Qantas is seeking better offers from Airbus and Boeing regarding various aspects of the aircraft proposal each airframer is submitting for the Australian carrier's ultra-long haul Project Sunrise programme.
While the airframers have put forward "best and final offers" for Project Sunrise – with the A350 and 777X competing for the deal – Qantas believes they still fall short of its requirements.
"That's not just around price," says Qantas International chief Tino La Spina. "That covers things like guarantees, the 'what-ifs'. Because this aircraft is going to be in the fleet for the next 20 years, and we want to cover off eventualities."
La Spina, speaking to investors on 19 November, said the airline was "making sure [the aircraft] is future-proofed".
Qantas has been intending to select the aircraft type for Project Sunrise – its plan to open nonstop services to destinations such as New York and London from the east coast of Australia – by the end of this year.
But La Spina says the carrier has "asked [the airframers] to go back and re-look at [their offers]" and "sharpen their pencils" because "there was still a gap there".
"We're eagerly awaiting to see what we get back from that," he says.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce says the airline will need to have a certain minimum fleet, but that the airline "wouldn't be ordering all those [aircraft] simultaneously" – instead expanding the fleet as the number of selected destinations increased. "The opportunity is quite significant," he says.
La Spina refrained from disclosing the number of aircraft being sought for Project Sunrise, but stated that the airline is aiming to serve London and New York from both Melbourne and Sydney, and is "looking" at operating to Chicago from both Australian cities.
One of his presentation slides also showed Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town as illustrative destinations.
La Spina adds that Qantas is intending to configure the successful aircraft model with a four-class layout which will be "appropriate" for ultra-long-haul flights, with zones for passengers to move around freely.
"Both Boeing and Airbus have the product, or the capability, or the aircraft to fulfil the mission," he says. "The business case is nearly there but we've got a couple of gaps to fill."
He says a new agreement with pilots is necessary to extend duty time beyond 20h, and that this pact would also need to include productivity improvements.
"We think it's achievable," he says, adding that pilots "have the most to gain" from the expansion, such as promotion opportunities.
Qantas is analysing fatigue-risk management models to determine the mix and number of crew members necessary for Project Sunrise flights.
La Spina says the programme provides a specific competitive niche for Qantas. Its current Perth-London service – flown by 787s – allows the carrier to hub within Australia, consolidating domestic traffic in a single terminal for onward service to London.
Competing operators, he points out, either do not have the Australia-UK traffic rights or the domestic links, or do not have the necessary configuration for their long-haul aircraft. The sector length is also too small a part of their network to build economic fleet scale.
Joyce says the Project Sunrise services would probably involve a yield premium at least similar to that of the Perth-London flights, adding that this is a "conservative" projection. "The general consensus is there's a huge demand for this," he says.
Air New Zealand is planning to open an Auckland-Newark service with 787-9s but La Spina insists that this "doesn't change anything" with respect to Qantas's plans. He stresses, however, that Qantas will only proceed with Project Sunrise if the business case "meets strict hurdles".