Boeing making good progress on Project Sunrise evaluation

An artist's impression of the Boeing 777-8X. (Boeing)
An artist’s impression of the Boeing 777-8X. (Boeing)

Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of marketing Randy Tinseth says the manufacturer is making progress on its study into developing an aircraft capable of meeting Qantas’s ultra long-haul objectives while at the same time having as broad an appeal as possible to other airline customers.

Project Sunrise – the name is a nod to the “Double Sunrise” flights Qantas operated between Perth and Sri Lanka using Catalinas in WW2 – pits Boeing’s 777-8X against the A350-900ULR from Airbus in a two-horse race for Qantas’s plans to serve New York and London, among other destinations, nonstop from Australia’s east coast by 2022.

The 777-8X and larger 777-9X feature new General Electric GE9X-105B1A engines capable of delivering 105,000lb of thrust, new composite wings with folding wingtips to maintain its Code E rating at airports, as well as in-cabin enhancements such as larger overhead stowage and a wider cross section.

While the 777-8X is still in development and yet to reach firm configuration, the Boeing website lists the aircraft as having a range of 8,700nm and a passenger capacity of 350-375 passengers. The aircraft is expected to enter service in 2022.

However, the final specifications will only be known after further development of the aircraft design and an analysis of its engine performance.

Tinseth said the design work on the aircraft aimed to strike a balance between the range and payload requirements for a variety of different airline customers.

“That’s what we do, we like to innovate,” Tinseth told Australian Aviation at the Singapore Airshow on February 6.

“We can’t build one aeroplane for one airline and compromise the aircraft for the major markets.

“We’ll figure out something, I’m confident.”

The 777-X program has received 326 orders since being launched in November 2013, comprising 53 for the 777-8X and 273 for the 777-9X.

Since Qantas put forward its Project Sunrise goals in August 2017, the airline has been meeting with Airbus and Boeing to share information about the requirements for an aircraft capable of operating nonstop with a full load on these ultra long-haul routes.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said a request for proposal (RFP) was expected in 2019.

“We’re trying to work on how we get the aircraft capable of being able to make the distance, but the important thing is not only to make the distance, but to make it with a full passenger load,” Joyce said during the Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit on February 5, according to a report from Flightglobal.

“We want both manufacturers to have an aircraft that is capable of doing it. If that’s the case we’ll do an RFP next year.”

It is understood Qantas was seeking an aircraft capable of carrying 300 passengers in both directions on both the New York and London routes.

Tinseth said the challenges presented by Qantas made it an exciting project to be involved in.

“I can just tell you we are making progress,” Tinseth said.

“We’ve had very productive conversations with the airline.

“We will weigh those issues.”

While airline customers will have to wait until 2022 to get their hands on the 777-8X, the first A350-900ULR is less than a year away from commercial service.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is the launch customer for the A350-900ULR, with which it plans to resume nonstop flights from Singapore to Los Angeles (8,770nm) and New York (9,534nm) in 2018.

An artist's impression of an Airbus A350-900ULR in Singapore Airlines colours. (Airbus)
An artist’s impression of an Airbus A350-900ULR in Singapore Airlines colours. (Airbus)

Ahead of those two new routes being launched, the Star Alliance member and Virgin Australia partner in October 2016 commenced Singapore-San Francisco (7,340nm) nonstop flights with a A350-900 in the airline’s standard three-class configuration of 42 business, 24 premium economy and 187 economy seats.

SIA executive vice president for commercial Mak Swee Wah said recently the airline with pleased with the performance of its nonstop operation to San Francisco, which augured well for the resumption of flights to Los Angeles and New York.

“We are quietly confident that the rest of the nonstop will work well,” Mak told reporters at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse in mid-December.

“Certainly the aircraft is of a new generation and with far superior economics to the old one. It is not a unique niche plane like before. It’s actually part of the whole A350 fleet.

“There are certain economies of scale which we can reap from, all the back end stuff.

“All things being equal, all said and done, generally I think the non-stop can command a better premium than a one-stopper.”

SIA suspended its nonstop flights from Singapore to Los Angeles and New York, that were served with four-engine A340-500s, in 2013 when oil prices were more than US$100 a barrel.

Airbus has not published specific technical data on the A350-900ULR, stating only the long-range variant was capable of flying 19 hours and carry up to 165,000 litres of fuel. By comparison, the standard A350-900 has a range of 8,100nm and could take on 141,000 litres of fuel.

Currently, the world’s longest route by distance is Qatar Airways’ Doha-Auckland service at 7,848nm, operated by Boeing 777-200LR aircraft.

While most of the initial focus when Project Sunrise was publicly launched in August was on London Heathrow (9,188nm from Sydney) and New York JFK (8,647nm), Qantas has also earmarked Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (7,312nm) and Cape Town (5,946nm) in South Africa as new frontiers for nonstop services.

A Qantas slide detailing its Project Sunrise ambitions. (Qantas)
A Qantas slide detailing its Project Sunrise ambitions. (Qantas)

While it is true the 777-8X and A350-900ULR will be capable of operating those routes, the range versus payload specifications were not quite where Qantas believed they needed to be for either airframe to ensure the routes were economically viable.

In early February, Aviation Week reported flight tests for the GE9X engine that were originally due to commence in February on a 747-400 flying testbed had been delayed due to a minor design issue and some maintenance-related problems.

Tinseth said during a media briefing at the Singapore Airshow on February 7 the delays would not impact the timeline of the 777-9X’s planned February 2019 entry into service.

“It’s early in that test schedule,” Tinseth said.

“So we don’t see at this time any impact to schedule.”

Airbus vice president for the Pacific Iain Grant said recently the manufacturer is working closely with Qantas’s technical staff on the project.

“We are bringing out the A350-900ULR which is going to do a 20-hour mission so we are very comfortable with that, and we will continue to work with them to meet their requirements,” Grant told reporters during a media briefing in Sydney in early December 2017.

“We are very excited about the Sydney-London project. We are heavily involved with all of the teams there.”

Current longest nonstop passenger flights by distance (nautical miles)

1. Delhi-San Francisco (8,285nm*) operated by Air India with Boeing 777-200LR (*Pacific Ocean routing eastwards from Delhi only)
2. Doha-Auckland (7,848nm) – operated by Qatar Airways with Boeing 777-200LR.
3. Dubai-Auckland (7,668nm) – operated by Emirates with Airbus A380
4. Los Angeles-Singapore (7,621nm) – operated by United with Boeing 787-9
5. Houston-Sydney (7,470nm) – operated by United with Boeing 787-9
6. Sydney-Dallas/Fort Worth (7,454nm) – operated by Qantas with Airbus A380
7. San Francisco-Singapore (7,339nm) – operated by United with Boeing 787-9 and Singapore Airlines with Airbus A350-900
8. Atlanta-Johannesburg (7,333nm) – operated by Delta with Boeing 777-200LR
9. Abu Dhabi-Los Angeles (7,291nm) – operated by Etihad with Boeing 777-200LR
10. Dubai-Los Angeles (7,246nm) – operated by Emirates with Airbus A380

Planned future routes

1. Singapore-New York (Newark*) (8,285nm)– to be operated by Singapore Airlines with Airbus A350-900ULR. From 2018. (*Airport choice not confirmed)
2. Perth-London Heathrow (7,829nm) – to be operated by Qantas with Boeing 787-9. From March 24 2018
3. Singapore-Los Angeles (7,621nm) – to be operated by Singapore Airlines with Airbus A350-900ULR. From 2018

Speculated routes

1. Sydney-London (LHR) (9,188nm) – Qantas
2. Sydney-New York (JFK) (8,646nm) – Qantas
3. Sydney-Chicago (ORD) (8,022nm) – Qantas
4. Melbourne-Dallas/Fort Worth (7,814nm) – Qantas
5. Doha-Santiago (7,791nm) – Qatar Airways