Australian airline fleets: The new aircraft set to take off

What aircraft will we be flying aboard next time we take to the skies? While the pandemic might have stalled aircraft deliveries, there's still something new in the wings for flyers who appreciate flights aboard a new aircraft type.

The choices for Qantas' Project Sunrise

Qantas is hoping to start its Project Sunrise flights, a non-stop service from Sydney to New York and London, in 2024-25. That will require a new aircraft type rather than the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners the airline uses on its non-stop flights between Australia and London, currently operating out of Darwin.

Qantas was poised to sign for 12 modified Airbus A350-1000 aircraft intended for the Project Sunrise flights before the pandemic put a speed bump in those plans. Given that Project Sunrise is a trophy-case venture for Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, an aircraft order is likely to materialise early in 2022.

Apart from the A350 the other obvious aircraft that might be a contender for Project Sunrise is Boeing's 777-8, the longer-range member of Boeing's 777X family. The standard version of the 777-8 has a range of 16,170 km, and that's too little for a Sydney-New York non-stop flight, let alone Sydney-London.

However a longer-range 777X would be an option if Boeing was inclined to come to the Qantas party. Airbus did exactly that with the A350-900 Ultra Long Range aircraft, given longer legs so that Singapore Airlines could operate its non-stop Singapore-New York flights.

The 777X is being touted as the ideal replacement for the much-loved 747. The huge twin-engine aircraft carries almost as many passengers as the jumbo, it has a longer range and burns less fuel. It makes perfect sense for an airline operating long-haul flights and Qantas was expected to be an early customer for the 777X but at the time it was proposed the airline opted for Airbus A380s and Dreamliners.

Boeing is currently sitting on over 300 orders for its 777X, the aircraft has been plagued by delays and not expected to enter commercial service until 2023 at the earliest, and any new order from Qantas would put it at the back of the queue.

It's likely that Australia will see the 777X in the next few years wearing the livery of the Middle East carriers. Emirates has ordered 115, Qatar 60 and Etihad 25, and Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and ANA are all on board. By far the greatest number of orders for the 777X are coming from Middle East and Asian carriers. BA and Lufthansa are the sole European customers, while the US carriers are on standby.

Qantas eyes a new domestic fleet, Virgin to the MAX

Qantas' big news, announced in October 2021, was an order for 100 new aircraft, estimated to cost anything from $5-9 billion, to replace its ageing domestic fleet of 75 Boeing 737-800s and 20 smaller 717s. The airline is deciding between the Airbus A320 and Boeing's 737 MAX, with a winner expected to be announced before the end of 2021.

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Virgin, meanwhile, is going with an all-737 fleet. Currently standing at 72 aircraft, the majority are 737-800s with just two 737-700s. All other aircraft types were booted during the downsizing that took place after the airline went into administration in April 2020.

VA has plans to restart international services to Bali, Fiji and New Zealand and the 737 is a perfect fit for those destinations. The airline has an order for 25 737 MAX 10s, with deliveries expected in 2023.

Rex, the little wolf in sheep's clothing is also betting on the Boeing 737 workhorse, operating a fleet of six as well as the world's largest fleet of Saab 340 aircraft. Plans to add another two 737-800NGs, announced in June, were postponed during the most recent lockdown, with the new acquisitions expected in mid-2022.

New kid on the block Bonza, an independent low-cost domestic carrier for Australia funded by US investment money, will also operate Boeing 737-8 aircraft, expected to begin flights early in 2022.

The supersonics

The commercial aircraft generating the most excitement in the aviation industry are the new generation of supersonic flyers, still on the drawing board. United Airlines has signed up for 15 Boom Overture supersonic aircraft, claimed to fly at twice the speed of sound, with an expected delivery date of 2029.

This would be a boon for Australian flyers since supersonic flights are ideally suited to long haul overwater routes which allow full use of their Mach 2 capability, whereas those aircraft must throttle back to subsonic speed over land.

One of the hurdles is the need to allay fears regarding the environmental impact of supersonic flights since their engines consume more fuel than conventional jet aircraft, and fly at higher altitude.

Manufacturer Boom Supersonic claims their Overture will be able to run on 100 per cent sustainable aviation fuels, producing far less carbon emissions than conventional jet fuel. One of the biofuel success stories comes from Virgin Australia, which claims more than a million kilometres flown in 2019, both domestic and international, using Gevo's biojet fuel.

The fate of the jumbos

Apart from freighter aircraft, it's unlikely that we'll see any more scheduled flights aboard Boeing 747s over Australian skies. Qantas retired the last of its 747s in 2020, but the airline's A380s have been given a reprieve. Ten of Qantas' 12 A380s are expected to return to service in 2022, initially on the airlines' Sydney to Los Angeles route, scheduled to restart in March, followed by an A380 service on the Sydney-London route in the second half of the year.

The A380s days are numbered, and the world's largest passenger aircraft will be missed by many when it finally goes the way of the 747, but that won't be for several years yet. After a halt of 21 months, Singapore Airlines resumed its A380 service to Australia on December 1, on the Singapore-Sydney route.

Emirates is the biggest fan, with a fleet of 115 and another five on order. Singapore Airlines, British Airways, ANA and Korean Air still have A380s in their fleets although some of these airlines have mothballed at least some of their superjumbos during the pandemic, with a return to service hanging on future demand. Unless you're flying with Singapore Airlines or Emirates, it's likely that your next international flight will be aboard either a Boeing Dreamliner or an Airbus A350.

See also: Virgin unveils new 'prototype' cabin, seats on two planes

See also: First Qantas A380 arrives home after epic, 19-hour flight

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