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If Qantas flies nonstop from Sydney to London by 2022 as it hopes, it wants to revolutionize the travel experience, possibly using new seat designs, even in economy class, and perhaps installing berths in the cargo hold or adding onboard bars and other amenities, executives said Monday at a briefing in Sydney.
“All things are on the table right now as we work through the development phase,” Alison Webster, CEO of the airline’s international division, said in a discussion at the IATA Annual General Meeting, a conference of airline executives. “This is about re-imaging how long-haul travel will take place.”
On specifics, Qantas executives played it coy, as they have since last summer, when they outlined their challenge to Boeing and Airbus. They want one of the manufacturers to build them an aircraft capable of reaching Europe and New York, flights that could take 20 or more hours. Earlier this year, Qantas began flying its first nonstop to Europe, London to Perth using a Boeing 787-9, but that segment is considerably shorter. In recent days, the Perth to London flight has been taking slightly more than 17 hours, according to Flightaware.com
No aircraft on the market can do what Qantas envisions. The only one that comes close, the Airbus A350 ultra-long-range, will begin flying later this year when Singapore Airlines launches what will be the world’s longest flight — New York to Singapore.
But to keep the airframe lighter, Singapore is putting only 161 business class and premium economy seats on aircraft that ordinarily carries at least 250 in business, premium economy and economy. And even with the unusual configuration, Singapore CEO Goh Choon Phong said Monday the aircraft may not always be able to fill every seat because of payload restrictions.
Qantas executives said they expect their aircraft to carry roughly 300 passengers, though they acknowledged it may not be able to carry freight, which is why the airline is open to using the cargo hold for passenger berths. In April, Airbus said it was working with Zodiac Aerospace to develop opulent resting berths for passengers in cargo holds by 2020.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said the airline is now working on a technical evaluation with both manufacturers, while it negotiates with pilots on an agreement to fly the proposed routes, and discusses issues about ultra-long-haul flying with regulators. There is some concern pilots and cabin crew are not as fresh on such long sectors.
Later this year, Joyce said, Qantas will start a formal request for proposal process that could be completed as soon as 2019. “That’s when we put an order in for the aircraft to arrive in 2022.”
The most obvious candidates are special long-range versions of the next-generation Boeing 777 and the Airbus A350.
Joyce said there’s no guarantee Qantas will place an order, but he noted new aircraft could change how the airline operates. Most of the world’s major cities already connected by long-haul aircraft that can fly 16 or more hours, but Australia is an outlier because of its location. Webster called a next-generation plane a “hub-busting aircraft” because passengers would no longer need to connect in Los Angeles, Singapore or Dubai to reach some of Qantas’ most desirable destinations in North America and Europe.
After London and New York, Joyce said Frankfurt and Paris are the most obvious destinations. But others loom, too.