Reginald Myles (Reg) Ansett , aviator and businessman, was born on 13 February 1909 in Victoria. At 14, he left school to work at his father’s woollen knit factory. He later attended Swinburne Technical College, qualifying as a knitting-machine and sewing machine mechanic. At 20, he took flying lessons and gained Australian pilot’s licence number 419 in 1929.
In 1930 he purchased a second-hand Studebaker car and used it to carry passengers and freight between Maryborough and Ballarat under the name of Ansett Motors. This venture lost money so he shifted his base to Hamilton. With success, he bought more cars and hired staff, and the business grew. Reg married Grace Doreen Nicol at Maryborough on 1 October 1932.
In 1932 the Victorian Government introduced legislation to protect the railways from competition. After being refused a licence to operate between Hamilton and Melbourne by road, Ansett registered Ansett Airways Pty Ltd in 1935 and purchased a six-seat Fokker Universal aircraft. This was the beginning of one of the most outstanding airline stories in Australia.
The Hamilton – Melbourne air service began in February 1936 but was unprofitable. To make ends meet, joy flights, flying lessons and aerobatic displays were conducted. Later in December 1936, Ansett won the handicap section of the Brisbane to Adelaide air race in a Porterfield aircraft pocketing £500 in prize-money.
Ansett had big plans. With the backing of landholders and graziers in the Hamilton district he set out to develop a network of interstate air services. Initial services commenced in August 1936 with an eight-seat Airspeed Envoy.
More and larger aircraft were needed for the expansion and this required more capital. Ansett Airways Ltd was floated on the Melbourne Stock Exchange at £1 per share on 14 April 1937. Ansett moved the headquarters to Essendon and ordered three Lockheed Electra aircraft for £50,000. Bank finance for the aircraft required guarantees from Ansett’s backers. These were provided in exchange for a large number of Ansett’s personal shares in the Company.
Although the road-transport side of the Company was generating surpluses, the airline was not. By 1938 the share value of Ansett Airways had dropped more than half. An offer to buy Ansett by rival and much larger airline, Australian National Airways (ANA), was recommended for acceptance by Ansett’s Chairman. However, young Reg Ansett opposed the sale and won the day blocking the take-over.
In February 1939 a fire swept through the Company’s Essendon hangar and destroyed several aircraft. Various services had to be cancelled. Faced with this setback, Ansett boldly announced they would carry on and expand. With the help of £16,000 in Commonwealth airline subsidies per annum, Ansett Airways resumed its network. By the end of 1939, Ansett Airways was flying from Melbourne to Adelaide via Mildura and Renmark; from Sydney to Adelaide via Mildura and Broken Hill; and Melbourne to Sydney via Narrandera.
World War II brought major expansion. All domestic services, other than the Hamilton-Melbourne run, were suspended with the aircraft diverted to charter operations for the Federal government and the American armed forces. Hangar capacity was doubled and a manufacturing division (Ansair) was formed to make aircraft parts. By 1943, two thousand people worked for Ansett.
In 1941 Ansett and Grace divorced. Grace remarried and moved to the United States with Ansett’s two sons John and Robert (Bob). Reg married Joan McAuliffe Adams, his private secretary on 17 June 1944 and they adopted three daughters Jane, Janet and Jill.
At the end of the war, the Commonwealth set about nationalising the airline industry. When its attempts failed in the High Court, the Commonwealth established the Australian National Airlines Commission in 1945. It operated as Trans Australia Airlines (TAA) which would compete with the private airlines. Ansett expected to be the major competitor for ANA, but with its government backing, TAA quickly assumed this position.
In 1946, Ansett restructured the business forming Ansett Transport Industries Ltd (ATI) as a holding company for Ansett Airways Pty Ltd, Pioneer Tourist Coaches Pty Ltd, Pioneer Tourist Hotels Pty Ltd, Ansair Pty Ltd, Air Express Pty Ltd and other subsidiaries. Without restrictions on interstate operations Ansett extended services to the holiday destinations in Queensland and Tasmania. This initiative complemented the growing coach and hotel businesses and by 1948, ATI was the largest operator of hotels in Australia.
However, Ansett believed ATI would be unable to compete with ANA unless it had the resources of TAA. He offered to sell his airline to TAA but the parties could not agree on a price.
Rather than increasing fares to match ANA and TAA following increased air navigation charges in 1947, Ansett increased seating capacity and reduced cabin services in its aircraft. When the Commonwealth attempted to force Ansett to raise fares in line with TAA and ANA, he refused, claiming it was illegal.
1952 saw a landmark change to Australia’s airline industry – the Two Airline Policy. The Civil Aviation Agreement Act reserved the main interstate routes for the two major airlines ANA and TAA. Ansett had to fight for survival so he resolved to take business from ANA, the weaker of the two. He acquired more aircraft, upgraded cabin service and discounted fares. ANA could not compete and the five British shipping companies who were its major shareholders wanted out. ANA’s Chairman, Sir Ivan Holyman, doggedly fought on until his death in January 1957.
Holyman’s death provided Ansett the opportunity to acquire ANA indicating to the Government that Ansett Airways would cover for ANA if it failed. A deal for £3.3 million was done and the airlines merged in 1957 to become Ansett-ANA under ATI ownership.
Ansett had made the big time. He soon acquired six Vickers Viscounts to add to ANA’s fleet of DC6s and set about competing with TAA. He became a firm believer of the Government’s Two Airline Policy. With the passing of the Airlines Equipment Act and a new Civil Aviation Agreement Act ratifying ATI and TAA as the two main trunk carriers later in 1957, the stage was set for decades of stable domestic airline services. It also saw the steady rise of ATI to be the dominant carrier even though its aircraft fleet, seating capacity and scheduling was controlled to equal TAA’s.
During the 1950s and 1960s, ATI purchased a number of regional airlines to establish direct regional links to the interstate network.
In 1964, Australia entered the jet era with the importation of the first Boeing 727s – Ansett’s arriving first following a coin toss win over TAA. In 1968, the name changed to Ansett Airlines of Australia and in the next year it became Australia’s leading domestic airline with a market share of 55 per cent. DC9s and larger jet aircraft followed.
Ansett Airways was the first Australian airline to move into packaged holidays. All major tourist destinations were covered by Ansett Holidays especially the Queensland beach resorts. Ansett also developed Hayman Island as a luxury resort.
In the 1960s and 1970s Ansett’s business empire expanded to encompass television stations in Melbourne and Brisbane, and interests in Diners’ Club Pty Ltd and Biro Bic (Australia) Pty Ltd.
Although he was firmly in control of the day-to-day management of his conglomerate, Reg Ansett owned only about one per cent of the shares in ATI. In April 1972 Thomas Nationwide Transport Ltd (TNT) attempted to buy a controlling interest in ATI for $44 million but Ansett’s relationship with the Victorian State government enabled legislation to be passed which thwarted the challenge.
ATI’s decision to acquire Avis Rent-A-Car in 1977 sparked a painful personal conflict between Reg and his son Bob, who had returned to Australia to head rival firm, Budget Rent-A-Car. Bob successfully opposed his father’s attempt to maintain monopoly rights to hire-car rental desks at airports. The collapse in February 1979 of financier Associated Securities Ltd, another ATI investment, cut deeply into ATI’s profits and rendered it vulnerable to takeover.
By April 1979 the Bell Group and other major companies including TNT and News Corporation began acquiring large numbers of shares in ATI. By December that year ATI was in the hands of Abeles and Murdoch. They took joint control of the company and persuaded Ansett to stay on as Chairman.
Reg Ansett was awarded the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1969 and the Oswald Watt Gold Medal for outstanding achievement in Australian aviation via the Australian Aero Club in 1975.
Addressed as “R M” by his executives and business friends, Reg Ansett placed heavy demands on himself and his staff and wore well the image of an industrialist and entrepreneur. Son Bob is reported as saying “… his power, the confidence he projected was that anything he wanted to happen … would happen”.
He could be gruff and famously ran in to trouble with comments about female flight attendants. His refusal to allow the recruitment of women pilots was settled in the High Court in 1979 in favour of pilot Deborah Wardley, leading to female flight crew at Ansett.
Sir Reginald died at his home at Mount Eliza on 23 December 1981 soon after Parliament ratified a new five year Airlines Agreement which led to the abolition of the Two Airline Policy and effective deregulation of the domestic airline industry.
His legacy of some 46 years in aviation was a national airline icon with an international reputation for the highest standards of service and safety.
The Australian Aviation Hall of Fame proudly inducts Sir Reginald Myles Ansett KBE.