“Getting fleet strategy right is essential to airline success, and we have always been prepared to go straight to the aviation forefront,” Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said in a recent speech.
“We did it with the B707s, again with the B747s and we were the first airline to sign on for the A380 in 2000.”
Certainly Qantas has always been seen as an influential buyer of aircraft, and has often played a part in the development of a number of new aircraft.
Its orders for the Airbus A3XX in 2000 helped to give the European manufacturer the go ahead for the aircraft, while it has also been closely involved in defining a number of different types for both Airbus and Boeing over the years.
And Qantas has been applauded for its fleet choice and being able to match the right aircraft to the right markets, while maintaining few types in order to keep costs down.
As Boeing’s vice president of marketing and sales Randy Tinseth told Australian Aviation recently, Qantas has consistently been thorough and considered with its fleet strategy.
“They’re looking for airplanes that will provide them superior value,” he said. “That means it’s not just about price, it’s giving them an airplane that ultimately will be the best decision for them to make from a financial and passenger perspective.
“It’s not just about the efficiency, operating cost or price of the airplane, it’s about the range capability of the airplane, the reliability and the passenger experience – all of those things are blended into their evaluation of an aircraft and they are extraordinarily thorough with that process.”
It is that process which has seen the Qantas fleet grow from being largely reliant on Boeing aircraft to one which has seen Airbus make major inroads with the A330 and A380, as well as Jetstar’s fleet of A320/321s.
Today the overall fleet is in a state of transition, with a steady stream of over 150 A380s, A330s, A320s and Boeing 737s and 787s to be delivered over the next eight years. As those aircraft come into the fleet, the stalwarts which have served the airline for a number of years – particularly the 737 classic, 747 and 767 fleets – are starting to be drawn down.
With such a big transition at the time of the airline’s 90th anniversary, an analysis of fleet types provides an interesting insight into the Qantas Group’s future.
Bombardier Dash 8
As the only turboprop aircraft in the Qantas Group’s fleet, the Dash 8 in its Dash 8-200/Q200, Q300 and Q400 variants is used on QantasLink’s extensive east coast regional and Queensland coastal network, operated by Qantas owned Sunstate and Eastern.
Today, QantasLink operates a fleet of five 36-seat -200s, 16 50-seat Q300s (one is currently leased to Cobham) and 21 74-seat Q400s, while all older Dash 8-100s have been sold.
The Q400 is becoming an increasingly important part of the Qantas fleet mix, given its ability to take over a number of former jet routes while being able to offer block times similar to jets over shorter sectors thanks to its performance. As a result, the Q400s are now used extensively on services throughout Queensland and also internationally between Cairns and Port Morseby. The Q400s have also been vital in providing economical incremental growth on a number of other routes, such as Sydney-Canberra, while also catering to growth in markets across southeastern Australia where they have replaced the smaller Q300s.
The first Q400 was delivered in 2006, while in July this year Qantas ordered a further seven of the type, which will take its total Q400 fleet to 28.
“The aircraft really suits QantasLink’s operations and is extremely popular with the airline’s customers,” said Joyce when announcing the new order.
With many of QantasLink’s routes continuing to show strong growth, it appears natural that the carrier may step up into a larger 90-seat turboprop if and when the time comes. While ATR is reportedly in advanced talks to potentially launch a 90-seater, Bombardier has yet to commit to a timetable for its own 90-seater, which would be the likely candidate for QantasLink.
Qantas’s 717s were a product of its buyout of Impulse Airlines in 2000, and the type has now grown into a niche aircraft serving a number of regional routes in WA, the Northern Territory and into northern Queensland.
After the Impulse acquisition the 717s initially operated on a number of regional jet routes on the East Coast under the QantasLink banner, but the type was somewhat of an orphan, particularly as Qantas subsidiaries Southern and Airlink were already operating similar capacity BAe 146s on a number of regional services.
But the 717 gained a reprieve in 2001 with the aircraft used to start Jetstar’s domestic services ahead of the arrival of its Airbus A320s. This was a natural solution given that Jetstar’s operations started from the shell of Impulse. After being replaced by A320s, the aircraft have now gone on to operate with QantasLink on long range regional services, with the aircraft flown by Cobham in a 115-seat, all-economy layout throughout WA and the Northern Territory.
The operations of the 717 have not been without their trials, with a number requiring upgrades to their engine control software to increase their thrust ratings to better operate in the harsh conditions of the northwest. The 717 also almost became the first jet aircraft operating in Australia to be written off, with one of the type experiencing a hard landing at Darwin in 2008. That caused significant crumpling to the aircraft’s fuselage as well as other structural damage which saw it remain static for some time, although this was repaired and the aircraft is now back in service.
The backbone of the domestic fleet for nearly 25 years, Qantas’s Boeing 737s have proven to be the ideal aircraft on a number of trunk, regional and trans-Tasman routes, and the introduction of the Next Generation 737-800 model in 2000 will see it stay around for many years to come.
Qantas inherited the 737s by way of its merger with Australian Airlines, which had first ordered 737-300s in 1985 to replace its Douglas DC-9s and in 1988 ordered the larger 737-400 to replace its 727s. While providing sterling service for a number of years, the ‘classic’ 737s are being drawn down with the smaller -300s already gone from the passenger fleet (a Qantas subsidiary operates three 737-300 freighters for Australian air Express), and the -400s to be retired by December 2013.
In their place, Qantas has become a major operator of the 737-800. Qantas’s initial 737‑800 purchase came just after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The resulting drop in air travel in North America saw American Airlines slash its capacity and also plan on cancelling a major order for 737-800s, which Qantas (after a competitive evaluation against the Airbus A320) took over. That saw Qantas take delivery of its first 737-800 in January 2002, allowing it to quickly grow its domestic capacity in the wake of the Ansett collapse. Today there are some 41 now in Qantas service, with a further 28 on order.
As well as their improved operating economics compared to the older 737‑400s, the -800s have introduced new capabilities. With their newer avionics, Qantas has used the 737-800 to introduce RNP (Required Navigation Procedures) precision approaches in Queenstown in New Zealand (see p48 this issue) and to various ports across Australia.
More recent deliveries of the 737-800s have seen the introduction of new technologies in inflight entertainment, with the addition of the Panasonic eX2 seatback audio and video on demand (AVOD) system to the latest aircraft which are now flying across the Tasman (operated by Qantas’s Jetconnect subsidiary). From 2012, newly delivered 737-800s for the domestic fleet will also be fitted with the system.
With the 168-seat 737-800 now providing Qantas’s domestic backbone, there has often been speculation that the airline might look to the larger 737-900ER to provide an incremental increase in passenger capacity. However, internal sources have in the past indicated that the additional time to turn around the aircraft has, thus far, made it an unlikely selection.
Airbus A320 & A321
While the Boeing 737 is the staple of Qantas’s domestic services, its rival from Airbus, the A320 Family, is in fact now more numerous in the Qantas Group fleet, having formed the basis of Jetstar’s domestic and short haul international fleet, and flying with Jetstar Asia and Jetstar Pacific.
Interestingly, the A320 could have pipped the 737 fleet’s growth early on. TAA was originally an A320 customer, ordering the type to replace its 727s, but later cancelled that in favour of Boeing 737-400s. The A320 then lost out to the 737-800 in 2001 thanks to the ability to secure early delivery slots, with some reports suggesting that Qantas came very close to ordering the A320.
With the decision in 2003 to launch Jetstar, Qantas again opened up a competition for a fleet to replace the 717s it initially would operate, resulting in an order for 23 A320s and 20 options to form the base fleet for Jetstar. Then in 2008 it added the larger 216-seat A321, which has allowed it to marginally grow capacity on some of its busier and longer routes.
A key appeal of the A320 has been the flexibility it offers Jetstar, with the aircraft equally suited to transcontinental operations as much as Sydney-Avalon sectors, while in a 177-seat all-economy configuration. The aircraft have also been used to open up short haul international routes from Perth and Darwin to as far away destinations as Ho Chi Minh City under its northern hub strategy.
The Qantas Group has over 50 A320s on order with Airbus, with many to be delivered over the next year to Jetstar Asia in Singapore and Jetstar Pacific in Vietnam. In the case of the latter, these will replace its fleet of 737-400s, allowing for a standardised fleet across all the Jetstar operations.
Despite the strong backlog, Jetstar is already looking to the eventual replacement of these aircraft. As part of its alliance with AirAsia which was revealed in January, the two airlines are working on a joint specification for new narrowbodies which they hope to take to the manufacturers in coming years.
Qantas’s 767s were originally bought to supplement the 747 on thinner routes into Asia, and for a number of years were the only twin engine aircraft in the fleet. Since then, they have transitioned to providing additional lift on domestic sectors, with the fleet being wound down in favour of A330s and soon 787s.
Qantas’s association with the 767 started in September 1983 with the carrier ordering seven 767-200ERs powered by Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines. That order led to the first delivery in July 1985, with the aircraft entering service on medium haul international routes shortly thereafter. This was followed two years later with an order for the larger 767-300ER, which unlike the -200ERs were specified with GE CF6 engines. The first of these were delivered in August 1988.
Since then, 22 GE powered 767‑300ERs have joined the airline’s fleet, while seven Rolls-Royce RB211 powered 767s were later acquired from British Airways to boost domestic capacity.
Gradually, the 767’s international work has decreased as the Airbus A330-300 and -200 have picked up most of the load. This has seen the aircraft primarily switch to operating domestic and some regional international services. In the case of the former, the aircraft have allowed Qantas to boost capacity at peak times on the golden triangle routes as well as allowing for widebody capacity to be easily ramped up or down on services to and from Perth over the last few years.
As some of the oldest aircraft in the fleet (they were delivered between 1988 and 2000), some 767-300s have already been removed from service and sold. At least three aircraft have been sold to Air Logistics which is expected to convert them to freighters, whose subsidiary Air Transport International wet-leases a 767-200 Freighter to Qantas Freight.
Of the 26 767-300ERs still in service, 17 will undergo an ADS-B and GNSS avionics upgrade, giving them RNAV, RNP and primary means GPS navigation capabilities.
VIDEO – A timelapse video of a Qantas 767-300 turnaround.
For many years Qantas was seen as a rusted on Boeing customer, but it broke that mould in December 2002 when it took delivery of its first new Airbus aircraft, an A330-200 (having previously operated four A300B4s inherited from Australian Airlines). This was followed by the delivery of the first A330-300 in October 2003.
The A330 purchase came as part of Qantas’s order for the A380 in 1999, and initially was for seven A330-200s and six A330-300s. Today it operates a fleet of 14 A330-200s (including seven flown by Jetstar) and 10 A330-300s.
The first four A330-200s were operated domestically on the high frequency ‘CityFlyer’ domestic services, despite their long range potential and the fact they took longer than the smaller 767 to turn around, resulting in them largely being quarantined to longer routes with longer turn times, while the 767s continued to ply the domestic trunk routes.
The A330-200s were then handed over to Jetstar to commence its long haul low cost services in 2006. The plan was for the A330 to serve with Jetstar on an interim basis until the delivery of the first 787s in 2008, but the subsequent 787 delays has seen the Jetstar A330 fleet grow as Qantas’s low cost arm expanded its long haul operations. Jetstar is now planning to take delivery of the first of five higher gross weight A330-200s, which will enable it to fly from Singapore nonstop to destinations in southern Europe such as Rome and Athens, ports which Qantas had long abandoned.
Qantas has recently taken delivery of two new A330-200s which it has dedicated to services from Sydney and Melbourne to Perth, replacing 767s. The A330s uniquely feature the Panasonic eX2 AVOD system, which has helped Qantas to offer a superior product to its rivals on the longer route, while also opening up more capacity at peak times.
In recent years, the range capabilities of the -200 have been put to good use with the type increasingly being put on to long haul international services. Qantas now flies the aircraft on the Auckland-Los Angeles-New York operation, while it also used it to operate nonstop Sydney-Mumbai services until they were suspended earlier this year.
The larger A330-300 has also played a key role on Qantas’s international network, having taken over most of the services into Asia. With increased capacity for both passengers and cargo over the 767, as well as the ability to carry the Skybed business class seat, they have proven to be ideally suited for markets such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
As Qantas is iconic, so is the 747, which has played a key role in helping to open up long haul services, although the type is now playing second fiddle to the A380.
Qantas’s association with the 747 dates back to November 1967 when it placed its first order for the 747-200B. Since the early 1990s, the backbone of the long haul fleet has been the 747-400, which has been given the ‘Longreach’ name. First ordered in 1987, the aircraft were a step-change technologically over Qantas’s older 747‑200, 747SP and 747-300 ‘classic’ fleets, with the -400 introducing a two crew glass cockpit, more efficient RB211-524 engines and winglets. The -400 has allowed Qantas to grow seat capacity and frequencies to the US and UK markets, firmly cementing it into a competitive position at the hubs of Heathrow and Los Angeles.
Qantas took delivery of 21 new build 747-400s, 18 delivered between August 1989 and October 1992, and an additional three handed over in late 1999/early 2000, while three CF6-80C powered 747-400s were acquired second hand from Malaysia Airlines and Asiana Airlines in the late 1990s. While the CF6 was a new engine type for Qantas’s 747 fleet, the engine was common to that powering most of its 767s.
In November 2000 Qantas also announced that it was buying six 747‑400ERs, becoming the first and only customer for the type. Powered by GE CF6s and featuring an increased max takeoff weight to boost its range to 8060nm with a full load, the aircraft appealed to Qantas due to its ability to operate year-round on trans-Pacific services without restrictions. Lately, they have also allowed Qantas to open up a nonstop service from Sydney to Buenos Aires.
As with the 767s, the 747 era is beginning to draw to a close at Qantas, with four -400s (including the two ex Malaysia Airlines aircraft) already removed from service, while most are earmarked to be drawn down over the coming years as they are replaced with A380s on most trunk routes.
Nevertheless, the airline will retain a fleet of nine 747s for future years, including the six 747-400ERs and the three youngest RB211 powered -400s. These are being refitted with new interiors featuring the Panasonic eX2 inflight entertainment system and a three-class configuration featuring business, premium economy and economy classes, and it is expected that they will continue to operate on services to Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and San Francisco.
Given Qantas typically operates aircraft for 20 years it seems likely the last nine 747-400s will remain with the airline into the early 2020s.
Clearly the flagship of the fleet, the A380 has given Qantas additional capacity to slot-constrained airports, while it has also brought in new standards of onboard product across all its cabins.
At the time of ordering the aircraft in 2000, then CEO designate Geoff Dixon said that they were ordered for their “payload capability, operational and economic advantages and its developmental potential as the start of a new aircraft type.” The A380 was also a logical choice to replace Qantas’s 747s and provide for further growth at the increasingly congested hubs at London Heathrow and Los Angeles.
Although first delivery was delayed from the second half of 2006 to September 2008 – they are now firmly the flagship aircraft of Qantas’s fleet. The airline had six A380s of the 20 it has on order in service at the time of writing, with the seventh due for delivery in late November. They operate from Sydney and Melbourne on the key London and Los Angeles routes.
A key part of the introduction of the 450 seat A380 has been bringing in updated products, such as new seats, a self-service area in economy and a bar area in the business class section. The A380 has given Qantas a competitive offering against the likes of Emirates and Singapore Airlines, while also offering a yield premium over services operated by the 747 fleet.
The A380’s entry into service has not been without its hiccups, with teething problems causing some flight delays. However, with Qantas’s experience with the type growing, the A380 is now achieving maturity.
In late 2009, Qantas announced that the final eight A380s will be delivered in a three class arrangement featuring enlarged business and premium economy class areas at the expense of first class, and up to 550 seats. The airline will also reconfigure its first eight aircraft for around 490 passengers (while retaining first). This will have the dual affect of opening up more revenue opportunities through an enlarged seat count as well as lowering the per seat costs.
Qantas was one of the earlier customers for the 787 and has been through the highs and lows of the program, but has kept faith in the airliner which will become the main widebody in its fleet over the coming decade.
Qantas placed its order for the 787 in March 2006, with a contract for 45 firm and 20 options for both the 787-8 and larger 787-9, plus purchase options that could have seen the total order boosted to 115 aircraft. Under the timetable put forward at the time of the order, the first 787‑8 would have been delivered at the end of 2008 to commence long haul service with Jetstar. However, with the well documented delays to the aircraft, Jetstar will now receive its first 313-seat 787-8 in 2012, with the first -9 to be delivered in 2014.
Last year Qantas cancelled orders for 15 787-9s as part of measures to cut capital expenditure in the wake of the global financial crisis. This has now left it with firm orders for 15 787‑8s and 35 787-9s.
Initially, the 787-8s will take over from the A330-200s used by Jetstar, allowing those aircraft to return to domestic Qantas service before they are also replaced later in the decade by more 787s. The range capability of the 787-9 is also likely to support Jetstar expanding to North America as well as giving it wider reach through Europe.
Despite the delays to the program, the 787 has been an astute choice for Qantas, allowing it to replace the long serving 767s and also to supplement and likely later replace the A330s. The extended range of the aircraft, particularly the larger -9 variant, will also give Qantas the combination of range and seating capacity to grow thin long haul routes – potentially lucrative markets which have not suited its fleet so far.
The aircraft should also deliver superior operating economics and fuel efficiency which will be key to Qantas and Jetstar’s long haul operations where they will be competing against other 787 and A350 operators in the region.
Qantas has also previously indicated an interest in the proposed 290-310 seat 787-10. While Boeing has not yet committed to launching the variant, it is understood to be highly favoured within Qantas to succeed the A330-300 should it become a reality.
VIDEO – Qantas looked ahead to the Boeing 787 in this November 2011 corporate video.
With the A380 and 787 set to roll through over the coming years, Qantas has again shown that it is a technological leader with its aircraft.
Replacement of the 747s will be a major issue for Qantas in coming years. While it plans to keep nine aircraft in service over the short to medium term, competitive pressures are likely to mean that in time Qantas will need to find an aircraft with the seating capacity to plug the gap between the 787-9 and the A380.
One possibility could be the 747-8 Intercontinental, where Qantas could follow Lufthansa’s intentions of operating the type as a step between its larger widebodies and A380s. Given the 787 fleet will be powered by GEnx engines, there would be some commonality between the two types. However, with a typical three class capacity of 467 seats, Qantas’s fleet planners may pass on it due to its similarity in size to the 450-550 seat A380 unless the economics prove compelling.
Another is that the carrier will turn to larger twinjets to come in and replace the 747s, a role which some speculate would be ideal for the 777-300ER. In the past the airline has expressed interest in the A350‑1000, but for now seems more interested in the 787-10.
Another area likely to see some movement in coming years is in the 100-seat segment to replace the QantasLink Boeing 717s. These aircraft are understood to be leased until 2012, after which time it is expected that they will be replaced by another similar aircraft, unless their leases are renewed.
Although a number of routes in WA are likely to go to the 737 fleet, the growth of regional routes and demand for jet services elsewhere is likely to keep up the need for a 100-seater aircraft, to sit between the 74-seat Q400 and the 168-seat 737-800, potentially opening the way for the Bombardier CSeries to come into play. CEO Alan Joyce has said that the CSeries is a “great aircraft” but also noted that the airline was keeping an open mind, and would also likely evaluate possible competitors from Embraer and Mistubishi alongside the CSeries.
Longer term, Qantas is keeping a close eye on the eventual successors to the 737s and A320s which have formed the backbone of the short haul fleets of Qantas mainline and Jetstar. While the latter has already indicated that it plans to work with AirAsia to define a new narrowbody aircraft suited to both carriers’ needs, Qantas has not indicated that it plans to replace its 737s any time soon.
Nevertheless, the carrier is expected to show more than a passing interest in the new narrowbody designs when they become available in the mid-2020s, at which point the older 737-800s will be over 20 years old. That could see Qantas become the launch customer for an A320 or 737 successor, and no doubt spark a hot competition between Boeing and Airbus when it happens.
In the meantime, the Qantas Group will certainly have its hands full over the next few years. As well as 250 aircraft currently in service across the Group, the over 150 new aircraft on order represents more than one new aircraft delivery every month for the next eight years, and allows for the replacement of up to 65 aircraft currently in service. It’s a flexible fleet strategy that is designed to position the group for growth well into the future.