by Angus Whitley | Bloomberg
Wanted: Hundreds of people to sit on a plane for 20 hours. You must be willing to pay a lot of money. Claustrophobics need not apply.
Conceived before the Covid crisis, Qantas Airways Ltd.’s plan to operate the world’s longest non-stop commercial flights from southeastern Australia to New York and London is being resurrected in a much-changed aviation landscape, with global airlines reeling because of the pandemic and people be careful with travel.
Qantas, which lost more than $15bn in revenue due to virus-related border restrictions, is banking on passengers willing to pay a premium to avoid stopovers and finish mammoth journeys in one fell swoop.
But some regular travelers balk at potentially paying 30% more for a direct flight compared to a two-way trip. While fares may differ when flights begin, a nonstop round-trip business class ticket between Sydney and New York could cost more than $12,000, enough to buy a compact car, according to flights. October listed in Kayak for the same route with a stopover in Los Angeles.
And not everyone is prepared to spend almost an entire day and night on a plane, especially in economy class. “Project Dawn” flights, which Qantas now plans to start in 2025 after the pandemic delayed its launch to 2023, will place unprecedented physical, mental and financial demands on passengers.
“There would be few circumstances where I would be willing to pay a hefty premium for a little bit shorter travel time,” said Nigel Lake, chief executive of Pottinger Co., a corporate advisory firm with operations between New York and Sydney.
Before Covid, Lake was a regular on Qantas flights calling at Los Angeles, making him a strong candidate for the new ultra-long-haul service. But he plans to stick with two flights to and from Sydney so he can shower in the airport lounge or take a walk before the second leg.
A new age
Now that Australia has almost fully reopened, Qantas needs to win over travelers who for decades have interrupted their trips to the UK and parts of the US with stops in California, Texas, Southeast Asia or the Middle East.
Success could spawn a new network of nonstop services around the world. Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce said the Sydney-based airline is considering flying direct to Paris, Chicago and Rio de Janeiro. The flights could ultimately add up to A$641 million to Qantas’ market value, according to Jarden Research.
The services would also pose a direct threat to travel hubs like Dubai and Singapore, which have made a name for themselves by processing arriving passengers and guiding them to connecting flights.
Qantas is betting big that this is the future of long-haul flying, committing this month to buy 12 customized Airbus SE A350 jets to fly the extra-long routes. The fleet could cost up to 3.64 billion Australian dollars, according to Jarden analyst Jakob Cakarnis. He had expected Qantas to initially order just five or six planes.
Qantas has said that 41% of the 238 seats on the new A350 would be in first, business and premium economy, a clear sign of its target market.
Failure of the project would be more than a costly blow to Australia’s national airline. It would also be an acknowledgment of the commercial and physical limits of air travel and curb the jet-age aviation boom that has opened up the planet for several decades.
Joyce said this month that she had “no doubts” about the commercial viability of nonstop flights, citing the 17-hour Perth-London service, Qantas’ most profitable international route before the pandemic. Flights of this length have become normal, and Project Sunrise routes aren’t much longer, she said.
The main draw lies in saving four hours or more in travel time and reducing human contact at airport hubs in a post-Covid world. For decades, flying from London to Australia’s east coast has been a two-leg journey that takes at least 24 hours. In 1935, it took 12 ½ days.
Qantas has said the price difference for direct flights, at least in premium cabins, will be similar to its nonstop Perth-London route, where tickets can be more than 30% more expensive than travel via Singapore or Dubai. .
And it’s not yet clear whether business travel will fully recover with executives now accustomed to conference calls. Oil prices have been consistently above $100 a barrel since March, driving up the price of jet fuel. Interest rates and inflation are also rising, affecting home and travel budgets.
The plane’s design leaves 140 cheap tickets to sell. In that cabin, there will be a small area for passengers to stretch out and drink water, but only 33 inches (84 centimeters) of seat space per traveler, which is just one more than many airlines provide on short flights, according to the SeatGuru tracking site. .
Joshua Wall, a lifeguard on Sydney’s northern beaches who says he usually flies to New York two or three times a year, isn’t sold on Qantas’s plan. While the idea of skipping the infamous immigration lines at the Los Angeles airport is appealing, Wall suspects direct flight fares may be out of reach.
“The idea is really good, but the price is the most important thing,” said the 45-year-old. “Qantas prices are prohibitive.”
Cheap return fares from Qantas to New York via Los Angeles or Dallas in October are around $3,000 (Australian), according to Kayak. Those from Air Canada, among others, cost approximately $1,500.
Rival airlines may compete more for the low-cost passengers Qantas will target with nonstop flights, said Rico Merkert, professor of transport at the University of Sydney business school.
“These ultra-long-haul flights are designed for the premium market,” he said. “Many leisure travelers will continue to use indirect flights from, for example, Emirates.”