Qantas is set to become the latest carrier to jump onto the ultra-long-haul bandwagon, with plans to launch the first-ever nonstop scheduled services between Australia and the UK in March 2018.
The Oneworld carrier will use its 236-seat Boeing 787-9s to fly a 17-hour, 7,830nm (14,500km) route between Perth and London, which it has hailed as a “game-changer” for the Kangaroo route.
“Australians have never had a direct link to Europe before, so the opportunities this opens up are huge,” said Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce at the official announcement on 11 December.
But the path to launching the flights has been anything but smooth, and follows a few tense weeks of negotiations between the airline, Perth airport and the Western Australian state government. The Perth press covered these discussions extensively, with two outlets in particular making a strong push for the flights.
The sticking point of the negotiations was Qantas’s desire to run the services from its existing domestic facilities at Terminals 3 and 4, which are on the opposite side of Perth airport from the international terminal at Terminal 1. This would require constructing new swing facilities for customs, immigration and quarantine clearance, with estimates put at between A$25 million ($18.8 million) and A$45 million.
Understandably, Perth airport initially resisted spending on the facility, as there is a long-term plan in place for Qantas to move over to the international terminal precinct. It argued that T1 was perfectly suited to accommodate the nonstop flights, but Qantas argued that would require connecting passengers from the eastern states to bus across the airfield, which would be unacceptable.
In the end, the state government agreed to provide A$14 million in funding to build the international facility, which will also be used by Qantas’s services to Singapore and Auckland. Qantas remains committed to moving over to an expanded T1 by the end of 2025.
The international facility at T3/4 will allow Qantas to feed passengers from elsewhere in Australia onto the direct flight to London, which Joyce says will appeal to some travellers.
“Our modelling shows that people from the East Coast as well as South Australia would fly domestically to Perth to connect to our non-stop London service. Some will take the opportunity to break their journey, whether it’s for business meetings in Perth, to holiday or to visit family.”
FlightGlobal also understands that the 787s will operate on a Melbourne-Perth-London routing, by virtue of the fact that Qantas is basing its group 787 operations there. There have been some suggestions that it could cut its daily Melbourne-Dubai-London service once the new flights are up and running, effectively handing that over to its joint venture partner Emirates.
Asked how the new route will fit into the Qantas-Emirates joint business arrangement on Australia-Europe routes, Qantas responded that Emirates is “very supportive” of the service, but as it does not have Australia-UK traffic rights, it will not codeshare on the Qantas service.
Qantas has been understandably upbeat about the prospects for the route, but not all are convinced.
Some industry sources that FlightGlobal spoke to were dubious about the underlying economics of the proposed route. They say that the low seat count on Qantas's 787s coupled with the additional staffing, fuel and catering costs mean that the per-seat operating costs would be higher than the net benefit of operating nonstop. Thus, it will have to charge a premium just to cover costs.
Qantas has been reluctant to talk about the fares it will charge, saying only that they will be broadly in line with those offered by its competitors.
However, that may prove difficult given the competitiveness of the market, which has been driven by a major growth in capacity from Asian and Middle Eastern carriers in recent years. Analysis of FlightGlobal schedules data using SRS Analyzer shows that, on a typical day, there are already 10 viable one-stop flights between Perth and London, based on a maximum connection time of four hours each way.
There are even more options from the east coast cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. Qantas will have to prove to passengers in those markets that it is worth connecting via a domestic flight to Perth, rather than via any of the major Asian or Middle Eastern hubs.
On the upside for Qantas, there appears to be little prospect of a competing nonstop route launching soon. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic could both potentially operate the route using their 787-9s, but have not shown any interest in doing so. Virgin Australia does not have aircraft on order that would be capable of operating the route.
Perth has often been called the world’s most isolated city, and has never been seen as a natural hub – until now.
Qantas has flagged that it could even follow up the London flights with non-stop services to Frankfurt and Rome. Both cities are destinations that were previously served by the airline via Singapore, but are now served through its tie-up with Emirates.
But the prospects of such services are some way off. Qantas has announced that its 787-9s will also fly Melbourne-Los Angeles, and they are also expected to be deployed on another US route – so all of its eight aircraft on order are effectively accounted for.
Source: Cirium Dashboard