Qantas eyes ‘flagship’ cabin update for proposed Project Sunrise routes

Oct 21, 2019

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Qantas Airways would roll out a “flagship” product for the planes flying its proposed “Project Sunrise” routes — if it ends up flying them at all.

The airline expects to decide by the end of the year if it will seek nonstop flights to New York and London from the eastern Australia cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. But, if Qantas does decide to launch those flights, passengers would likely see four classes of service on whatever aircraft Qantas would pick. That would include a new first-class product and refreshed cabins for business and premium economy.

“We’re talking about having a first-class product that leapfrogs what’s there today,” Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told TPG on Sunday onboard Qantas Flight 7879, operating nonstop from New York to Sydney.

He said Qantas also is looking at “a new business class and a new premium economy” for those routes. There also would be a standard economy section, though Joyce pledged those seats would “have more seat pitch than (on) any aircraft we’ve ever done.”

Related: Behind the scenes: What it was like on the 19-hour Project Sunrise flight

Joyce’s comments came on the 19-hour, 16-minute flight that made Qantas the first-ever passenger airline to fly nonstop between New York and Sydney. The 10,000-mile journey was the first of three Sydney flights that Qantas will make as part of a broader project it’s dubbed “Project Sunrise.”

Qantas says it’s using the flights – two from New York and Sydney and one from London – to help conduct research on the effects that ultra-long-haul flying has on both passengers and crew.

Currently, no commercial aircraft is capable of flying those routes with a full load of passengers and cargo. But, in kicking off its Project Sunrise initiative, Qantas has challenged jetmakers Boeing and Airbus update their long-haul jets with the capability of flying those routes fully loaded.

For its Project Sunrise research flights, Qantas is using Boeing 787-9 jets that are flying with just about 50 people including crew. That light load allows the jets to fly farther, enabling Qantas to pull off the three special flights that would normally be too far for the plane.

The one from New York that landed in Sydney on Sunday has generated worldwide buzz.

Related: First look: Qantas Airways’ historic Project Sunrise flight touches down in Sydney

Some critics have said Qantas’ Project Sunrise flights are nothing more than a clever publicity stunt, noting that other airlines fly flights that are nearly as long. Singapore Airlines’ Flight 21 between Newark and Singapore, for example, covers about 9,500 miles with a scheduled time of up to 18 hours, 30 minutes. It’s currently the world’s longest regularly scheduled flight.

But the Qantas CEO pushed back against that claim.

“There’s a real purpose to this, which is the testing of the pilots and testing of passengers,” Joyce said to TPG. “It was done for that purpose. The media was the secondary thing behind it.”

He noted that even if the plane manufacturers come through on its challenge, Qantas would still have to win support from both pilots and regulators to allow for flights that would reach 22 hours or more, depending on daily flying conditions.

Related:Farewell to a queen: What it was like to be on the last revenue flight of a Qantas 747-400

“Pilots are data driven,” Joyce said. “So if you can show them the benefits – how to improve their rest, how to make sure fatigue is managed – they love that, and they want to see the scientific information.”

If Qantas does eventually push ahead with the long Project Sunrise routes, they likely would begin in 2023 as the carrier begins taking the aircraft that would fly them.

As for the cabin updates being considered, Joyce said that given the length of the routes, “we’ll have a dedicated area for premium economy and economy that will be an exercise area or a general-use area.”

“That area could be used as a stand-up bar area. It could be used to let kids play there for a while,” he added. ”When we’re ready for our flight, it will have multiple purposes.”

Joyce also talked more about adding a first-class cabin to the proposed New York and London flights.

Despite a recent industry trend by some airlines to eliminate or reduce international first class in favor of business class, Joyce said a first-class cabin also would be an important consideration for these flights.

The cabin would be small but could be a big draw for top-end corporate travelers willing to pay more for quicker, nonstop options connecting Sydney to the prime business centers of New York and London. The cabin also would be symbolic of the routes’ importance.

“We think because it will be our flagship product, that you want to have first class on that to signify that this is really flagship of the company,” Joyce said. “And that has to be really special.”

Featured image by Ben Mutzabaugh/TPG.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce signs his name to a banner during a post-flight press conference for Project Sunrise in Sydney on Oct. 20, 2019. (Photo by Ben Mutzabaugh/The Points Guy)
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce signs his name to a banner during a post-flight press conference for Project Sunrise in Sydney on Oct. 20, 2019. (Photo by Ben Mutzabaugh/The Points Guy)
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