Airlines explore ultra-long range route potential

New-generation widebodies are prompting some airlines to seek out potential new city pairs that can be served nonstop with flight times of 17 hours or longer.

Qantas started non-stop service from Perth to London Heathrow in March using Boeing 787-9s and CEO Alan Joyce said during the IATA AGM in Sydney June 3 that the oneworld carrier was looking at other possible ultra-long haul routes, such as to Frankfurt, Paris or US cities. Qantas has challenged Airbus and Boeing to offer an aircraft capable of flying from Sydney to London, its project “sunrise.”

Singapore Airlines is preparing to re-open its Singapore-New York route with Airbus A350-900ULRs in October, while Air New Zealand is looking at what aircraft could fly Auckland-New York.

The Airbus A350-900 ULR made its first flight April 23, starting a short flight test program ahead of its first delivery in the second half of 2018. The aircraft will incorporate changes to the center fuel tank so that it can carry an additional 24,000 liters of fuel compared to the standard -900 and have a range of 9,700 nm compared to 8,100 nm for the A350-900. The A350-900 ULR competes with Boeing’s 787-9 and in-development 777-8X in the ultra long-haul market, where United already operates the 787-9 on sectors such as Los Angeles LAX-Singapore.

The ultra-long haul market is “a good opportunity for our customers”, Boeing Commercial Aircraft (BCA) VP marketing Randy Tinseth said on the sidelines of the AGM.

Tinseth sees opportunities for carriers in Asia-Pacific flying to Europe and North America and for Middle Eastern airlines seeking to open nonstops to Latin America.

Tinseth believes that ultra-long haul is here to stay, because aircraft have become a lot more efficient compared to when airlines first tried the sector using Airbus A340-500s and Boeing 777-200LRs. “Part of the reason is also a significant improvement in the ability to navigate those routes based on historical and actual wind data,” Tinseth said.

BCA director, product forecast & current market, Darren Hulst noted that 29 of the 30 longest new routes launched over the past two years operate Boeing aircraft—21 of them using 787s and eight using 777s. “That shows you how we have aligned our products to the customers’ needs,” he said.

The trend for more ultra-long hauls, Hulst said, results from aircraft that have the right combination of range and size. “We are confident of our position with the 787 and 777 in that we have the most efficient aircraft. Look at the track record of the 787 over the last seven years, which has launched over 180 new nonstop city pairs.”

At a separate briefing, Airbus Commercial Aircraft president Guillaume Faury said the full potential for the newer A350 in the ultra-long haul market was yet to be realized. “We think we have the right product,” he said. “Ultra-long haul is about which routes passengers want to do nonstop without a break, so it’s about providing better comfort onboard. I think we will see more and more people being more likely to accept these long routes because of that. Like the internet, we are in the business of connecting people direct. That’s an amazing situation to be in.”

Emirates Airline president Tim Clark believes ultra-long haul flying will see strong growth in the coming years, but will not be a threat to Emirates’ Dubai hub.

“At these [air travel] growth rates, ultra-long haul twins will come in big numbers,” Clark said told journalists during the IATA AGM. Clark sees those routes as a tool to alleviate infrastructure constraints at hub airports.

“People said it will never work when we had the Airbus A340-500 and started flying the A380 for 17 hours, four or five hours more than it was originally designed for,” Clark remarked. “More are now attuned to what we did 20 years ago.”

For Emirates, the re-emergence of ultra-long-haul is an opportunity, but it could also create new competition in some of its connecting markets. Clark argues that most of the 144 Emirates destinations will not work for ultra-long haul service, thus overflying the Dubai hub. Also, the ongoing network integration with FlyDubai leads to much additional value for both carriers because some 100 FlyDubai destinations are added to the combined network.

The Boeing 777-8X has “fabulous endurance” being capable of 19- or 20-hour flights, Clark said. If he was in the position of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, who plans to fly nonstop from Sydney to London and New York from 2022, he would look at the -8X capabilities and what additional range can be built into it. One of the questions key for route viability how much additional cargo beyond 25 tons the -8X could take on such routes.

Emirates plans to fly the 787-9 nonstop to Santiago de Chile when it arrives early next decade. The route will soon be served via Sao Paulo with Airbus A380s. The airline has a substantial number of routes that fall into the category of ultra-long haul including to the US westc oast, Latin America and New Zealand.

Ultimately, Clark said, the “good story” in long-haul travel was that “there is something for everybody”.