The History Of The Kangaroo Route

Australian flag carrier Qantas’ London-bound services have long been known as the ‘Kangaroo Route.’ This is due to the way the flight ‘hopped’ its way across to London in its early years. At its peak, there were as many as seven stops! But how has this route developed over time? And how could you travel between the UK and Australia before Qantas operated the route in full?

An L749 Constellation first flew the Kangaroo Route in full for Qantas in 1947. Photo: Qantas

Multiple stops over multiple days

Qantas was flying to London before the Second World War- sort of. As a forerunner to today’s code sharing and airline alliance deals, Qantas flew from Brisbane to Singapore as early as 1935. These flights utilized de Havilland D.H.86 ‘Express’ aircraft, which could seat 10 passengers.

In Singapore, passengers connected onto Qantas’s partner, Imperial Airways, which flew from there to London Croydon. The journey as a whole could take up to 12 and a half days, including overnight stops. In a similar arrangement, throughout much of the 1940s, Qantas would fly you to Ceylon and, later, Karachi to connect with BOAC for the remainder of the journey.

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Qantas’s Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ aircraft are a far cry from those that operated the Kangaroo Route in its early years. Photo: Getty Images

By 1938, Imperial Airways’ 18-seat Shorts Empire flying boats had cut the journey time from Sydney to Southampton to nine and a half days. The immediate post-war years saw particularly significant steps forward for the route. By 1947, there were as many as six weekly flights between Sydney and England.

The quickest of these took 77.5 hours to reach London Heathrow using Avro Lancastrian aircraft. Flying boat services to Poole, Dorset took a while longer, coming in at just under 169 hours.

Qantas begins operating the full route

When Qantas began flying the Kangaroo Route in full in 1947, it used Lockheed Constellations. Onboard were ten crew, including three pilots, one navigator, one radio operator, two flight engineers, and three cabin crew. They looked after just 29 passengers who paid the equivalent of US$26,000 to fly from Sydney to London. Travel time was around 58 hours, with stops at Darwin, Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, Cairo, Castel Benito, and Rome.

Over the next decade, Qantas tinkered with the route. Despite the cost, the airline was running multiple services a week each way. Cities like Frankfurt, Zürich, Rome, Belgrade, Athens, Beirut, Tehran, Bombay, and Colombo came into the mix as other cities dropped off the run.

Qantas operated early Boeing 707-138s on the Kangaroo Route. Photo: Qantas

Within a decade, there were multiple competitors on the route. BOAC was running four Britannias a week in each direction. Air India had a weekly Super Constellation service between Sydney and London. KLM ran a Super Constellation between Sydney and Amsterdam.

Whether Sydney – Amsterdam actually falls within the Kangaroo Route is debatable, but let’s be generous. You could say the same about the TAI Douglas DC-6B that stopped in Sydney on the run between Auckland and Paris. By this time, Qantas had swapped out its Lockheed Constellations for Super Constellations.

De Havilland Comet 4
BOAC followed in Qantas’s footsteps by deploying a jetliner on its Australia-bound service in 1959. The aircraft in question was the de Havilland Comet 4. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons

The dawn of the jet age

In 1959, Qantas put a jet on the Kangaroo Route, in the form of the Boeing 707. Shortly after, BOAC followed with the de Havilland Comet 4. This aircraft’s short takeoff capabilities allowed it to stop at a greater range of airports along the way.

By then, Qantas was incorporating the Kangaroo Route into an around the world run. The flights that went towards London via North America flew what was called the Southern Cross Route. The Kangaroo Route label stayed with the flights to London over South Asia and Europe.

By the early 1970s, Qantas was using the Boeing 747 on the Kangaroo Route. Photo: Qantas

The 747 revolutionizes the Kangaroo Route

In the early 1970s, the advent of the Boeing 747 meant big changes on the Kangaroo Route. The days of multiple stops were over. As a little kid, I recall late-night stops in Singapore, Bombay, and Bahrain. They’d open the plane door at 03.00 in Bombay, and the intense smells of India would fill the plane. I’d look out the window and see lights from the fires still burning at the shanties abutting the airport.

As aircraft got bigger, the stops in places like Bombay ended. The Boeing 747 held an iron grip on the Kangaroo Route well into the 2000s. But by then, there was just one stop, usually in Singapore. With its aerobridges and air conditioning, clean, clinical Singapore always did a good job keeping the local sights, smells, and noises at bay. More’s the pity.

By 2010, the A380 was the star airliner on the Kangaroo Route. Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, THAI, Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar rolled out the big plane on the route. Interestingly, BOAC’s modern-day successor, British Airways, never sent the A380 to Sydney. Other European airlines, such as KLM, all split from Australia back in the 1990s.

More recently, the A380 became the star aircraft on the Kangaroo Route. Photo: Qantas

These days, when not grounded, Qantas offers the choice of a daily A380 service via Singapore or a daily 787-9 service via Perth. British Airways normally whizzes down to Sydney via Singapore using a Boeing 777.

All are a long way from the Lockheed Constellation. That contemporary 787-9 carries almost ten times as many passengers as the Lockheed, and a return ticket typically costs around US$1,000. Both routes take about 21 or 22 hours, depending on the winds.

Next on the horizon is flying regularly scheduled services from Sydney to London without stopping. Qantas wants to do it, and it probably will in the next five to six years. But without all those hops, should it still be called the Kangaroo Route?