Planemakers race to build ultra-long-haul jets to meet demand

Passengers posing for photos before boarding a direct flight from Xi'an's airport to London on May 7. The new service by Tianjin Airlines cuts the journey from 15-plus hours to around 11 hours.
Passengers posing for photos before boarding a direct flight from Xi'an's airport to London on May 7. The new service by Tianjin Airlines cuts the journey from 15-plus hours to around 11 hours.PHOTO: XINHUA

SYDNEY • Planemakers gave a glimpse of the ultra-long-distance jets of the future yesterday as they work to meet a demanding goal from Australia's Qantas to connect Sydney and London in a non-stop 20-hour flight.

As global airline leaders gather for an annual conference in Sydney with jet lag and, in some cases, with lost suitcases after connecting at foreign hubs, Qantas is looking to close the traditional "tyranny of distance" between Australia and global financial centres like London and New York by 2022.

This year, Qantas began non-stop flights between Australia and Europe by linking Perth and London.

It is now considering an order for ultra-long-haul jets, with the Airbus A-350 and Boeing 777X in contention.

"I think we'll get to the stage where, technically, we will know where the aircraft are going to be, in the next few months," Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said ahead of an International Air Transport Association gathering in Sydney.

A purchase decision is expected next year if the business case stacks up, he said.

Ultra-long-haul flights are aimed primarily at business travellers and can allow airlines to charge a 20 per cent premium over one-stop rivals, according to industry data.

"I would not pretend we would sell 1,500 airplanes like this, but I would say a reasonable assumption could be in the neighbourhood of 50-100 airplanes total," Airbus chief commercial officer Eric Schulz said.

Qantas has not announced how many ultra-long-haul jets it will order, but Mr Joyce said it could be a "reasonable-sized fleet", given that potential routes include Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to London, New York and Paris or Frankfurt.

Mr Schulz said Airbus was considering development of an ultra-long-range version of the A350-900 or the larger A350-1000 to suit Qantas and a handful of other potential buyers.

The Australian carrier is also looking at the Boeing 777-8, expected in service in 2022.

The number of ultra-long haul flights - those over 7,000 nautical miles - has nearly tripled to 19 over the last decade, according to travel data provider OAG.

As more ultra-long-haul flights lift off, airlines across the world are expected to see more competition from Chinese airlines for long-haul journeys. China defines a long-haul route as one that requires flying over 4,500km one way.

Since the announcement in 2012 of a second airport in Beijing, Chinese airlines have been pushing to expand their international network out of the country's capital. The regional airports are offering more direct links to cities such as New York and London.

Tianjin Airlines last month opened the seventh direct air route linking Xi'an and Europe with its new direct route from the home of the terracotta warriors to London.

On May 25, Hainan Airlines launched a direct flight between Tianjin and Vancouver, the first direct passenger air route linking the coastal city with North America.

It was the 16th international air route opened by Hainan Airlines in North America, according to Mr Xu Jun, president of the carrier.

He told Xinhua news agency more routes, including flights linking Beijing with Dublin, Shenzhen with Vienna and Guangzhou with Tel Aviv, will also be launched in the coming months.

Over the past decade airlines in mainland China have opened over 100 new long-haul routes to cater to growing demand among Chinese for overseas travel.

Chinese carriers have increased their international routes at a rough average of 18 per cent per year since 2012, and that will only increase.

The competition will intensify when new rules easing China's near decade-old "one route, one airline" policy come into effect in October this year.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China said the revised rules are in response to a changing aviation market as well as the opening in October next year of the capital's second international airport, which will be the largest in the world.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2018, with the headline 'Planemakers race to build ultra-long-haul jets to meet demand'. Print Edition | Subscribe