Qantas’ Project Sunrise: Will The Program Be Environmentally Sustainable?

LONDON – Qantas, an airline that never falls short of a press release recently, made two big announcements that gave industry experts’ a buzz of excitement accompanied by the side of doubt.

Firstly, the airline announced the noble goal of becoming a net-zero emissions airline by 2050; moreover, in the interim, an overall 25 percent reduction in emissions by using new sustainable fuels, carbon offsetting, and boosting efficiency in current technologies.

The press quickly celebrated the airline’s admirable goal and gave Qantas its much-desired media attention.

However, not long after, the soon-to-be net-zero emission airline managed to pioneer a contradicting announcement that swiftly caught industry experts’ attention.

The airline announced that project sunrise has made a return from retirement and that it would take flight as early as 2025 when it takes delivery of 12 new Airbus A350-1000 aircraft.

The airline plans to connect Sydney and Melbourne to New York and London directly. Experts have pointed out how this turning point in aviation contains bold links between executive pay and improved sustainability (or greenwashed CSR).

No Such Technology For Ultra-Long-Haul Sustainability…

So, where’s the conflict? These two announcements seem to align on a similar environmental strategy for those who aren’t as knowledgeable as experts on fuel consumption.

On the one hand, Qantas is set to become a net-zero emission airline, an announcement applauded by environmentalists and industry experts.

On the other, the press release last month announced the start of ultra-long-haul routes, which will prevent passengers from taking two flights instead of one.

However, the reality is that as good as that may sound, the theory tells us otherwise. For example, studies have revealed that ultra-long-haul flights have a higher carbon emission per passenger than trips that require passengers to change flights.

Ultra-long-haul aircraft must carry higher fuel loads to reach their intended destination whilst simultaneously carrying passengers on lower configurations.

An example of this is Singapore Airlines. The airline that currently holds the record for two of the world’s longest non-stop routes utilizes the smaller A350-900.

The aircraft operates typically with 300-350 passengers; however, for the airline to manage such long-distance the airline operates with 161 passengers in a high premium configuration which does not feature an economy class cabin.

When discussing project sunrise at a recent press conference, Qantas added that their ultra-long-haul flight will be carbon neutral. However, how such an ambitious goal will be achieved is a mystery as there is no current technology to make this possible.

The only feasible way to achieve this feat would be with carbon offsetting practice. However, one question lingers:

How does an airline achieve a complete carbon offset whilst not cutting into profits or charging more onto what will be already expensive tickets?

If this cost were to be offloaded onto passengers coupled with a lower seat count, the tickets would be even more expensive, thus adding to the problem that a small wealthy elite has a disproportionately high environmental impact.

Elitism and environmental carelessness are two things that no corporation wants to be accused of. Airlines already struggle with the accusation of being perpetrators of climate change. Elitism would be the cherry on the cake for Qantas’s PR team.

What’s the math?

Data has shown that the most efficient flights range between 3000 to 5000 km, depending on aircraft type. Efficiency is calculated based on fuel burned per kilometer flown.

In contrast, the new pioneering technology will produce more carbon emissions per flight than flying from London to Sydney via Singapore or transit hubs alike.

The reason the new flights will be less efficient unless a new technology is found before the 2025 start is fundamental physics.

Ultra-long-haul flights have to carry a much higher fuel load on take-off to manage the later stages of flight that traditional routes would not require.

Qantas, who has boosted the fuel efficiency of the A350, must have been referring to A350 which operates traditional routings. Otherwise, it would be inexplicable given the aircraft that the Australian flag carrier ordered.

The new aircraft will be consuming 0.2 kilograms of fuel to transport a single kilo a thousand miles. In simple words, that is very high fuel consumption.

For example, a non-stop flight from Abu Dhabi to Auckland produces 872 kilograms of CO2 per passenger in the economy, whilst the same journey with a stopover in Singapore produces 772 kilograms.

That is two flights assuming all passengers are making the same journey.

In conclusion, if the new project sunrise becomes a success, as Qantas seems to predict, this new trend of stop skipping may become a giant step backward in achieving cleaner and greener skies and tackling aviation’s contribution to climate change.

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