* Non-stop Sydney-London flight possible within five years
* Viability could be hit if oil price tops $70/barrel -
* Airbus says extends range of A350-900ULR
* Qantas could charge 20 pct premium for tickets - analyst
SYDNEY, April 6 (Reuters) - Both Airbus and Boeing
now offer aircraft that appear capable of flying non-stop
commercial flights from Sydney to London - the "Holy Grail" for
Australian carrier Qantas Airways Ltd.
As long as oil prices don't go much higher than around $70
per barrel, the 20-hour flight can be financially viable, and
could be on schedules within five years, aviation experts say.
Airbus has increased the range of its A350-900ULR to 9,700
nautical miles (17,960 kms) from the 8,700 nautical miles
announced when it sold the plane to Singapore Airlines
in 2015 for delivery next year, a spokesman told Reuters.
Including headwinds, the Sydney-London flight is equivalent to
9,600 nautical miles.
"These aircraft, we think, are potentially real goers on
these routes," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told Reuters of the
A350-900ULR and the bigger but less advanced Boeing 777-8. "You
know from what they have done on other aircraft that
Sydney-London and Melbourne-London has real possibility."
For Qantas, a non-stop Sydney-London route that cuts three
hours off the flight time would allow it to charge a premium and
differentiate its product from the around two dozen other
airlines plying the so-called Kangaroo route with stop-offs in
Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong.
The route accounts for only 13 percent of Qantas'
international capacity, but carries the prestige QF1 flight
number and is important to its global brand.
Qantas could charge around a 20 percent price premium for a
non-stop Sydney-London flight as it would attract business and
premium leisure travellers wanting to complete the trip as fast
as possible, said Rico Merkert, a professor specialising in
transport at the University of Sydney's business school.
"It's something that can be presented as a unique selling
point for Qantas," he said.
Qantas begins non-stop flights from Perth to London next
year, using the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. For this scheduled
flight, the Dreamliner will have fewer seats than usual, will
use the most advanced flight path modelling methods, and will
reduce the weight in areas seemingly as minor as the dishes and
The Perth flight will take 17 hours - a far cry from the
four days and seven stops it took when Qantas created the
Kangaroo Route to London in 1947.
Qantas can offset the higher cost of carrying more fuel to
complete the flight by saving on stopover costs, such as airport
charges, ground handling, taxes, crew hotel rooms and lounge
"In terms of economics, much depends on fuel prices," said
Teal Group aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia. "If they stay at
$50 a barrel or less, it should be possible to keep costs
reasonable. But as fuel goes up, the disadvantages of flying a
very heavy plane begin to make ultra-long haul problematic."
He said the flight should remain economic at prices below
around $70 a barrel, though Leeham Co analyst Bjorn Fehrm said
the actual level could be far higher as one-stop rivals would
also be squeezed by higher oil prices.
Singapore Airlines ended its New York and Los Angeles
flights using the four-engined A340-500 in 2013 when oil prices
topped $107 a barrel. The carrier is now waiting for delivery of
the far more fuel-efficient twin-engined A350-900ULR next year.
Qantas is pushing the planemakers hard on a stretch goal of
completing the Sydney-London flight with 300 seats to give it
the highest possible revenue and fleet flexibility.
However, Fehrm said the aircraft would likely fall short of
that goal if Qantas wanted to avoid a fuel stop on the westbound
leg when headwinds are strongest. If such stopovers became
frequent enough, Qantas would lose its ability to charge a
premium on the route.
Two aviation industry sources said the Airbus A350-900ULR
would fit more than 250 passengers on the Sydney-London route,
up from the 170 mainly business-class seats on Singapore
Airlines' configuration for flights to New York and Los Angeles.
Boeing's 777-8, due to enter service early in the next
decade, could carry around 280 passengers on the westbound leg
of the Sydney-London flight, the sources said. The sources
declined to be named because the configuration details are not
finalised. Airbus and Boeing declined to comment specifically on
the seat count.
"We think our airplane has the legs and the capability,"
said Dinesh Keskar, Boeing Senior Vice President Sales
Asia-Pacific and India. "If the 787-9 can do Perth-London, we
think that when the 777-8 comes out in the 2021 timeframe we
will have a lot more improvement in technology."
Airbus, Boeing and engine manufacturers are constantly
investing to reduce fuel usage, extending a plane's range and
its ability to perform in hot conditions like the Middle East.
That means the planemakers don't have to invest specifically
for any Qantas order, the size of which is still unclear.
Pushing the seat count towards 300 would also give Qantas
the flexibility to use these aircraft on other long routes, such
as a mooted Sydney-New York flight, as it looks to replace six
ageing 747-400ER planes and eventually its fleet of 12 A380s.
Qantas' Joyce has raised publicly the possibility of
ordering the 777-8 for ultra-long haul flights for the last two
years, but the A350-900ULR has entered the equation more
"It has added competition, and we would be crazy if we
didn't do a competition at the right time," Joyce said. "That
gets you the best pricing and ... the most capable aircraft."
Qantas has yet to launch a formal tender process for the
prestige order, as it waits for Boeing to finalise the
specifications on the 777-8. But the first Sydney-London flights
are possible around 2022, Joyce said.
"The Kangaroo route is probably the most competitive on the
globe," Joyce said. "(Flying non-stop) takes us off this
superhighway of very competitive conditions of capacity which is
priced, in many cases, under costs."
(Reporting by Jamie Freed; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)