It has been said that “if a business does not tell its own story then someone else will”. Qantas has a great story to tell; with 93 years behind it and its centenary approaching. This story is also part of the social, political, military, economic and technological history of Australia since the early 20th century.
Queensland & Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd – Q.A.N.T.A.S. – came into existence on 16 November 1920 as the vision of a couple of former Light Horsemen and Gallipoli veterans who joined the Australian Flying Corps and fought in the sky over the Middle East during World War I. Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness were fortunate to have the assistance of a well-connected grazier and returned serviceman, Fergus McMaster, and the financial backing of hundreds of small investors from western Queensland who shared the vision of the founders for the ability of aviation to break the isolation of the outback.
Having crossed northern Australia from Longreach to Darwin in a Model T Ford to survey landing sites for the 1919 England to Australia Air Race, Fysh and McGinness appreciated the benefits that air travel would bring. Their tiny two-aircraft charter and joy-riding operation was established at Winton, but soon moved to Longreach where a corrugated iron hangar was built in 1921-22.
This hangar witnessed the growth of the airline as the first scheduled air mail and passenger service began in November 1922. It even became an aircraft factory as Qantas built its own DH50 aircraft under the supervision of founding engineer Arthur Baird, who recruited mechanics and apprentices to assist him. A Qantas DH50 flew the first flying doctor service in 1928.
Following the sudden departure of McGinness in late 1922, Fysh and McMaster, as managing director and chairman respectively, guided the growth of the infant airline as it expanded and moved its head office to Brisbane in 1930. Their eyes were on the main prize of linking with overseas flights at Darwin, connecting with the east coast cities.
As proposals for a joint air service between Britain and Australia gathered momentum in the early 1930s, it was Qantas which most impressed the leaders of Imperial Airways. A ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ was signed between the airlines and Qantas Empire Airways began operations in late 1934, initially to Darwin and then overseas to Singapore in February 1935.
The introduction of the luxurious four-engine Empire flying boats at Rose Bay in 1938 necessitated a move to Sydney. Barely a year later, World War II began. A reduced service continued, but as aircraft were handed over to the Air Force and skilled employees departed, it became increasingly difficult. Things got worse when several Empire boats were lost to Japanese attacks and accidents. Fysh ensured that the skills required to operate long-range air routes were preserved when he secured leased Catalina flying boats from Britain. These aircraft were used to operate the epic ‘Double Sunrise’ service linking Perth with Ceylon across the Indian Ocean between 1943 and 1945 to maintain a wartime air link to Australia.
The end of the war left Qantas with a depleted fleet and little capital to spend on finding replacements. It made the difficult and controversial decisions to go into Commonwealth government ownership and purchase American-built Lockheed Constellations. These decisions secured the survival of the airline and enabled it to fly to Europe and America in its own right as Australia’s international flag carrier and a de-facto instrument of national policy and diplomacy. Qantas continued to operate domestic services in New Guinea until 1960.
From 1959, Qantas entered the jet age as the first non-US airline to take delivery of the Boeing 707-138, specially built to Qantas’ own specification. The cost of air travel fell as flying times shrank and passenger comfort improved. The last of the old guard left the stage in 1966 as Sir Hudson Fysh retired as Chairman after 46 years with Qantas. Despite taking options on ten supersonic jets, the future rested with the Boeing 747 from 1971. By 1980, Qantas was the only all-747 airline fleet in the world.
Heading into the last decade of the 20th century, pressure for privatisation steadily grew. In 1992, the Keating government announced that Qantas and Australian Airlines would become one airline. Three years later, the Qantas public share offer was launched and shares were first listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.
Change has been ceaseless since 1995, with the pressure of competition driving constant improvements in the air and on the ground. QantasLink combined the regional airlines into a unified network and in 2004 Jetstar was launched in the Australian market. Jetstar now operates throughout Asia as the region’s leading low cost carrier.
In 2008, the first Qantas Airbus A380 was delivered, ushering in a new standard of in-flight comfort and service on long-haul routes. The strategic partnership with Emirates, launched in March 2013, brings together the national and international networks of two great airlines as the most important alliance since the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with Imperial Airways.
‘Wisdom of Experience’ is one of the Qantas brand values for a good reason. What Qantas does today is constantly being measured against what it has done in the past. As the centenary approaches, and an exciting future beckons, Qantas is proud to acknowledge the work of those who have made the airline what it is today and the vision of its founders.
The Australian Aviation Hall of Fame proudly presents the 2013 “Southern Cross Award”, honouring an organisation which has made an outstanding contribution to aviation, to Qantas Airways Limited.