This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
If there’s one region of the world that illustrates both the progress of aviation in the past 100 years and the changing dynamics and balance of power, it’s Australia.
The Kangaroo Route
Imperial Airways and Qantas Airways first began to co-operate on UK – Australia services in 1934.
On 8 December 1934, the first UK to Australia mail service began operated by Imperial Airways (from Croydon to Karachi), Indian Trans-Continental (Karachi to Singapore) and Qantas Empire Airways (Singapore to Brisbane). The event was marked by a special ceremony at Croydon presided over by Lord Londonderry, Secretary of State for Air. Included in the two tons of letters were three addressed by the King, the Queen, and the Prince of Wales to the Duke of Gloucester at Auckland.
The next year, on 13 April 1935, the first passenger service operated from London to Brisbane by Imperial Airways and Qantas Empire Airways. It initially operated weekly and the trip took 12 and a half days. It would become officially known as the Kangaroo Route.
By 1939, services to Australia were operated with flying boats. Passengers would depart from the Imperial Airways Terminal in Victoria to catch a train to Southampton.
BOAC services to Australia were terminated during the Second World War.
After the war time restrictions on flying were lifted, BOAC and Qantas began a flying boat service from Southampton to Australia, with the trip taking 5 and a half days. The flying boats were withdrawn from BOAC in 1949.
In late 1947, Qantas began flying to London in its own right with the Lockheed Constellation aircraft. In March 1957, BOAC introduced Bristol Britannia aircraft which cut the journey time by 30 hours.
Joint BOAC/Qantas De Havilland Comet 4 services to Sydney would follow in 1959. It was in this year that BOAC and Qantas celebrated 25 years of partnership on this route.
The Jet Age
The biggest advances came in the 1960s with the arrival of the VC10 and Boeing 707 aircraft.
Qantas began operating Boeing 707 jets from London to Australia via San Francisco in 1959. In 1967, BOAC introduced its own Pacific route to Australia via New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, and Fiji. The trip took 33 hours.
The Boeing 747
In 1971, BOAC introduced the first Boeing 747 services to Australia.
Qantas introduced Boeing 747 services in the same year. Here is a film of the inaugural Boeing 747 flight on BOAC, featuring Harry Secombe no less:
By 1976, BA operated all Boeing 747 services to four cities in Australia: Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. However, these still required multiple stops before reaching Australia. Only Perth required just two stops. Melbourne and Sydney required at least three stops en route.
The introduction of longer range Boeing 747-236 aircraft on routes to Australia in the late 1970 enabled BA to reduce the number of stops en route via South East Asia to Australia.
Sydney was cut to two stops from London Heathrow. Melbourne gained a two stop service three times a week. Perth benefited from a one-stop service three times a week. Brisbane required three stops en route three times a week.
In 1984, thanks to improvements to Boeing 747 engines there were further journey time improvements to Australia.
Concorde Visits Australia
Whilst plans for Concorde to operate scheduled services to Australia never came to fruition, in February 1985 Concorde flew from London to Sydney in 17 hours, 3 hours and 45 seconds as a charter for Cunard.
The aircraft landed in Sydney on 14 February 1985 having stopped in Bahrain, Colombo and Perth for refuelling.
The day before, BA took out a full page advert in The Times with the message “DARLING SYDNEY Will be breaking all records to be with you on the 14th Love Concorde XX.”
“No British Airways ownership of our Qantas. Piss off poms.”
In the 1990s BA continued to develop a very close working relationship with Qantas.
BA beat Singapore Airlines to acquire a 25% stake in the airline in 1993 ahead of its full privatisation in 1997. Although not everyone was enamoured with the idea. One Australian put up a poster “No British Airways ownership of our Qantas. Piss off poms.” at Sydney airport.
BA and Qantas also formed a joint-business in 1995 to co-operate on Europe – Australia services. This involved deep levels of co-operation including co-ordination of fares, schedules and routes with joint-sales teams and many joint airport lounges throughout Asia. BA and Qantas would also share aircraft, with BA leasing 7 Boeing 767 aircraft to Qantas.
In 1999, BA operated 28 Boeing 747 services to Australia a week. Qantas remained the dominant international airline of Australia with around a 40% share of international traffic.
Following the turn of the century BA started to withdraw its presence. With a focus on reducing complexity in its operations, BA started cutting services. To reduce the amount of debt on its balance sheet BA also sold its stake in Qantas. Services to Perth were suspended. Melbourne was suspended for a second time in 2006, partly to release Boeing 747 aircraft for expanded services to India.
BA and Qantas explored a merger in 2008, at the same time as BA was in talks with Iberia. The deal was pulled after BA and Qantas could not agree on the relative shares in the combined business. Given the practical difficulties of distance and time zones between the UK and Australia, it is hard to see how the merger could have achieved the same synergies as BA has done with Iberia under IAG.
Qantas Calls Dubai Home
At the same time, the competitive dynamics changed considerably with the rise of Middle Eastern airlines.
The UK-Australia market has always been highly competitive with Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific acting as formidable competitors. However, Emirates in particular has had a dramatic impact on the market. Aided by the Airbus A380 it opened up countless one-stop connections between Africa, Europe and Australia that BA and Qantas simply cannot offer.
With Qantas facing a dramatic loss in market share, it adopted a “If you can’t beat them..” approach and tore-up its joint-business with BA in favour of a new deal with Emirates in 2013. Four daily Qantas services from London Heathrow to Australia via Asia were cut to two, all via Dubai.
Whilst there were doubts as to whether BA would withdraw from Australia altogether, it has maintained a daily Boeing 777-300 service to Sydney via Singapore.
Qantas launched a daily non-stop service to Perth in 2018 and is now actively looking to launch non-stop services to Melbourne and Sydney. Whilst BA has expressed no interest in non-stop services to Australia, IAG has indicated BA may return to Melbourne. Whatever advances in aircraft technology may come it is unlikely that BA will ever regain its presence in Australia.