Happy Birthday Qantas – A Pioneering Century For The Australian Carrier

One hundred years ago today, a couple of ex-WWI airmen and a cashed-up local cattle grazier registered a business – Qantas. They planned to run freight between railheads in western Queensland and hopefully hustle the government into a mail contract or three. Things didn’t always go to plan, but those men set in place a train of events and an airline that helped shape the next century.

Qantas’ first Brisbane terminal in 1929. Photo: Qantas

Qantas founders did the rounds of local bars to raise funds

It cost £100,000 to get Qantas up and running, the money raised by issuing shares at £1 each. Half was to go to setting up the new airline, and £50,000 was kept in reserve.

100 years on, and this year we’ve seen Qantas also busy raising funds, but the amounts are a lot bigger now. £100,000 would barely pay the costs of running one A380 through to London. And unlike the founders, the current Qantas management probably doesn’t do investment roadshows through the bars of western Queensland pubs, trying to pique the interest and open the wallets of local graziers.

Initially, Qantas was established to run freight and mail. The founders, Hudson Fysh, Paul McGinness, and Fergus McMaster, were trying to sweet-talk the Australian Government into giving them a contract to fly mail between Longreach and Katherine, two railhead towns about 1800 miles apart.

Qantas founders, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGuinness in 1919. Photo: Qantas

It would have been a long trip, with stops in Winton, Cloncurry, Avon Downs, St Anthony Lagoon, Newcastle Waters, and Daly Waters before pitching up in Katherine, 200 miles south of Darwin.

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In 100 years, running an airline has got a lot more expensive

A 1920 edition of Barcaldine’s Western Champion newspaper says Messers Fysh, McGinness, and McCaster proposed spending £10,700 to set up a base in Longreach. For that, Qantas would buy three aircraft, spare engines, propellers, and a Ford truck. These days that would buy you two new A380 tires and maybe a second-hand third one with the change.

In those first days, the Qantas founders told would-be investors it would cost £56 a day to keep the airline in the air. That would pay for the interest on loans, the wages of four pilots, three engineers, a general hand, and the consumables need to keep those first Qantas planes in the air. For most of this year, Qantas was spending nearly US$30 million a week just standing still.

An RFDS ambulance meets a Qantas plane in 1929. Photo: Qantas

While Qantas was established on November 16, 1920, it did not take its first paying passenger until 1922. That passenger was Alexander Kennedy. He was an aviation buff who ran 30,000 head of cattle in Queensland. Kennedy was also an initial investor in Qantas, which probably influenced him to become Qantas’ first paying passenger. Alexander Kennedy was 84 years old when he received ticket number one to board an Avro bi-plane on November 3, 1922, to fly from Longreach to Cloncurry.

The flight went well, and Qantas’ immaculate safety record was set in motion.

Qantas helping to evacuate troops during WWII. Photo: Qantas

Qantas went on to help shape a century

Off the back of that first passenger flight, Qantas expanded in leaps and bounds. The airline was closely involved in establishing another Australian aviation institution, the Royal Flying Doctor Service. In 1928, Qantas operated the first RFDS flight.

Many airlines have humble beginnings, especially these older airlines. Qantas likes to play up its history. Qantas is primarily a big city airline these days but maintains QantasLink flights to places like Longreach. Out at Longreach in 2020, there is a big aviation museum that includes a donated Qantas 747.

Today, on Qantas’ 100th birthday, Qantas is running no international services and is operating at around 30% of its normal domestic capacity. But those planes that are in the air over Qantas’ centenary are a far cry from the first Avro bi-planes. Over the course of 100 years, Qantas has turned into a very smooth and slick operation. The airline has come a very long way indeed.