The union representing Qantas pilots has warned the airline that a plan to hire new flight crew for the London-Sydney nonstop could "damage the airline for many years to come".
The Australian airline’s “Project Sunrise” is aimed at launching the world’s longest flight. The plan is to use Airbus A350 jets, which Qantas does not currently fly, to link Heathrow with Kingsford-Smith airport in Sydney. The distance is 10,573 miles, more than 1,000 miles longer than the current longest flight, between Singapore and New York.
The project is not covered by existing agreements with the Australian & International Pilots Association (AIPA), the union representing flight crew working for Qantas Group.
The Australian airline has warned existing pilots that unless they make concessions to cut costs on future ultra-long-haul flights, it will set up a separate operation and recruit new flight crew on less favourable terms.
The union said the plan was “not acceptable to a majority of our members” and warned there is currently “no legal basis” for the planned flights to operate.
The airline and AIPA have been in talks on the issue for six months. The biggest stumbling block is the airline’s proposed pay rates for future second officers. These are more junior pilots deployed on flights too long to be operated by a captain and first officer alone.
Qantas claims paying the second officers less than at present is “a major contributor to making the Sunrise business case stack up”.
Tino La Spina, chief executive of Qantas International, said: “We’ve had extensive discussions with AIPA for months and months and while they have told us they don’t like what’s on offer, they haven’t put forward a proposal of their own."
He warned the pilots’ union that, if no deal is reached, the airline will operate “Project Sunrise” flights through a new lower-pay unit to make the service financially viable.
Mr La Spina said: “We have a good deal on the table for our long-haul pilots, with pay increases and promotional opportunities. We’ve structured it so their take home pay is not negatively impacted.
“The reality is we are running out of time to keep our aircraft delivery slots with Airbus. If we can’t reach agreement with the union soon, we’ll be putting the offer directly to our pilots so they can have their say.”
Flight crew will be asked to vote in March, before the airline is expected to announce its decision.
If pilots vote against the agreement, the airline says it “will be left with no viable option than to employ pilots to operate Airbus A350s for Project Sunrise through a new entity”.
But Mark Sedgwick, president of AIPA, said: “The announcement by Qantas that it was prepared to use an external workforce to engage in ultra-long range flying if it could not reach agreement with AIPA is not acceptable to a majority of our members.”
He warned the plan “risks damaging pilot engagement and would potentially damage the airline for many years to come”.
Mr Sedgwick said: “Qantas claims that it has been flexible in its approach to these negotiations but the productivity targets that it is asking pilots to agree to has remained absolutely fixed.
“Current restrictions on pilot duty hours means there is no legal basis for Qantas’ Project Sunrise proposal to operate.”
In 2019 Qantas conducted a series of what it called “research flights” nonstop from New York and London to Sydney.
The airline has operated nonstop flights between Heathrow and Perth since 2018. Routes from London to Brisbane and Melbourne are also being considered as part of Project Sunrise.
Frankfurt and Paris may also be connected nonstop with Sydney.