The Rise And Fall Of Ansett Australia

Today, two major players dominate Australia’s aviation market. But, before the era of Qantas vs Virgin Australia, there was another major carrier in the game too. Ansett Australia was once one of the most significant carriers in Australia and the Pacific. Now defunct, they remain as a memory of aviation’s past. Let’s take a look at the rise and fall of Ansett Australia.

Ansett Australia 767
Ansett Australia was once a major player in Australian aviation. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

The early history of Ansett

Ansett Australia’s early days are mostly remembered from the time they acquired ANA – Australian National Airways. At the time, this made Ansett Australia’s largest carrier and soon they were on their way to prosperity. In the early days of turboprops, it wasn’t uncommon for ridiculously long travel times and unreliable engines. Then, in the 1960s, Ansett introduced the Boeing 727 and DC-9s. The era of turboprops had ended in favor of the jet age. These new jet aircraft made air travel more stable and reliable.

Ansett 727
Ansett Australia introduced the Boeing 727 starting in the 1970s. Photo: Kym Manuel via Flickr

Ansett survived well into the 1990s. Then, things started to fall apart. Prior to the early 90s, Australia’s aviation market was heavily regulated by the government. The two-airline policy which granted only two airlines to operate flights on most routes ensured that Ansett Australia would be a significant force.

The Trans-Australia Airlines Museum provides an excellent timeline of Ansett’s early history.

Ansett in the 1990s

By the 1990s, Ansett was operating comparatively modern aircraft. This included Boeing 737 Classic series aircraft, Boeing 767s, and Airbus A320s. In 1990, Australian airline deregulation occurred. After this, Ansett made some severely consequential decisions.  One one hand, Ansett launched Australia’s first frequent flyer program and began their own international flights. Meanwhile, Ansett lobbied heavily to become the official airline for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

Ansett Australia 747 Sydney
Ansett Australia paid heavily to be the official airline of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

Ansett also launched a co-branded credit card and became a member of Star Alliance. Essentially, Ansett was doing everything major airlines do today in an effort to boost loyalty, passenger numbers, and profits. Many airlines from Delta Air Lines to British Airways have taken similar actions which ended up well for them. So, where did Ansett go wrong?

Air New Zealand steps in

In 1996, Air New Zealand purchased a 50% stake in Ansett Australia. Outside airlines typically invest in foreign carriers as a way to build up alliances and profits. This has is also something common in today’s world. For some airlines, like Qatar, this works. For others, like Etihad, it fails.

Air New Zealand wanted a piece of Australia’s aviation market. This is understandable since the ties between New Zealand and Australia run deep. As a result, Air New Zealand, with an Ansett partnership, could essentially funnel passengers from far-reaching destinations to Australia and vice versa through New Zealand. Ansett itself did not operate a significant number of long-haul international routes. Thus, they were a perfect target for Air New Zealand.

Air New Zealand 747
Air New Zealand stepped in and purchased a 50% stake in Ansett Australia. Photo: Aero Icarus from Flickr

Then, in 2000, Air New Zealand beat out Singapore Airlines‘ offer and fully acquired Ansett Australia at a tune of A$680 million. In an interview with the Australian, former Ansett Australia executive Rod Eddington said,

“Air New Zealand trumped the $500 million Singapore Airlines bid, putting up $680m for half of Ansett. Air New Zealand didn’t have the balance sheet to support Ansett.”

Ansett fleet issues

On the road to collapse, Ansett Australia started to have fleet problems. First off, Ansett’s fleet was complicated and varied. Ansett operated aircraft as wide and diverse as the A320

Ansett A320
Ansett Australia A320. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

…to the 737

Ansett Australia 737
Ansett Australia 737 Classic Series. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

…to the Fokker 27

Fokker 27
Ansett Australia F27 in old livery. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

…to 747s and 767s too. Unfortunately, this meant that Ansett was running a complicated array of aircraft that cost a lot to maintain. Airlines prefer fleet simplification in place of diversification. In addition, Ansett also ran into problems with their 767s.

Ansett’s 767 problems

Through 2000 and 2001, most of Ansett’s 767 fleet was grounded due to ongoing maintenance issues. The 767s highlighted the problem with Ansett’s fleet: it was old. However, the airline was losing a lot of money. Reporting by The Guardian in the days after Ansett’s collapse indicate Ansett was losing as much as $1.3 million per day.

Ansett 767
Ansett’s 767s were grounded due to maintenance issues. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

Competitors

At the same time that Ansett struggled, competitors started to encroach on the airline’s dominance. On the full-service side, Qantas was a major force, and would soon become the premier airline of Australia. Virgin Blue, now known as Virgin Australia, was one of the first new competitors to emerge in 2000 as a low-cost carrier. After Ansett’s collapse, Virgin Australia grew enormously and emerged as Qantas’ leading competitor.

The end

Air New Zealand couldn’t sustain Ansett Australia. They themselves had to receive government support in order to stay afloat. This came with a hefty price to pay: letting Ansett collapse. Air New Zealand placed Ansett Australia into administration and the Australian government refused to bail out the failing airline. It was determined that Ansett could no longer be a sustainable business, and, on September 14th, 2001, the airline ceased operations.

Ansett briefly returned to the sky with a small fleet and simple operations. However, this resurrection soon came to end due to a lack of sufficient financing and heavyweight support in early 2002.

Ansett’s aircraft were returned to lessors and found new homes. Some of their 747s ended up with Air Pacific which later became Fiji Airways. Other aircraft were scrapped.

Air Pacific 747
An Air Pacific 747 leased from Singapore Airlines flew for Ansett prior to its collapse. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

The post-Ansett world

Ansett’s collapse allowed a new competitor to emerge against Qantas: Virgin Australia. And, ten years after Ansett’s collapse, CAPA released a report indicating that, despite Ansett’s collapse, Australia’s aviation industry continued to grow. Although some growth slowed as a result of the 9/11 attacks, the market bounced back and continued to grow.

Ansett’s collapse was felt across Australia. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Blame went around from the Australian government to Air New Zealand. Ultimately, even if Ansett had survived beyond 2001, they would have faced a difficult future. With the world rattled by 9/11, the struggling carrier likely wouldn’t have fared well against other, more stable carriers. Furthermore, had Air New Zealand continued to invest in Ansett, it is likely that both airlines would have collapsed leaving a major void in the South Pacific aviation market.

Today, Ansett lives on as a memory. Having ceased operations less than 20 years ago, a fair number of Australians and avgeeks still have fond memories of the airline. Now, after Ansett’s demise, Australian aviation has turned a page and found a new competitive market between Virgin Australia and Qantas. This competition led to both carriers establishing low-cost carriers which, overall, have lowered airfares and increased passenger numbers in Australia.

Ansett scrapped
A scrapped Ansett 767 in the desert. Photo: Alan Radecki via Wikimedia Commons

Have you flown Ansett Australia? Do you miss Ansett Australia? Let us know in the comments!

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Robin Johnson

Ansett-ANA is the line was called for a few years after the original Ansett took over the much larger, but failing, ANA, tried to compete with the modern Viscount turboprops of the government-owned TAA with DC-6s until Lockheed Electras entered the main-line fleets of both airlines, and Ansett was forced to obtain Viscounts and Fokker F27s in order to compete. All these turboprops were state-of-the-art at the time, until the 727s arrived in 1964 (not the ’70s) and DC-9s shortly thereafter. While the jets transformed the Australian travel experience, it is unfair to claim “ridiculously long travel times and unreliable… Read more »

David

I miss my 100,000 FF points I had with them when they went bankrupt 🙁

I saw one of their old planes at Luton back in 2004 still with the tail livery, not sure where it was going / doing there but it was in a hangar, maybe leased to Easyjet but it was odd to see 3 years later

Andrew

Interesting article Jay

Ansett has its problems but it was a great airline to fly. It really look after its premium passengers. Their old Golden Wing lounges with the minties and barman who would make martini’s are sorely missed

Franklin

I heard about Ansett Australia and last time they are the best. Base on what I read on this blog, IMO they should choose Singapore Airlines. Wrong move selection of partner airlines for investment. Air New Zealand didn’t do anything for them. Their top management to be blame.
If only they choose Singapore Airlines, they will service and still flying right now. Thousands of workforce can be save.

Tony

Maybe yes but maybe no Franklin. From everything I have read it was a bit of a cot case. How well Air NZ did its due diligence is a good question but at that time it (ANZ) had been privatised and was being run by the bean counters who had no idea about how an airline was run. One issue that can’t be ignored was the strength of the unions at Ansett. The Boeing 767’s were the only ones ever built that with a 3 crew cockpit having an engineer. Why Air NZ didn’t let Singapore take 50% share is… Read more »

BILL

Many years ago 1991 to be exact i flew from GRAND FORKS NORTH DAKOTA VIA MINNEAPOLIS MINNESOTA TO LOS ANGELES CALIFORNIA TO HONOLULU SPENT 4 NIGHTS 5 DAYS IN WAIKIKI BEACH THEN TO SYDNEY AUSTRALIA WITH AT THAT TIME WITH NORTHWEST AIRLINES ON THE YEAR I TURNED 40. . WITHIN AUSTRALIA FLEW WITH ANSETTE SND AUSTRALIAN AIRWAYS TO BRISBANE AND CARINS . ON WAY BACK TO SYDNEY FLEW QUANTAS. FROM SYDNEY WE FLEW THE SAME ROUTE BACK ON NORTHWEST AIRLINES. WHO EVENTUALLY GOT BOUGHT OUT OR MERGED WITH DELTA AIRLINES. SO MANY GREAT MEMMORIES OF THAT TRIP. U AM A… Read more »

Alan Pace

Shattered by Ansett demise. Partly a Melbourne Sydney thing to empower Q. Won’t fly Q. As a child my first flight was Essendon to mt Gambier (1946)return on a DC3 (Wright powered real DC3).