MIAMI — On November 16, 1920, four Australian aviation pioneers founded Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited, today known as Qantas. Last week, we reported the delivery of a Boeing 737-800 with a 1970s retro livery as part of the airline’s 94th anniversary celebration. Join us to continue the celebration as we look back at the history of one of the oldest carriers in the world.
One of the main motivators for establishing air service in Australia 94 years ago had to do with the country’s vast roadless interior, known as the Outback, and its remote, sparsely populated settlements. The new company started with a water-cooled Avro 504K capable of carrying a pilot and two passengers at a maximum speed of 65 miles per hour. In 1921, an air-cooled Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2.e with a maximum speed of 72 miles per hour joined the fleet.
The initial services included mail delivery, joy riding, taxi service, and demonstration flights to attract potential customers. During this initial period, the two biplanes carried 871 passengers more than 33,500 miles without serious mishaps. Until 1929, Qantas operated from the town of Longreach, which is virtually synonymous with the airline to this day and which also became the nickname of the carrier’s Boeing 747-400s because of their range.
Qantas obtained a license to build de Havilland aircraft at its Longreach facility, where it rolled out DH50s capable of carrying four passengers. These were the first post-World War I commercial aircraft that had closed cabins not requiring passengers to wear helmets and goggles. In 1928 Qantas flew the inaugural flight of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, which provided on demand medical services to Outback populations.
In 1930, Qantas moved its headquarters to the coastal city of Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. At the time of the move, the airline had flown one million miles carrying 10,400 passengers. On January 18, 1934, Qantas linked up with British Imperial Airways to carry mail from Brisbane to Darwin as part of a mail run connecting Australia to England. On January 18, 1934 Qantas Empire Airways Limited launched by combining the interests of both carriers.
International service begins
On February 26, 1935, Qantas took over the Darwin-Singapore segment of the Royal Mail from Australia to England, thereby starting international service. The first international passenger service took place two months later on April 17, using a DH 86 biplane, which operated accident-free until 1938 when growing demand made Qantas opt for larger aircraft. The Short Empire “C” Class flying boat became the replacement.
The 15-passenger flying boats flew the entire Australia-England route, known as the “Kangaroo Route,” with Qantas crews flying the Australia-Singapore portion and their Imperial Airways counterparts continuing to England. The trek, which started in Sydney and ended in Southampton, took nine days, with passengers staying in hotels overnight. Also in 1938, Qantas moved its headquarters to Sydney.
World War II
Japanese aggression in Singapore and northern Australia resulted in the downing of three of the 10 flying boats in service. Two others were destroyed in accidents related to wartime service. Qantas crews were heroically involved in the use of flying boats to evacuate women and children from war zones. In 1942, the Australian government recalled the flying boats for wartime service.
World War II significantly curtailed international service. Singapore fell in February 1942, essentially cutting off the Kangaroo Route. In 1943, Imperial Airways, under its new BOAC name, and Qantas agreed to reestablish the route, bypassing Singapore via an Indian Ocean crossing from Perth, Australia to modern-day Sri Lanka. Qantas crews ferried 19 U.S.-made Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats, capable of flying 125 miles per hour, from San Diego to Australia. This gave them the experience necessary for the long overwater segment.
The Indian Ocean hop of more than 3,500 miles at the time was the longest nonstop passenger flight ever attempted. Pilots used celestial navigation to maintain radio silence. The fuel required for such a long distance limited payload to three passengers and 152 pounds of diplomatic and armed forces mail. The Indian Ocean crossings lasted 28 to 32 hours, depending on winds, and became vital to maintaining Australia-England lines of communication.
The Catalinas flew 271 Indian Ocean crossings carrying 648 passengers and covering 932,000 miles by the time the operation ended on July 18, 1945. In 1944, Qantas adopted the kangaroo logo to symbolize this long hop that connected Australia and England. Another important feat was that these aircraft never experienced an engine failure during take-off or first 10 hours of flight, which would have required ditching because of the very heavy fuel weight.
Post-World War II
In 1946, Qantas embarked on a rebuilding and modernization plan for its fleet. That year, the iconic “workhorse of the skies” Douglas DC-3 entered service with Qantas. The airline also ordered four Lockheed L-749 Constellations, which at the time were revolutionary, given their long-range and pressurized cabin. Furthermore, additional Catalinas joined the fleet, as well as another flying boat, the Short S.25 Sandringha.
1947 saw the privatization of Qantas, when the government bought BOAC’s shares, followed by those of Qantas. That same year, the Constellations arrived and reduced the Kangaroo Route duration to four days. The DC-4 Skymaster entered service with Qantas in 1949 on new service to Hong Kong. North America became a Qantas destination in 1953 with Constellation flights to San Francisco and Vancouver via Fiji, Canton Island, and Hawaii.
Another momentous occasion for Qantas was on January 14, 1958, when it introduced round-the-world service with two Constellations traveling in opposite directions from Melbourne. One flew the Kangaroo Route via India, while another flew eastward on the Southern Cross Route. They arrived in Sydney six days later. Another Lockheed member, the L-188 Electra joined the fleet in 1959. At this point, Qantas served 23 countries.
In 1956 Qantas ordered seven Boeing 707-138s, which entered service with the company from July to September of that year. Qantas became the first airline outside of the U.S. to take delivery of the 707. Moreover, these 707s were 10 feet shorter than the version offered to other carriers since Qantas had longer range needs for its Pacific operations.
The management was very impressed with the 707’s advantages and decided to upgrade to the -138B series powered by turbofans, instead of less efficient turbojets. The turbofan-powered 707s adopted the iconic “V-Jet” logo on the tail. Actor and aviation enthusiast John Travolta owns and flies one of these models, and he serves as a goodwill ambassador for the airline.
Qantas wet-leased four BOAC-owned de Havilland Comet jets between 1959 and 1963 while it waited for more 707s. By 1964, Qantas was flying 13 707s on most of its routes and began selling its propeller aircraft. Two years later, there were 19 707s in the fleet, which included six of the larger -338 series with five more on order.
The next big step by Qantas came in 1967, when it placed order for the Boeing 747 with deliveries scheduled for 1971. Qantas opted for a later delivery, compared to other 747 customers, because it wanted to start with the more advanced 747-200B series, which better suited its requirements. The first 747-238B entered service with the airline in September 1971.
Qantas played a major role in disaster relief for Australia after the devastation caused by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. A 747 evacuated 673 people from Darwin, and the airline flew out a total of 4,925 people. The 747 also became the sole member of the Qantas fleet on March 25, 1979 after the last 707 flight. Qantas also bought other 747 variants including the shorter –SP (Special Performance), the Combi, and the -338 SUD (Stretched Upper Deck).
The 747-only distinction ended in 1985, when the Boeing 767-238ER joined the fleet, and the longer -338ER followed in 1987. That same year, Qantas ordered a new and major upgrade for the 747, the -400 series, which included features such as winglets, the elimination of the flight engineer, a modern cockpit, and additional range. The first example for the airline broke a world distance record for commercial aircraft, when it flew 11,185 miles from London to Sydney in 20 hours and nine minutes.
In November 2002, Qantas received the first of eight 747-438ER. This variant offered 500 more miles of range or 15,000 more pounds of freight. It also flew the current longest non-stop flight in the world from Sydney to Dallas, 8,578 miles, until September of this year, when it was replaced by an Airbus A380.
In 1992, the Australian government sold domestic carrier Australian Airlines to Qantas and allowed the enlarged company to be fully privatized. The combined carrier also included regional subsidiaries. In 1998, Qantas cofounded the oneworld alliance with American Airlines, British Airways, Canadian Airlines, and Cathay Pacific
2000s – Present
In 2001, Qantas launched regional carrier QantasLink, which combined the regional subsidiaries of the former Australian Airlines operation. That same year, Qantas ordered the Boeing 737-800 to modernize the domestic fleet of older 737s it had assumed from Australian Airlines. Last week’s 1970s retro scheme delivery marked the 75th and final -800 for Qantas. The collapse of Ansett Australia on September 14, 2001, gave Qantas a 90% market share in Australia, leaving newcomer Virgin Blue with the other five percent.
Qantas also entered the low-cost market. In October 2002, it launched Australian Airlines as its low-cost international arm. A year later it launched Jetstar as its low-cost domestic airline. The leadership decided to focus on two strong complementary brands, which resulted in the elimination of Australian Airlines, leaving Qantas and Jetstar as the company’s mainline and low-cost arms respectively.
During this time, the Airbus A330 entered service to replace the older 767s. Qantas also ordered 12 Airbus A380-800s, becoming the type’s third carrier after Singapore Airlines and Emirates. The first sample was delivered in 2008. In 2007, the company adopted the latest iteration of its famous kangaroo logo. Qantas also ordered the Boeing 787 to replace the 767s, and initial deliveries are operating for Jetstar.
A significant recent development is a strategic partnership between Qantas and Emirates that started on March 30, 2013. Under the agreement, flights to London from Sydney and Melbourne go through Dubai using Qantas and Emirates A380s. In the past, Qantas used Singapore or Bangkok as stopping points for the Kangaroo Route. The new network gives customers more connecting options to Europe and the Middle East.
In February 2014, Qantas implemented a cost-cutting and restructuring strategy to counter poor financial results. Long-haul routes had been performing poorly over the last few years, and heavy domestic competition from Virgin Australia has also affected the profitability of short-haul routes. As of this writing, the strategy seems to be paying off with Qantas seeing profitability for the remainder of this year.
Qantas Airbus A380-800 promotional video
Qantas “Fying Art” promotional video
Qantas 747-400 retrofit video