Australian airline Qantas Airways has ordered a dozen aircraft to offer customers some of the world’s longest passenger flights from Sydney to London and New York by 2025, as pandemic restrictions in the region are lifted and international travel rebounds.
The Australian airline will offer nonstop flights between Australia and Europe and the US after acquiring 12 Airbus A350-1000 aircraft from the European plane maker, the biggest order in its history when combined with an upgrade of its domestic fleet.
The upgrade, called Project Sunrise, is expected to cost between A$3bn and A$3.5bn (US$2bn-2.5bn) and underlines renewed confidence that tourism and business travel are set to rebound after Australia reopened its borders to international travellers in February.
New Zealand, which took an even stricter approach to managing the pandemic, opened its borders to most tourists and business travellers this week, leading Wellington to declare that the country was “back on the map”.
The 101-year-old airline was weeks away from bankruptcy in 2020, according to the company, and even turned to selling pyjamas to generate revenue as it grounded its planes.
Qantas said the pandemic had delayed Project Sunrise by a year but argued that demand for nonstop flights has been proven following the success of the Perth-to-London direct service that it launched in 2018.
The new planes will allow the airline to operate similar services out of its two central hubs of Sydney and Melbourne with flights lasting more than 19 hours. The wide-bodied planes will be 25 per cent more fuel efficient than older long-haul planes, the company said.
“It’s the last frontier and the final fix for the tyranny of distance that has traditionally challenged travel to Australia,” said Alan Joyce, Qantas chief executive, about the routes.
Joyce said that the first Project Sunrise flights would be to New York and London but that the Airbus order could allow direct flights to other destinations including Paris and Frankfurt.
The airline has prioritised its premium segment for the new services, with 40 per cent of the cabin devoted to higher-spending customers.
The planes will carry fewer passengers than existing long-haul flights operated out of Australia and offer more legroom and as well as a “wellbeing zone” on the plane for customers on the long flights to stretch.
That is a scaled-back offering compared with 2018, when Qantas unveiled Project Sunrise and suggested the aircraft could include gyms, bunk beds for children and workstations.
The push to offer nonstop flights out of Australia follows a tough period for the airline industry over the Easter holiday, when thinly-staffed airports led to customers queueing for hours to pass through security.
Joyce was widely criticised after blaming passengers for the chaotic scenes, arguing that travellers were not “match fit” and had forgotten to remove laptops and aerosol sprays when clearing security.
Qantas shares gained 4 per cent and hit a six-month high following the Project Sunrise announcement. The airline also released a positive trading statement that showed better than expected earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation for the second half of the year of between A$450mn and A$550mn and net debt of A$4.5bn, lower than had been forecast.
Matt Ryan, an analyst with Australian investment bank Barrenjoey, said that Qantas had proved that domestic flights had recovered to strengthen confidence in the airline’s growth prospects. “Demand is strong across the board,” he said.