As many of the world’s airlines begin to reap the financial, and environmental rewards of introducing lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft made up of carbon-fibre composites, such as the Airbus A350 XWB — a relatively low oil price and continuing strong demand from international passengers is helping drive the growth of ultra-long-haul flying.
Airbus, the European manufacturer of the existing A350-900ULR, a variant of flagship A350 XWB that already caters to the ultra-long-haul market, is in final talks with multiple airline customers ahead of a formal launch of the A350-1000ULR, an ultra-long-range variant of the largest member of the A350 XWB family, Aviation Analyst can exclusively reveal.
Airbus’ commitment to building an ultra-long-range ‘family’ follows extensive talks with a variety of airline customers, many of whom have shown interest in potentially ordering, or converting existing A350 orders to an A350-1000ULR that will be able to fly further, and heavier than the existing A350-900ULR — with, crucially: more passengers. The A350-1000ULR will also take on Boeing’s 777X, and Airbus intend to have the aircraft available to airline customers before the 777X is able to gain a significant hold of the extreme end of the long-haul market.
Alan Joyce, the Qantas CEO, put Airbus and Boeing to the test by asking the two manufacturers to develop an aircraft capable of flying for 21-hours, such as between London and Sydney. The Australian flag carrier is considering both the Airbus A350-1000ULR (Ultra Long Range) and the Boeing 777-8, and the decision will be announced in quarter-four of 2019, Joyce recently confirmed. Qantas has already eliminated the prospect of ordering the existing A350-900ULR, citing lower passenger capacity.
Singapore Airlines was the launch customer of the A350-900ULR, which is capable of flying up to 9,700 nautical miles, or around 20 hours non-stop, depending on the onboard seating capacity.
Singapore Airlines operates the aircraft on the world’s longest flights, including between Singapore and New York, which covers a distance of over 8,000nm over the course of approximately 18 hours of flying time. However, the aircraft is configured in a two-class layout, with 67 Business Class seats and 94 Premium Economy seats, — leaving Singapore Airlines vulnerable to the break-even complexities an all-premium flight can present to an airline.
The existing A350-900ULR doesn’t require any additional fuel tanks over the standard A350-900 and instead uses technology to tap into additional space already available in the existing tanks to carry an extra 6,340 gallons of fuel. For the A350-1000ULR, in addition to carrying the extra fuel, increased maximum take-off weight and increased payload capabilities (in order to reduce having to establish costly payload restrictions on routes with proven strong demand such as the ‘Kangaroo route’ to Australia) are crucial.
While Qantas will benefit from a jet the airline can deploy on an ultra-long-haul route, an A350-1000ULR will also equip current A380 operator airlines with an Airbus jet that can go on to replace the superjumbo on high-demand, long-haul routes. Earlier this year, in a conversation with GCEO of Qatar Airways, H.E Mr Akbar Al Baker, Al Baker exclusively told Aviation Analyst: “Airbus has told us that from next year  they will increase the maximum take-off weight of the A350-1000.”
He added, “Once Airbus extends the maximum take-off weight of the A350-1000, this jet will be able to do, with lesser capacity, the same routes as the 777X, including to Australia.” The Qatari carrier will begin phasing out the A380 jets from 2024, Al Baker first revealed to Aviation Analyst.
Just four airlines have taken delivery of the A350-1000 XWB so far: Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic. The aircraft boasts a strong dispatch reliability and was described as having “the best entry-into-service we’ve ever experienced on an Airbus jet” by its launch customer, Qatar Airways. “There were no teething problems, which is unusual for a brand new plane,” a Cathay Pacific executive told me, following five months of A350-1000 service at the Hong Kong-based carrier.
Last week, standing in the ‘Club Suite’ Business Class cabin of British Airways’ first A350-1000 XWB, British Airways CEO, Alex Cruz told Aviation Analyst “The main purpose of this aircraft is to substitute exiting aircraft. We want to learn how it works, see the performance across multiple routes, and then take a look and see what options we have.” Cruz added, “I’m sure that deep inside Waterside (British Airways headquarters) someone is thinking about this — but yes, we are very pleased with the flexibility the A350-1000 will offer.” British Airways have 18 A350-1000 jets on order, and will first deploy the jet on routes to the United Arab Emirates, Canada, and India.
Airbus has received nearly one thousand orders for A350 XWB family aircraft, consisting of the A350-900, A350-900ULR, and A350-1000. While the jet is already regarded a commercial success by the manufacturer, Airbus wide-body jet sales have been almost non-existent elsewhere at the company for the A330-800neo, a wide-body jet dubbed as ‘the little sister’ of the A350. The A330-800neo first flew nearly 300 days ago — there are still only two airlines with firm orders: Kuwait Airways and Uganda Airlines.
Airbus’ newly launched, and fast-selling A321XLR — the extra long-range variant of the A321neo — has the potential to slow down A330neo orders due to its extended range. The new jet will allow airlines to operate a lower-cost single-aisle aircraft on longer and less heavily demanded routes, many of which could previously only be served by larger and less efficient wide-body aircraft.
In a conversation with Airbus Chief Commercial Officer, Christian Scherer, he told Aviation Analyst “We are still confident we will sell more of the A330-800neo, especially as airlines begin to look at replacing in-service A330-200s.”