Airbus is putting forward a longer-range A350-1000 as its lead contender for Qantas's ultra-long-haul initiative, Project Sunrise, as the Australian carrier prepares to conduct test flights using Boeing 787-9s.
Qantas had requested submissions from both airframers which would meet the challenging demands of Project Sunrise, which aims to provide nonstop services to Australian east coast cities from New York and London.
It is conducting three simulations of Project Sunrise routes – from London and New York to Sydney – using 787-9s on "repurposed" delivery flights in October, November and December, the carrier states. The 787s will carry only around 40 people to ensure sufficient range.
While 787s are already used by Qantas on nonstop services between London Heathrow and Perth, Boeing is offering the 777-8 as its Project Sunrise candidate – although development of the long-range twinjet has been put on hold.
Airbus tells FlightGlobal that it is leading its bid with the A350-1000 which, it says, would have a range of 8,700nm with a typical 375-passenger load.
Nine weight variants of the A350-1000 are currently available including two with the highest maximum take-off weight of 316t, which gives the aircraft a range of about 8,400nm with 366 passengers.
But FlightGlobal revealed last year that Airbus was working on a further MTOW and range increase on the type for around 2020, with Qatar Airways expressing interest.
The 8,700nm range cited by Airbus is approximately the great-circle distance between New York JFK and Sydney but less than the 9,200nm of the London-Sydney sector. Aircraft would typically take longer tracks in order to benefit from prevailing winds.
Airbus has not indicated the extent of any restrictions or modifications which would be necessary for the -1000 to meet the Project Sunrise criteria, and has yet to confirm the MTOW of the candidate variant.
But the airframer has submitted its final offer to Qantas, and head of A350 marketing Marisa Lucas-Ugena is confident that the airframer can meet the mission requirements.
"There's some fine-tuning to be done but nothing fundamental," says Lucas-Ugena, stating that details on operational procedures and policies need to be finalised.
Airbus's submission fulfils the range and payload criteria for the launch timeframe set out by Qantas, she says.
Qantas had been aiming for a 2022 timeframe for the services, but negotiations with pilots and cabin crew are likely to push this back to the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023. Crew operational issues are among the aspects to be tested during the 787-9 simulation flights.
Airbus has already developed an ultra-long-haul version of the smaller A350-900.
This variant, the -900ULR, is in service with Singapore Airlines. In order to meet the range requirements for the carrier's longest routes it has a reduced payload capability, with just 161 seats, and a deactivated forward cargo hold.
Lucas-Ugena says the A350-900 could still form part of the Project Sunrise offer. "We could offer both, providing Qantas with the flexibility to go either way," she says.
But the -1000 is an "extremely good platform", she states: "It's already designed for long range and high payload."
The details of the -1000 offer to Qantas – including any payload restrictions or proposed modifications – remain confidential while the carrier's selection process is continuing. But Airbus has stopped short of specifically calling the Project Sunrise aircraft an 'A350-1000ULR'.
Lucas-Ugena insists the A350 is a better option than the rival 777X, claiming it is a lighter aircraft, providing a fuel-saving advantage, as well as being an all-new design.
Qantas is to use the 787-9 test flights to gather scientific data on fatigue and other medical effects, and use the results to refine its crew rostering, cabin service, and in-flight entertainment options.
It has been intending to take a decision on the aircraft type for Project Sunrise by the end of this year, if the carrier is satisfied with the economic and operational case. "The urgency is in Qantas's hands," says Lucas-Ugena. "There's still research on their side to be done."