Qantas looks at longer range opportunities for future fleet expansion and more non-stop links into Europe

The much-publicised new non-stop long-haul link between Perth and London is likely to be just the first of a number of new non-stop flights linking Australia to Europe, Qantas senior executives have confirmed. The arrival of the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner opens up a whole new range of routes for the flag carrier, but its management is already looking beyond the aircraft to models such as the ultra-long-range version of the Airbus A350-900 and new Boeing 777X which could allow future non-stop flights linking both Melbourne and Sydney to London in the future.

“We do believe aircraft technology is going to be our friend into the future,” Alan Joyce, chief executive officer, Qantas told Blue Swan Daily and other representatives of the media on the sidelines of the IATA AGM in Cancun, Mexico. “We hopefully will be flying direct from Sydney to London in the future. At this stage though, we are still speaking to Boeing and Airbus about the capabilities of aircraft.”

Gareth Evans, chief executive officer, Qantas International and Freight added: “We want an aircraft with the capabilities to do the missions we want like Sydney to London and Sydney to New York.” Such range would open up numerous other direct route options such as Chicago, Boston and Washington in the US. Mr Joyce, added that the airline is holding on to its valuable slots at London Heathrow to facilitate such future operations. “We have kept four slot pairs at Heathrow. We would love to grow our direct services,” he said.

The new giant hop between Perth and London on the famous Kangaroo Route will take 17 hours, a far cry from the four days and seven stops it took when Qantas created the route in 1947. Qantas predicts a change in travel patterns between Australia and the UK when the new route commences as passengers transition locally to Perth to take advantage of the non-stop offering rather than connecting through the Middle East. As a result it is suspending its Melbourne – Dubai – London route and partner carrier Emirates Airline will boost its own capacity in the Melbourne – Dubai market to fill any vacuum.

The Airbus A380s Qantas currently has deployed on this route will be repositioned into other markets, primarily in Asia. “We’re still working on details, but places like Hong Kong and Singapore are certainly going to see reasonable amount of capacity,” said Mr Evans.

The airline still sees a market to support its current fleet of A380s and according to Mr Evans, 12 aircraft is “right-sized fleet” of A380s for the company and demand for the aircraft could grow as airport congestion becomes a more significant issue.

“There’s going to be slot problems at a range of airports. We can already see that at Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. But we have no intention of taking any more,” added Mr Joyce, despite the airline still holding an outstanding commitment for a further eight aircraft. “We are quite happy with the 12.”

The Perth – London flight at 14,498 kilometres will not hold the title of being the world’s longest when it is launched in March 2018, a position currently held by Air India after it switched its Delhi – San Francisco route to operate across the Pacific rather than the Atlantic to increase the flight distance to 15,127km, but it is certainly one of the most significant in terms of global aviation connectivity.

Just under two million passengers a year fly between Australia and the UK (2015: 1.65 million, 2016: 1.77 million), according to MIDT data and the famous Kangaroo Route has been one of the most competitive air corridors in aviation history with tens of airlines competing for traffic via various points across Asia and more recently the Middle East.

Blue Swan Daily analysis of O&D demand statistics from OAG shows that around one in three of these passengers are flying with joint venture partners Qantas and Emirates Airline via Dubai International Airport with notable flows also with Singapore Airlines via Singapore Changi, Etihad Airways via Abu Dhabi, Qatar Airways via Doha, Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong and Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur.

Qantas had historically served the market via the Asian hub of Changi Airport in Singapore, but in April 2013 commenced a ten-year major partnership with Emirates Airline to route its flights from Melbourne and Sydney to London Heathrow via Dubai International Airport. This ended a 17-year long joint-venture agreement with British Airways in this market.

Annual O&D passenger demand between Perth and the UK has grown by a third since the start of the decade to over 300,000 passengers in 2016. This is not much less than the demand in and out of Melbourne, which already has the direct service via Dubai. The growth in passengers is mainly due to the arrival of Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways in the Perth market in 2014 and 2012, respectively and the improved connectivity they have delivered.

The Perth – London route is being facilitated by the arrival of Qantas’ first batch of Dreamliners. The airline is due to receive its first aircraft in October 2017 with three more due before mid-2018 and a further four from its initial order for eight aircraft due by mid-2019.

A decision will be made on the next batch of deliveries in the “early part of the next calendar year,” said Mr Evans, but there is “huge flexibility” with the deal with option commitments able to be made on a one-by-one basis rather than in batches. “We haven’t taken delivery of our first aircraft yet. There is certainly a case to try the aircraft before you buy anymore,” added Mr Joyce.

The Dreamliner is likely to be initially deployed on domestic flights from the final quarter of 2017 for crew familiarisation purposes before debuting on an existing route, substituting for a 747-400 on the afternoon Melbourne – Los Angeles service from December 2017.

Qantas has designed its 787-9 configuration with long-range missions in mind. The aircraft will seat 236 passengers in a three-class arrangement with 42 business class seats: an upgraded version of the existing Qantas’ A330 Business Suite; 28 premium economy seats, split across four rows in a 2-3-2 layout; and 166 seats in economy, in a 3-3-3 arrangement with an extra inch of legroom compared to Qantas’ A380s.

Alongside the confirmed routes the type could ultimately be used on other ultra-long-haul missions such as Melbourne – Dallas and Sydney – Chicago. “We have built the aircraft with the capability to do Melbourne – Dallas in terms of full payload,” added Mr Evans.

What is clear is that the arrival of new aircraft could certainly open the door to new non-stop flights between Australia and Europe. More than 4.4 million two-way passengers flew between Europe and Australia in 2016, according to MIDT data. After London, currently the sole Qantas destination in Europe, the largest passenger flows were from/to Paris, Manchester, Frankfurt, Rome, Dublin, Amsterdam, Zurich, Athens and Milan.

CHART- Largest O&D Markets Between Australia and Europe (2016)Source: OAG Traffic Analyser