Taking a look at the past, present, and future of Qantas’ domestic fleet
With some of Qantas’s narrow bodies now approaching, and exceeding 20 years old, it was no surprise that the airline launched it’s narrowbody fleet replacement program, dubbed “Project Winston” by the airline earlier this month. In a break from my more Tasmania based content, I’m going to take a look at Qantas’s historic domestic fleet, their current domestic operations, and have a look at the contenders for “Project Winston”. For the purpose of simplicity, domestic in this context also includes New Zealand.
Qantas was originally founded in Winton, Queensland in 1920 and spent much of it’s early years operating domestic flights around Australia before progressively transitioning to an international carrier in the 1930s and 1940s, culminating in the nationalisation of the airline in 1947 and the transfer of their remaining domestic routes to Trans Australian Airlines (TAA).
Flash forward to 1992, and TAA, by then known as Australian Airlines was merged into Qantas, finally re-establishing the airline as Australia’s domestic and international flag carrier. From the merger with Australian, Qantas inherited a fleet of 32 fairly modern Boeing 737-300 and -400s, and 4 Airbus A300 widebodies to fly a wide variety of domestic routes right across the country (plus a few remaining Boeing 727-200s, but these were retired within a few years and replaced by the rest of the 737-400 order).
Qantas’s domestic short haul fleet today
Qantas primarily operate their 75 strong feet of Boeing 737-800s on most domestic routes, these aircraft having been delivered between 2002 and 2014 to replace the Boeing 737-300 and -400 fleets and increase domestic and international short haul capacity. A small sub-fleet of Airbus A330-200s also fly longer and higher demand domestic routes, from the east coast capitals to Perth and Auckland, and to Queensland holiday destinations from Melbourne and Sydney over summer.
On the other end of the scale, Qantas’ regional subsidiary, QantasLink, flies a mix of Boeing 717-200s, Fokker F100s, Airbus A320-200s, Embraer E190s (wet leased from Alliance Airlines) and DHC Dash 8s, however only the Boeing 717 is currently up for replacement. The Boeing 717s, Dash 8s and Embraer E190s are all currently based outside of Western Australia, flying lower demand routes to and between secondary cities. The F100s and A320s on the other hand, are based at Perth and primarily fly FIFO charters within the state.
What is up for replacement?
The current contest only calls for the replacement of Qantas’ Boeing 717-200 and Boeing 737-800 fleets, however it seems likely that the rest of the domestic fleet, bar the A320s and E190s will need replacing in the next 5-10 years, with even the A330s hanging around the 20 years in service mark. The 717 replacement will become even more pressing around 2025, when Delta, who operate two thirds of the hundred or so that remain in service today retire their final examples. With such a small fleet remaining, engines and other key parts will become prohibitively expensive to maintain, forcing Hawaiian and Qantas to join Delta in retiring the last of the “Mad Dogs”.
Qantas’ regional subsidiary QantasLink currently operate a fleet of 20 717s, ranging between 15 and 22 years of age. The Boeing 717 is an evolution of the Douglas DC-9 of 1965, and was originally launched as the McDonnell Douglas MD-95 (or Douglas DC-9-95) in 1994, but MDD was acquired by Boeing in 1997, before production was started, and the MD-95 was duly rebranded as the Boeing 717-200. Qantas never actually took delivery of and 717s as new, acquiring their first examples as part of their absorption of Impulse Airlines in 2001. A number were used to launch Qantas’ LCC, Jetstar in 2004, but all had returned to QantasLink by 2007. Over the next few years, three were sold on to Hawaiian Airlines, seven were acquired from Mexicana Click, and two final examples from Finnish carrier Blue1 in 2016.
Qantas’ 717s are currently operated in two seating configurations, with eight in a 125 seat all economy arrangement, and twelve in a two class configuration with 12 business seats and 98 economy. Their 2,400km range makes them well suited to Australia’s east coast, flying a variety of routes, from Hobart to Brisbane, to Sydney to Canberra.
The most numerous aircraft type in the Qantas fleet is the ever popular Boing staple, the 737-800, with 75 aircraft currently in the fleet, between 7 and 19 years of age. Qantas’ first Boeing 737-800 order, for 15 aircraft in 2001, came about after a series of fairly interesting events. After the untimely collapse of Qantas’ main domestic competitor, Ansett, in September 2001, the airline needed to rather rapidly increase domestic operations to fill the resultant capacity gap, at the same time, the world was reeling from the September 11 attacks in New York, and American Airlines no longer needed a number of the aircraft it had on order due to the downturn in passenger traffic in the US. Qantas leaped on the opportunity and acquired 15 of American’s slots on the Boeing 737NG production line, allowing the first aircraft to be delivered in January 2002, just two months after the order announcement in late October 2001. Over the next 11 years a further 60 aircraft were delivered new from Boeing, culminating in the arrival of Qantas’ 75th and final Boeing 737-800, VH-XZP in a 1970s retro colour-scheme, in late 2014.
The Boeing 737-800s are now to be found right across Qantas’ network, with their 4,800km range allowing them to fly anything from short domestic hops within Australia, to longer flights to New Zealand, the Pacific, and South-East Asia. All currently have a 174 seat configuration, with 12 in business, and 162 in economy.
Aircraft being evaluated to replace the Boeing 717
In their official media release, Qantas have nominated four types from two aircraft families to replace their fleet of Boeing 717s, these being the A220-100 and A220-300 from Airbus (formerly the Bombardier CSeries) and the E190-E2 and E195-E2 from Brazilian manufacturer Embraer.
Airbus A220 family
Objectively, the Airbus A220 is just a superior aircraft to the Embraer E-Jet, as it is a modern, clean-sheet design, and this is evident in it’s longer range, lower fuel burn per seat, lower noise footprint, and decreased emissions. This is of course reflected in it’s higher list price, at around 91 million USD per aircraft. It is also debatable about how well suited the A220 is to some of the less well prepared airstrips the 717 is occasionally needed for, and it is extremely unlikely the A220’s full range would ever be needed in Qantas’ operations.
Embraer E-Jet E2 family
Brazilian manufacturer Embraer is already represented in the Qantas group, with Alliance Airlines having recently started flying a number of their second hand E190-E1s on behalf of QantasLink, although this factor would have little effect on the choice of aircraft, given they aren’t actually operated in-house. As the E190-E2 and the E195-E2 are evolutions of a previous design, they can’t quite match the performance of a newer clean sheet design, however, they are still a viable contender, as their passenger capacities more closely match the 717, and don’t have the unnecessary range capabilities of the A220, leading to a lower list price, upwards of 60 million USD.
Aircraft being evaluated to replace the Boeing 737
At the 737 end of things, Qantas have nominated the only two truly viable replacements for the Boeing 737-800 fleet, the Airbus A320neo and Airbus A321neo, and the Boeing 737 MAX family of aircraft.
Airbus A320neo family
Again, the Airbus product is an objectively superior aircraft, as the neo variants are only the third evolution,(or second, depending upon whether you consider the earlier models separately to the ceo generation currently in production), based off the 1984 Airbus A320-100, while the aircraft hasn’t also suffered the well publicised tragic consequences of trying to fit a current generation turbofan onto a fuselage designed in the 1950s, that the 737 MAX has. Beyond that, Qantas mainline is now the only part of the Qantas Group not flying the A320 family, with Jetstar flying a massive fleet of A320-200s and A321-200s, QantasLink with a small fleet of Airbus A320-200s, and QantasFreight’s growing fleet of Airbus A321-200P2Fs. Of the 109 Airbus A320neo family aircraft already on order for the Qantas Group, primarily for Jetstar, a number of Airbus A321XLRs are earmarked for Qantas, to allow expansion into long thin routes previously unserved in South-East Asia.
Boeing 737 MAX family
While the Boeing 737 MAX may be a somewhat lacking in performance and customer confidence, it makes up for it in the simplicity a 737NG to 737 MAX move would be, limiting the amount of crew and maintenance training that would need to occur if moving from Boeing to Airbus, the 737 MAX would also allow simplify aircraft and crew changes over the ten or so years with a mixed fleet. However, in many ways, the advantages end there, the 737 MAX has experienced a massive number of problems, both major and minor, since entering service, and, at it’s core is, an un-aerodynamic (by today’s standards) 63 year old fuselage design, with engines positioned so far above and forward of the wing that a whole computer system is required to stop it from pitching up, due to the inability to fit longer landing gear struts on such an old design.
Qantas have said the final decisions on aircraft and engines will be made by the end of the year, with firm orders following in the first half of 2022, while Alan Joyce also noted the airline will be picking up where they left off regarding Project Sunrise and their ultra long haul flights to Europe and North America’s East Coast. Pre-Covid, Qantas had announced the Airbus A350-1000 as the preferred aircraft for these flights, but stopped short of actually placing orders, though it doesn’t seem unlikely that Airbus would be willing to cook up an A220/A320/A350 mega deal for the airline, but only time will tell.
I hope this has been an interesting and informative read, and I certainly enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone to write something a little different to usual! I’d like to say a massive thanks to Rob Finlayson for once again allowing me to use some of his excellent photos from the 1990s and 2000s at Hobart, and I highly recommend you check out his galleries on PBase here, especially some of the older photos from HBA! As usual, don’t forget to check out my Instagram and YouTube using the blue buttons below.
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