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Who Will Pay A Premium For London-Sydney, The Ultimate Long-Haul Flight?

Qantas has extracted absurd amounts of publicity over its plans for flying non-stop between London Heathrow and Sydney, and also between Australia’s largest city and New York.

In 2019, you might recall, the Australian airline launched what it described as test flights from London and New York to Sydney to see how travellers responded to ultra long-haul flights. This stunt repeated a trick first carried out by Qantas in the 1980s, when it flew a Boeing 747 non-stop from Heathrow to Sydney. The perennial problem through the decades: none of those flights carried paying passengers or cargo.

The Australian airline invited Airbus and Boeing to a “beauty contest” to demonstrate how they could adapt a big twin-jet to fly 11,000 miles non-stop with a full payload.

The winning bid was confirmed this week to be a specially adapted Airbus A350. Services are scheduled to begin in late 2025. When finally the nonstops begin, part of the trick will involve keeping passenger numbers down: the seat total is just 238, on an aircraft that could legally carry twice as many people.

So who will be on board this exclusive jet? Well, the Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, expects it to fill from the front, starting with the six “luxurious first class suites with a separate bed, recliner lounge chair and personal wardrobe”. Sounds rather similar to a budget hotel, though this one will be travelling halfway around the world at 500mph.

Then there are the 56 business class suites, aimed at executives who simply want to get to the City of London, or to Wall Street, sign a deal and head home. The Qantas express will work just fine for them.

I predict premium economy, with 40 seats, will be occupied by well-heeled leisure travellers who will choose it instead of a discounted business-class deal via the Gulf. Which leaves just 140 economy seats for you and me down the back.

Or does it? I think the occupants will be very different from the usual all-ages mix of holidaymakers and family visitors travelling between London and Sydney.

The coronavirus pandemic has actually increased demand for a non-stop service. Before Covid (and the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has closed vast swathes of airspace) the most direct route between Heathrow and Sydney was via Hong Kong – still off-limits.

The heaviest UK-Australia traffic connected in Dubai – which, in March 2020, was suddenly closed, wrecking the homeward plans of tens of thousands of travellers.

Some people will be prepared to pay a handsome premium to cut out all the stops and the uncertainty they introduce. I believe these seats will be sold at about 50 per cent more than a one-stop fare on a quality airline.

They will be joined by people paying for the privilege of not having to change planes in some dusty desert location in the middle of the night.

That will help Qantas pay its enormous bill for fuel – and the promised carbon offsetting. The damage done by the ultimate ultra-long haul flight is vast compared with planes that stop once or twice along the way, because of the amount of fuel burnt simply to carry fuel for later in the journey.

The rest of us will continue to break the journey in one of the many tempting stopover locations along the way when travelling to the other side of the world. Better for the planet (or at least slightly less harmful), better for us.

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