Australia’s Largest Airline: How Qantas Came To Be

Qantas is one of the world’s best-known and best-regarded long-haul airlines. In addition to an extensive network around Australia and its immediate region, the Sydney-based airline normally stretches its wings to fly to multiple long-haul destinations. The airline is one of the world’s oldest, having marked its centenary in 2020.

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The first Qantas plane – an Avro-504K. Photo: Qantas Newsroom

Qantas had its origins in the Queensland outback, flying an Avro 504K. The name Qantas is an acronym of the airline’s unwieldy original name, Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services. After its dusty start, Qantas has grown in leaps and bounds, shifting its focus from mail runs and carting freight to flying passengers around the globe.

Qantas had its origins in western Queensland

Qantas makes a big deal of its history. Although these days it mostly flies between cities and rarely goes near a dusty outback airstrip, Qantas continues to tap into its backstory. In the 1920s, the startup airline hopped between railheads in western Queensland. Those rail lines extended west from the coast, but hundreds of miles would move north-south. The early Qantas mostly moved people, freight, and mail between those railheads.

But Qantas soon outgrew its western Queensland home turf. In the early 1930s, the airline teamed up with Britain’s Imperial Airways to form Qantas Empire Airways. It began flying between Darwin and Singapore (a route now operated by low-cost offshoot Jetstar).

By the time WWII rolled around, Qantas was operating Short S.23 Empire flying boats. In conjunction with Imperial Airways, a service to Southampton went into the timetables. That flight took nine days. However, WWII interrupted Qantas’ best-laid plans.

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A Qantas Empire Airways Short S23 ‘C’ Class or ‘Empire’ Flying Boat. Photo: Ron Smith Photography via Flickr

Qantas ramps up after WWII

After the war, the Australian Government nationalized Qantas Empire Airways. The airline expanded its international network, adding new planes and destinations.

In the late 1940s, Lockheed L-749 Constellations arrived at Qantas and began flying the kangaroo route to London. Short Sandringham flying boats started flying to New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Fiji, New Guinea, and Lord Howe Island.

In the 1950s, Qantas really began flexing its long-haul wings. The airline started a trans-Indian route, flying from Perth to Johannesburg via the Cocos Islands and Mauritius. In the other direction, trans-Pacific flights commenced. Qantas started flying from Sydney to Vancouver via Auckland, Nadi, and Honolulu, soon after adding San Francisco to the timetables. Whereas Los Angeles is now the focus of Qantas’ operations in North America, it wasn’t initially.

In the late 1950s, Qantas was one of only two airlines to operate an around-the-world route. Using Super Constellation aircraft, passengers could board a flight in Sydney and head to London via the Pacific and North America.

In London, the passengers could board another Qantas Super Constellation and keep heading east on the kangaroo route towards Sydney. It took six days to circumnavigate the globe, and Qantas offered flights in both easterly and westerly directions. At its height, eight around-the-world flights took off each week.

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Qantas began flying around the world in 1958 using Super Constellations (pictured). Photo: Qantas

Qantas jumps into the jet age

In 1959, Qantas took delivery of its first jet, a Boeing 707-138. Qantas was the only airline to take this modified 707. The plane had a fuselage three meters shorter than the regular 707-100 to make it viable on the Pacific Ocean route. The 707-138 had less weight but carried the same fuel, enabling it to make the long flight between the US west coast and Hawaii.

Qantas began flying the Boeing 707-138 between Sydney and San Francisco via Nadi and Honolulu. Before the end of the 1950s, that flight was continuing onto London via New York. Although it was a long way from its home turf, Qantas was just the third airline to fly jets across the Atlantic.

In the 1960s, Qantas invested heavily in jet operations, ordering the larger Boeing 707-338C and wet leasing DeHavilland Comet planes from BOAC. In 1966, Qantas placed early options on the Concorde but ultimately failed to take the plane. In 1969, Qantas ordered the Boeing 747. That plane would go on to become an iconic Qantas aircraft.

Around the same time, Qantas began flying the fabulously named fiesta route, offering yet another multistop offering through to London. The fiesta route between Sydney and London took Fiji, Tahiti, Mexico City, Acapulco, Nassau, and Bermuda.

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Qantas’ first jet, the Boeing 707-138. Photo: Phinalanji via Wikimedia Commons

Qantas becomes an all 747 airline

The arrival of the first Boeing 747 in 1971 marked Qantas’ leap into the modern jet age. Qantas went on to fly 64 of the jumbo jets between 1971 and 2020. Just a few years before the 747’s arrival, Qantas Empire Airways formally shortened its name to Qantas and has stuck with that ever since.

In 1979, Qantas operated its last Boeing 707 flight, and the airline transitioned to an all Boeing 747 fleet. At this point, Qantas did not operate domestic services. Instead, it flew jumbo jets to a swag of international destinations.

It was a different era. The airline was government-owned, and making money wasn’t the top priority. Fuel was cheaper. From a network perspective, the focus was on reach rather than frequency.

The economics of operating the 747 began to shift in the 1990s. But before then, the jumbo had helped democratize travel, driving down airfares and making long-haul travel accessible to the masses.

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The last Boeing 747 departed Qantas in 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Qantas keeps on evolving

In 2020, the last Boeing 747 left Qantas. It was another milestone in the airlines’ history. In 1992, Qantas began flying domestic routes after buying Australian Airlines. Qantas has since gone on to become Australia’s dominant domestic carrier.

In 1993, Qantas was privatized, and profits roared up the priority list at the airline. Uneconomic international routes fell by the wayside. The fleet diversified as appropriately sized planes began servicing skinnier routes.

New. more fuel-efficient planes helped counter rises in the price of fuel. Bucking that trend, in 2008, Qantas received its first A380, a plane that is neither fuel-efficient nor suited to many routes. That purchase decision has become something of a millstone for Qantas, but they remain committed to the Airbus jumbo, bringing it back into service in 2022.

More successful was the integration of the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner into the fleet. The mid-size jet is fast becoming the workhorse of the Qantas international fleet. More planes are on the horizon, notably Airbus A350-1000s to operate the future Project Sunrise flights. Those highly anticipated ultra-long-haul flights will be the next big chapter in the 100 year plus Qantas history.

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