Qantas Project Sunrise contender the A350-900ULR rolls out of final assembly

Singapore Airlines' first Airbus A350-900ULR. (Airbus)
Singapore Airlines’ first Airbus A350-900ULR. (Airbus)

A likely contender for Qantas’s demanding Project Sunrise requirement for an aircraft capable of operating nonstop flights from Sydney to London and New York has broken cover, with the first Airbus A350-900ULR (Ultra Long Range) aircraft emerging from the manufacturer’s final assembly line at Toulouse yesterday.

The A350-900ULR is the first of seven SIA has on order for the resumption of Singapore-New York and Singapore-Los Angeles nonstop services. The airline dropped the two routes, which were previously served with four-engine A340-500s, in 2013 when high fuel prices made flying them uneconomical.

A 2015 promotional image from SIA counting down the days to a resumption of Singapore-New York nonstop flights. (SIA/Twitter)
A 2015 promotional image from SIA counting down the days to a resumption of Singapore-New York nonstop flights. (SIA/Twitter)

Although the first A350-900ULR, MSN216, is yet to be painted, it already features the words “Singapore Airlines First To Fly” on the fuselage alongside the A350XWB Ultra Long Range logo.

Airbus said the aircraft would be put through a short flight test program to certify the changes over the standard A350-900.

The manufacturer said the A350-900ULR had a modified fuel system that increased the fuel carrying capacity by 24,000 litres (from 141,000 litres to 165,000 litres) over the standard A350-900 without the need for additional fuel tanks.

“The test phase will also measure enhanced performance derived from aerodynamic improvements, including extended winglets,” Airbus said on Wednesday.

An artist's impression of an Airbus A350-900ULR in Singapore Airlines colours. (Airbus)
An artist’s impression of an Airbus A350-900ULR in Singapore Airlines colours. (Airbus)


The A350-900ULR has been designed with a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 280 tonnes and is designed to be capable of flying up to 9,700nm or more than 20 hours non-stop.

The Singapore-New York (Newark) route, which clocks in at 8,285nm, was the world’s longest nonstop passenger flight before the service ended in 2013. Singapore-Los Angeles is 7,621nm. Currently, the title of world’s longest nonstop passenger flight goes to Qatar Airways for its Doha-Auckland service (7,848nm) operated by the Boeing 777-200LR.

To date there have been 854 firm orders for the A350 XWB family of aircraft – comprising the A350-900, A350-900ULR and A350-1000 – from 45 customers, Airbus has said.

SIA has taken delivery of 21 A350-900s, out of a total of 67 on order. Although the airline was yet to reveal the cabin layout for its A350-900ULR, SIA executives have indicated previously the cabin will feature a two-class configuration, without specifying which classes.

The A350 and Project Sunrise

Airbus is hoping the A350-900ULR is the aircraft that will one day operate nonstop from Sydney to London and New York in Qantas colours.

The Australian carrier is currently looking for an aircraft capable of flying those ultra long haul routes, and others, as part of Project Sunrise.

The campaign pits the A350-900ULR against Boeing’s 777-8X.

Airbus head of A350 marketing Marisa Lucas-Ugena told media in Sydney recently the airframer was in an “extremely good place to work on this challenge” thanks to the A350-900ULR.

“Are we better placed than anybody else to meet it? Absolutely,” Lucas-Ugena told reporters during a media briefing at Qantas’s Mascot jet base on February 12 prior to a A350-1000 demonstration flight around Sydney.

“What you see on the -900 is just the beginning and you are going to start seeing some of the developments in 2018. Yes we are ready and we will have to work hard still just to get that extra mile, literally, but we are very optimistic.”

VIDEO – Highlights from the Airbus A350-1000’s recent demonstration tour

Boeing too is optimistic about being able to meet Qantas’s requirements, with a senior executive telling Australian Aviation the company was making “good progress” in ensuring the 777-8X would be up to the task.

“I think that the baseline of the 8X is a much better place to start than any of our competitor’s baselines,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of marketing told Australian Aviation at the Singapore Airshow on February 6.

While the 777-8X is still in development and yet to reach firm configuration, the Boeing website lists the aircraft as having a range of 8,700nm and a passenger capacity of 350-375 passengers.

An artist's impression of the Boeing 777-8X. (Boeing)
An artist’s impression of the Boeing 777-8X. (Boeing)

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said on the sidelines of the recently-concluded Singapore Airshow a request for proposal (RFP) was expected some time in 2019.

“We want both manufacturers to have an aircraft that is capable of doing it. If that’s the case we’ll do an RFP next year,” Joyce said during the Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit on February 5, according to Flightglobal.

It is understood Qantas was seeking an aircraft capable of carrying 300 passengers in both directions on both the New York and London routes.


  1. David says

    If the A350-900ULR is about to be launched by Singapore Airlines, what are Qantas waiting for? Allan Joyce threw out the challenge, no that the challenge is almost met, why aren’t the order books being filled out as we speak?

  2. Chris says

    No Harrison.
    The 777-200LR has a maximum range of 8,555nm whilst the A350-900ULR has a range of 9,700nm.
    Having said that, Airbus will be offering this aircraft with an even longer range for ‘project sunrise’.
    Boeing, in turn, will also be offering extended ranges on it’s 777-X product.
    Both manufacturers are keeping their cards very close to their chests at this stage re their prospective offerings. Especially the ranges.

  3. Ben says

    Harrison, no.

    The 777-200LR has always range of about 15,800km, the A350-900 15,000 and the A350-900ULR is just under 18,000km.

  4. Stephen Boyce says

    Does the airbus a350-900ULR able to fly from Sydney to London with 300 passengers and can the boeing 777-8 also have the ability to fly from Sydney to London with 300 passesngers

  5. Trogdor says

    @David – Singapore airlines are going for a premium-heavy configuration, mostly likely Business/Premium econ for a total of less than 200 seats.

    Qantas have clearly said that what they need is something that can do Sydney to London with 300 pax on board. Now I suspect they’ll be happy if someone got close to that figure -say 280 – but the ULR in its current guise can’t do the mission Qantas wants.

  6. Kel says

    Wikipedia details that Airbus had made offer in the past to BA to build an A350-900R to fly LHR-SYD that would have the 6 wheel bogie of A350-1000. If this is possible, given the A350-1000 has MTOW 308 tonnes, this would give an increase of at least 28 tonnes in MTOW. (You would assume that the bogie is designed for a higher MTOW in the future.)

    As all A350s have the same basic wing, the increased trailing edges of A350-1000 should fit to provide increased lift. The A350-1000 engines would provide the necessary power.

    However, Airbus has claimed that that the existing B777 takes off 40 tonnes heavier than an a A350-900, 20 tonnes heavier for the airframe and 20 tonnes extra fuel to carry the heavier weight. (Nice round figures.)

    This suggests that any increase in MTOW, at the range these planes are flying, half the increase will be required for the extra fuel. Then there is the increased airframe weight.

    It has been reported that Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR will carry 170 passengers and that Qantas wants to carry 300 passengers.

    To carry these extra 130 passengers will require a very substantial increase in MTOW.

    This is what the engineers at Airbus (and at Boeing with B777X) are trying to solve.

  7. Archie says

    Fingers crossed Airbus gets the order, 20+ hours in boeing beancounter economy would be torture.

  8. Michael Sheridan says

    Playing devil.s advocate, when you get right down to it, how many planes is Qantas really going to order for “sunrise”. Joyce strikes me as playing ego games’—having Boeing and Airbus execs lining up to feed CEO egos. Boeing and Airbus would be wise not to allow Joyce to deform and torque this silly “contest” into a specialized low volume plane flying to the limited Market that is Australia.

  9. Craigy says

    @ Michael Sheridan. You may well ask Singapore Airlines how many aircraft they have on order for their ULR plans for the A359. Qantas are not the only airline seeking aircraft with greater range and an acceptable payload. United have recently expressed an interest in ULR aircraft. You can imagine if Qantas starts flying JFK direct to Sydney, United or Delta will also seek to fly the same route. Delta already have A350 aircraft on order so a change is easy most likely. For SIA an aircraft that meets the Qantas requirements could change their business plan for direct services to LA from Singapore by increasing payload. Think also European airlines such as BA and Finnair. So summing up, this is not some silly ‘contest’.

  10. ian says

    hang on, doesn’t the a340-500 launched about a dozen years ago, have the range that talked about above ?

    (or it that with very few passengers & no freight ?)

  11. Riplander says

    @ Ian,

    The A340-500 did have a good range (around 16,600km) but it was incredibly inefficient when fuel prices rose.

  12. Ric Lasslett says

    Can someone explain how you can load an extra 24,000 litres of fuel without extra tanks?

  13. Craigy says

    @ Ric Either the changed fuel system allowed for bigger fuel tanks or the modified fuel system inside the tank provided more room

  14. says

    I think both the A350ULR-X & the B777-8-X will be technically excellent aircraft & it will probably be the best deal that wins the impending competition. However from an economy passengers point of view the Airbus offering with a comfortable 9 abreast configuration has it all over the 777 with a likely cramped 10 abreast as now seems to be the popular trend with 777 customers ( Cathay,Emirates etc etc)