American Airlines has a fifty-year plus history of flying to Australia. It hasn’t been a continuous period of flying. Rather, American’s association with Australia has been a stop-start affair. But with this route briefly in the news again, American’s interesting history of flying to Australia has come to light and it is not a bad yarn.
In 1970, American Airlines sends to Boeing 707 LuxuryLiners into the South Pacific
While the Dallas-based airline is about to again suspend its flights to Australia, American Airlines has a long history of flying Downunder. American first flew to Sydney in 1970 (the airline also flew to Melbourne and Auckland at the time). The flights used a B707-323C LuxuryLiner and lasted until 1974.
The daily outbound service, AA201, originated at JFK and stopped over at Chicago O’Hare (ORD) before continuing onto Honolulu (HNL) and Nadi (NAN). The flight would continue onto Sydney (SYD) three days a week, Auckland (AKL) via Pago Pago (PPG) thrice-weekly, and Melbourne (MEL) once a week. The return service was AA202.
In a post on airliners.net, a former American Airlines Australia-based employee at the time provides a wealth of information on American’s early Australian services. He says these flights enjoyed high passenger loads and excellent revenue figures.
American’s major hurdle here was the bilateral air services agreement in place at the time restricting AA’s Australia-bound flights to just four a week. In this regulated era, the Civil Aeronautics Board also only allowed American Airlines to fly to South Pacific airports from United States east coast and midwest airports. Additionally, competitors Qantas and United Airlines were beginning to put their early Boeing 747 models onto transpacific routes. The big jumbos made America’s Boeing 707s look a little old school.
In this environment, American Airlines did a route swap with Pan Am, taking Caribbean routes in exchange for South Pacific routes. Pan Am resumed their Australian services, sending 747s to Sydney. American went on to conquer the Caribbean region.
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Not second time lucky for American Airlines in Sydney
In 1990, with the Civil Aeronautics Board relegated to history, American Airlines headed back to Sydney. However, the air services agreement still limited AA to four flights a week. This time, American Airlines used DC-10-30 aircraft and departed from the United States west coast. It was a busy time on transpacific routes with lots of capacity added between the United States and Australia.
Like the flights 20 years earlier, the passengers loads were good and revenues high. But a crucial problem for American Airlines was most of the passengers were Aussies who paid for their tickets in Australia in Australian dollars. At the time, Australia was in recession and the local dollar was heavily devalued against the Greenback. Once American Airlines converted their Australian dollars into United States dollars, the financial pickings were not so good.
Two years after heading back to Sydney, American Airlines took off again. This time, it would be 23 years until they returned.
AA back in Sydney in 2015 in a tie-up with oneworld buddy Qantas
American Airlines headed back to Sydney in 2015 in a very different environment. An open skies agreement between the United States and Australia was signed in 2008, abolishing all restrictions on air services between the two countries. In the intervening years, oneworld was formed. American Airlines and Qantas were among the foundation members.
Before American Airlines returned in 2015, the two airlines were already working together. They codeshared on flights and funneled passengers onto each other’s networks. The two airlines ramped that up in 2015 with a joint venture agreement that included revenue sharing.
American Airlines subsequently launched daily Los Angeles-Sydney 777-300ER services and Qantas returned to San Francisco after a long absence with Boeing 747-400 flights. In more recent years, American Airlines switched to 787-9 aircraft on their Sydney run.
“Qantas has been a fantastic partner through oneworld and our joint business relationship, and strengthening those ties has provided us with a solid foundation to introduce American-operated flights into the Australian region,” said Doug Parker at the time.
That joint venture was renewed in 2019. Doug Parker, still in the hot seat at AA, said it was fantastic news. “We now have the opportunity to launch new routes and provide enhanced service with better schedules, additional frequent flyer benefits and continued investments in the overall customer experience.”
As a result of the joint venture extension, American Airlines didn’t tinker with its Australian services, but it did promise to launch year-round flights to Auckland and seasonal services to Christchurch as a result. Those plans are now delayed.
Two flight pauses in 12 months as American struggles with Sydney
Until the travel downturn, American Airlines Boeing’s remained a familiar sight at SYD. Loads on the flights were high. Indeed, all airlines flying these transpacific routes had beltingly good passenger loads in the leadup to the downturn.
Last year, as the travel downturn kicked in many countries, including Australia, shut their borders. American temporarily scrapped its Sydney flights, along with most of its flights around the Asia-Pacific region. At the time, American Airlines was unsure when they’d be back. Like everyone else at the time, the airline did not know how the situation would play out.
But by November, American was back in Sydney. Seven flights a week flew out of LAX using Boeing 777-300ER aircraft but only four of those flights would carry passengers. The remaining three flights would fly cargo only. The big passenger loads of recent years were a distant memory as the Australian Government imposed strict rules on the number of passengers an airline could fly in.
Recently, a government ruling further reduced passenger loads on these flights. This lead to a spate of speculation surviving airlines would pause flights or start exiting the Australian market. With American Airlines down to about two dozen passengers on flights and having to run 20 flights with no passengers over the next two months, the airline was the first to hit the pause button.
This month AA said it would a two-month break from flying to Sydney over September and October. Last year, they came back so the odds are they will again return – sooner rather than later. American Airlines is taking some heat these days for its deteriorating inflight product, but the airline adds value and much-needed competition on routes between the United States and Australia. Here’s hoping their Sydney hiatus is short.