A Look At Qantas’ History – How The Airline Became The Australian Flag Carrier

As one of the oldest airlines in the world, and the largest in Australia, Qantas has a fascinating history! It is a story of growth – starting with two small biplanes opening up the outback and expanding to become a major long haul operator of the 747 and A380. This article shares some of the highlights of this close to 100 year history.

Historic Qantas liveries
Historic Qantas liveries over the years. Image: Qantas

Inspiration for flying in Queensland

The story of Qantas starts with two former military aviators, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness. They served as an observer and pilot pair in the Australian Flying Corps.

Fysh and McGinness
Qantas founders Fysh and McGinness. Photo: Qantas

Following service in the First World War, Fysh and McGinness worked for the defense department surveying an air race route from Longreach in Queensland to Katherine in the Northern Territory.  This arduous journey by land took them 51 days and left the pair convinced of the possibilities of an air service linking locations in these remote regions.

Model T Ford
Surveying the air route in 1919 with a model T Ford. Photo: Unknown via Wikimedia

The pair raised funding to start a company initially offering an air taxi service, as well as leisure and sightseeing flights. Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited (soon abbreviated to QANTAS) was formed in November 1920 in the town of Winton. Its headquarters would move a few years later to the more central town of Longreach. The first aircraft (by 1920) were two biplanes – an Avro 504K and a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2E.

Financier Fergus McMaster joined the two pilots as chairman, and Arthur Baird as engineer. McMaster did not stay long as the first chairman, but Hudson Fysh remained with Qantas until 1966.

Avro 504K
Avro 504K – the first aircraft used by Qantas: Photo: Qantas

Starting a scheduled service

The first move to a regular airline service came in November 1922 with a government contract to operate a mail service between Charleville and Cloncurry.

Passenger service began on the same route in 1924, with the introduction of de Havilland DH50 aircraft with four seats in an enclosed cabin. This single route was extended 400km from Cloncurry to Camooweal in 1925, and to Normanton in 1927. Qantas also began production of its own aircraft (under license from De Havilland) in Longreach. Between 1926 and 1928 they built seven DH50 and one DH9 aircraft.

Qantas DH50
A Qantas de Havilland DH50. Photo: Qantas

The route network would reach the coast in 1929, with an extension to Brisbane using new DH61 aircraft on the Charleville-Brisbane service. Soon after, the company headquarters would move from Longreach to Brisbane.

Brisbane in 1920s
The expanding airline had its headquarters in Brisbane from 1929 until 1938 when it moved to Sydney. Photo: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland via Wikimedia

Expanding internationally – in partnership with the UK

Overseas expansion began in 1934, when Qantas and Imperial Airways (a predecessor of British Airways) jointly formed Qantas Empire Airways Limited (QEA). This name lasted until 1967 when the airline was renamed to Qantas Airways, as it remains today.

QEA initially flew a scheduled service from Brisbane to Darwin. Service extended in 1935 to Singapore using a DH86, with Imperial Airways offering further service to the UK. They introduced the Shorts S23 Empire flying boat on the route in 1938 to meet growing demand. This was, by now, a three times per week service, taking nine days.

Short S23 flying boat
Qantas operated Short S23 Flying boat. Photo: Yellowspacehopper via Wikimedia

QEA service to UK
QEA service from Sydney to London. Image: Qantas

The Second World War disrupted service for Qantas, but the airline played a major role in maintaining a link from Australia to the UK. Initially, services operated to South Africa, with travel to the UK from there by sea. After the fall of Singapore in 1942, this shifted to a direct service to Sri Lanka (using Catalinas flying boats), linking with a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) service to London.

Catalinas Flying boat
Catalinas Flying boat – five of these operated to Sri Lanka, named after stars used for wartime celestial navigation. Photo: Unknown via Wikimedia

Nationalizing the airline – becoming the Australian flag carrier

After the war, QEA was nationalized as the government bought the shares of both BOAC and Qantas. Service continued in partnership with BOAC to the UK, but was also expanded significantly in Asia. Service began first to Manila and Tokyo, soon followed by Hong Kong. New aircraft entered the fleet as well – the Avro Lancastrian (initially modified Lancaster bombers from war service) and later the Douglas DC4.

Flying boat service, using new Short Sandringham as well as the Catalinas planes, was introduced to several Pacific destinations (including Fiji, New Guinea and New Caledonia) in 1950.

These new international services would reach their peak in 1958, with Qantas became a true round the world operator. Super Constellation aircraft operated both a westbound and an eastbound route from Sydney to the UK, known as the ‘Kangaroo’ and the ‘Southern Cross’ services.

Super Constellation
Qantas Super Constellation aircraft. Photo RuthAS via Wikimedia

Starting Jet aircraft service in 1959

In 1956, the same year that Qantas drew worldwide attention bring visitors (and the flame) to Australia for the Melbourne Olympics, the airline entered the jet age. The airline placed an order for seven Boeing 707 aircraft, with delivery in 1959. These started service to the US and to the UK that same year. And by 1966 the fleet reached 19 jets (including six higher capacity 707- 338C aircraft) as propeller aircraft were phased out.

Qantas 707
Qantas Boeing 707. Photo: Qantas

Bringing in the ‘Jumbo Jet’

This need for more capacity continued, and led Qantas to bring in the Boeing 747 in 1971. This was a couple of years after some other airlines began operating it.

Qantas 747
The first Qantas 747 in 1971. Photo: Qantas


Qantas had waited for the introduction of the 747B, a better suited aircraft for their long haul routes. The 747 allowed them to restructure airfares, and the lower fares they could offer on long haul flights saw high expansion in passenger numbers.

747 first class
Upper deck first class service on the 747s. Photo: Qantas

Qantas retired the 707 in 1979, and for several years operated an all 747 international fleet. This would expand in 1985 with the introduction of the Boeing 767, and again in 1989 with the 747-400. The first flight of this set a world record for commercial flight distance with a non-stop flight from London to Sydney.

747-400 ‘City of Canberra’
747-400 ‘City of Canberra which set the distance record for London to Sydney, shown here on its final retirement flight. Photo: YSSYguy via Wikimedia

Domestic expansion and privatization

Major changes took place at Qantas during the late 1990s. In 1992, Qantas bought the government owned domestic carrier Australian Airlines. And in 1993 it was privatized, with British Airways taking a 25% stake. This partnership went further in 1998, with the two airlines both being founding members of the Oneworld alliance.

Oneworld logos
Qantas joined Oneworld in 1998 – opening up partnerships and improved passenger benefits. Image: Oneworld

Following the collapse of competitor Ansett Australia in 2001, Qantas enjoyed around a 90% share of the domestic Australia market. This would reduce with the later growth of Virgin Blue. in 2003, Qantas launched it’s low price subsidiary Jetstar Airways to better compete in this market, which remains dominated by these three airlines.

New modern aircraft – the A380 and the 787

Recent years have again seen major fleet changes at Qantas. As with other airlines, the 747 fleet is currently being phased out, and replaced with 787 and A380 aircraft. The last flight date for the 747 has recently been confirmed in late 2019.

Qantas A380
Qantas A380 aircraft. Photo: Qantas

Whilst this obviously marks the end of a major part of Qantas’s history, it also opens up new possibilities with better efficiently, range and passenger numbers. Qantas have already set a record with the 787. This began the first direct scheduled flight service between Australia (Perth) and London in March 2018.

And looking forward a few years, Qantas have high ambitions with Project Sunrise currently paving the way for non-stop services from Sydney to London and New York.