeping it profitable at a level almost describable as lucrative.

So have no doubt that Qantas is on to a winner with the development of ULH flying. It’s doing the work that every major airline in Europe and the Middle East is waiting to see the results of.

Perth to London is around 19 hours non stop. Longer routes are on the horizon. New York and London from Sydney are the goals – and fully loaded with passengers and crew you’re looking at a commercial time of around 22 hours. Add time shifting into that of -11 hours for London and -16 hours for New York and it becomes a whole new ball game for passenger and crew endurance.

A350-1000ULR version is the prime contender

I’ve had enough by the time I get off at SFO from London after 11 hours. The idea of another 11 in the same seat just about impossible. The longest I’ve ever managed was 14.5 and I was at my wits end by then, in business class!

So what aircraft can even manage the distance?

Going by the most direct routes on the Great Circle Mapper – and these are statute miles as used in the UK and US with Kilometres in parentheses, these are the objectives:

Perth-London Heathrow is 9,009 miles (14,499Km).

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Sydney-JFK New York is 9,950 miles (16,013Km).

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Sydney-London Heathrow is 10,573 miles (17,016Km).

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It’s already been established that a 787-9 can manage the Perth route which now operates daily. However it has only a 500Km range margin, meaning in its current configuration getting to the next level would mean fewer seats and passengers and/or extended fuel tanks. Neither is a good option because the more fuel you carry, the more fuel you need to fly the extra fuel to distance! Fewer seats means less revenue.

Technically speaking an A350-1000 can do the Sydney-JFK run – but not with any margin of fuel. However it wouldn’t take much of a fuel tank increase to add enough to make it viable.

The A350-900ULR is good enough for Perth, but insufficient for the others.

The target is of course the London range and that’s why it matters so much. The A350-1000ULR is the only viable contender from Airbus with a range likely to reach just short of 11,200 miles (18,024 Km).

Will we ever see the 777-8? Boeing says “absolutely”. 

Boeing’s 777-8 was expected to have a range of 16,090 Km, but it’s been put on indefinite hold – and is unlikely to ever see the light of day with few orders and waning interest. It would have taken an extended range version to fulfil the Sydney-London requirement. However despite putting the whole thing on the back burner Boeing say they will, eventually, get round to it. Not if they don’t get any orders they won’t, and 53 isn’t a viable reason to push ahead with it, especially with Qatar looking to opt out of theirs and switch to 777-9’s.

The 777-9 is woefully lacking in planned range at just 13,940 Km – it would need to run light just to do the Perth run and carry extended range tanks.

There seems no doubt then that the only viable contender is Airbus’ A350-1000ULR.

This is the European airlines dream. BA, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, KLM and Lufthansa will all be keenly aware that such an aircraft opens up direct flights to all of Australia. Emirates, Qatar and even Etihad will be able to reach almost anywhere in the world in a single flight because of their geographic position. Even Delta would be in a position to fly from JFK to Australia and it’s happily an A350 operator already.

Virgin Atlantic’s next A350-1000 G-VPRD ‘Rainbow’ has just been delivered  – it won’t take much to persuade them to to opt for the ULR version – Australia is a place they want to go back to.

Yet don’t expect direct flying to take over. For one some people just won’t want to fly non-stop. But the biggest hinderance is the fact that airlines like Emirates feed to their hubs from regional airports and the attraction of getting on your first flight for 6 or 7 hours to Dubai, with an hour or two to change aircraft is more appealing than a short domestic flight and 22 hours non-stop, never mind a great deal cheaper.

Direct flights will have their place, Qantas have already proven they have validity and can make a profit. testing to make it work, with crew, meals, passenger comfort, that’s already under way. It’s just a matter of time.

So the question is, would you do it?