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Qantas at 100: The key moments and dates

The Independent logo The Independent 19/11/2020 Simon Calder
a group of people standing around a plane © Provided by The Independent

The world’s oldest airline? In 2019, British Airways claimed the title, but that was based on the founding date of one of the carriers that later became part of Imperial Airways, a predecessor to BA. KLM has retained the same identity since 1919, but stopped flying during the Second World War. So the oldest airline in continuous operation is Qantas, with many stories to tell along the way.

The first air race between the UK and Australia took place in 1919. Two First World War aviators, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness, played a small role by surveying a route across northern Australia in a Model T Ford car.

In the aftermath of the last global pandemic, Spanish flu, they decided that an air service for the Outback could succeed, and started an airline the following year.

One hundred years on, Qantas is grounded internationally because of the coronavirus pandemic. But it is still flying domestically.

1920 (16 November): Getting started

Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness founded Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd along with a syndicate of local graziers headed by Fergus McMaster, who becomes chairman.

The hub is the town of Winton, and the first routes are in western Queensland.

1921: Moving home

Operations move to Longreach, Queensland. Qantas builds a hangar that still exists. It is part of the Qantas Founders Outback Museum.

1927: Tragic event

The first fatal accident involving a Qantas aircraft takes place at the small town of Tambo. The only occupant, the pilot, is killed when the plane stalls.

1928: Medical missions

Qantas begins Australia's first Flying Doctor service, based in Cloncurry, Queensland.

1930: City move

Qantas moves its its head office to Brisbane. The city will later become the HQ of its rival Virgin Australia.

1935 (20 April): Going international

Qantas Empire Airways, a joint venture between Qantas and Imperial Airways of the UK, links Brisbane with Singapore in three-and-a-half days, using DH-86 aircraft. It is the eastern end of the UK-Australia joint venture, linking London with the Queensland capital. The through journey on the 12,754-mile route takes 12 days for a single fare of £195 (about £13,000, allowing for inflation).

The first official Qantas passenger from Singapore to Brisbane is Lady Edwina Mountbatten.

1938: Sydney gateway

Long-haul services move to Sydney, with the start of the C-Class Empire flying boat service from Rose Bay to Singapore – where Imperial Airways takes over the service for the rest of the journey to the UK. Despite this launch, Qantas remained a relatively minor player, with Australian National Airways the main carrier for the nation.

The airline hired its first cabin crew – all male.

1942 (19 February): Air attack

During the first Japanese air raid on the Northern Territory capital, Darwin, the Qantas hangar is destroyed.

1943 (20 February): Another tragedy

“Nine people were killed this morning when a de Havilland 86 passenger aircraft, owned by Qantas Empire Airways, crashed in hilly country near Belmont, 12 miles from the city,” reports the Queensland Herald of Brisbane.

1943 (June): Marathon flight

With Singapore and the rest of southeast Asia under Japanese occupation, Qantas flying boats cover the 3,500 miles between Perth and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) nonstop in around 20 hours. Passengers are awarded a certificate of membership to “The Rare and Secret Order of the Double Sunrise”.

1944: Brand awareness

Qantas adopts the red kangaroo as its symbol, first applied to the nose of Liberator aircraft.

1945: Post-war resumption

Qantas and BOAC launch a joint service between the UK and Australia, using Lancastrian aircraft converted from Second World War bombers. BOAC goes as far as Karachi, where Qantas picks up.

1947: Working women

The airline recruits its first female cabin crew. In the same year, Qantas begins services on what it calls the “Kangaroo Route” using Lockheed Constellation aircraft. The journey takes four days from London to Sydney, with refuelling stops in Rome, Tripoli, Cairo, Karachi, Calcutta, Singapore and Darwin.

1951: Sad year

Qantas suffers three fatal plane crashes in less than five months in New Guinea.

1954: Low cost

With the introduction of Super Constellation aircraft, Qantas starts selling the cheap seats: “tourist class” (now known as economy) goes on sale between Australia and the UK.

1955: Splashing out

The last Short Sandringham flying boat service leaves Rose Bay in Sydney.

1958: Global airline

Qantas begins a round-the-world service using Super Constellations.

1959 (March): Jet age

Qantas becomes the first non-US customer for the Boeing 707 jet aircraft. The plane cuts the journey time between London and Sydney to 30 hours. BOAC, meanwhile, uses the smaller and noisier Comet 4.

a small plane parked on the side of the water: Jet age: the first Qantas Boeing 707Boeing © Provided by The Independent

Jet age: the first Qantas Boeing 707


1961: West express

A new Qantas route from London to Perth has refuelling stops in Tehran, Karachi, Colombo and Jakarta. It becomes the fastest route to Australia, taking around 25 hours.

1964: Supersonic promise

Qantas reserves delivery positions for four Anglo-French Concordes. In the same year, the weirdest-ever London-Sydney link begins: the “Fiesta Route” via Bermuda, the Bahamas, Mexico City, Acapulco, Tahiti and Fiji.

1967: Empire ends

The Australian airline drops the “Empire” label and becomes Qantas Airways Ltd.

1969 (24 July): Moon shot

Qantas operates a special passenger service to witness the re-entry of Apollo 11 after the first manned mission to the moon.

1971: Jumbo age

Qantas introduces the Boeing 747. The Jumbo remains a stalwart of the fleet until 22 July 2020 when the last Qantas Boeing 747 departs, with a flight plan that forms the kangaroo logo. 

1979: Business first

Qantas installs business class between first and economy on 747s between Australia and London. The airline has since claimed that it was the world’s first business cabin, which is hotly disputed by Air France and British Airways.

1981: Pacific plane

Qantas introduces the Boeing 747SP, a ridiculous-looking aircraft that is a much-shortened Jumbo jet. The weight saving allows it to fly the Pacific nonstop.

a airplane that is flying in the air: Stubby jet: the Boeing 747SPBoeing © Provided by The Independent

Stubby jet: the Boeing 747SP


1988: Hollywood legend

Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man refutes the suggestion that “all airlines have crashed at one time or another” by claiming, incorrectly: “Qantas never crashed.”

1989 (16 August): Long reach

As a publicity stunt on a delivery flight, Qantas flies a Boeing 747 non-stop from Heathrow to Sydney. There are no paying passengers on board. The journey takes 20 hours, nine minutes and five seconds, and sets a new distance record for a non-stop flight by a commercial aircraft. It burns 178 tonnes of fuel, and has 5.6 tonnes left upon landing.

1992 UK connection

British Airways buys a 25 per cent share in Qantas. In the same year Qantas buys the domestic-only Australian Airlines and merges its operations.

2000 (February): Peak Australia

With Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways still a distant threat, Qantas and British Airways announce the biggest-ever range of services from the UK to Australia – including four daily Jumbo jets between London and Sydney and three between London and Melbourne.

2004: Cheap seats

A no-frills subsidiary, Jetstar, begins operations to 14 destinations in Australia. The chief executive is Alan Joyce, later to lead the whole airline.

2005: Slot watch

To retain its valuable slots at Heathrow, Qantas pays for a small regional jet to fly from the London airport to Manchester each morning, sit on the ground all day and return each evening.

2008: Superjumbo age

Qantas introduces the Airbus A380 “Superjumbo,” the world’s biggest passenger aircraft. For most of the next decade there is a daily Qantas A380 from Heathrow to both Sydney and Melbourne; from Sunday 25 March, the latter is downsized to a Boeing 787, which continues from Perth to Melbourne.

2010: Engine failure

Four minutes after a Qantas A380 from London to Sydney takes off from its refuelling stop in Singapore, one engine suffers an uncontained failure. None of the 469 passengers and crew are hurt, but the A380 fleet is grounded for checks.

2011 (29 October): Full stop

In response to industrial unrest, Alan Joyce, the chief executive, grounds the entire Qantas fleet for several days.

2013: Gulf gain

Qantas drops Singapore as the refuelling stop between London and Australia, with Dubai taking its place as part of a tie-up with Emirates.

2018 (25 March): Giant leap

The first passenger-carrying non-stop flight from the UK to Australia takes off from Heathrow. Qantas flight 10 uses a Boeing 787-9 on the 17-hour flight to Perth.

On the same day, the stop for Qantas flights 1 and 2 between Sydney and London reverts to Singapore.

a large passenger jet flying through a clear blue sky: Long reach: the Boeing 787 DreamlinerQantas © Provided by The Independent

Long reach: the Boeing 787 Dreamliner


2019 (14 November): Project Sunrise

Qantas repeats its 1989 nonstop flight from London Heathrow to Sydney, as it plans a commercial launch on the 10,561-mile link by 2022 with the “Project Sunrise” plan. In the same year, new Boeing 787 routes from Sydney to San Francisco and Chicago are announced to begin in 2020.

Three days later, a 55-year-old man in the Chinese province of Hubei falls ill with a previously unknown illness. It is later described as Covid-19.

2020 (11 August): Deep south

With all Qantas international flights grounded due to the coronavirus pandemic, nonstop charter flights to Antarctica are announced. Later in the year, Qantas operates a “flight to nowhere” taking in Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef and other landmarks. It sells out in minutes.

2020 (20 August): Forward thinking

Alan Joyce, the chief executive says Qantas faces “the worst trading conditions in our 100 year history”. The airline has cut one in four management jobs and one in five other roles.

Mr Joyce warns of: “An industry and competitors that are structurally differently; an economy recovering from deep recession; a customer base with new expectations; and continued uncertainty on borders.” But, he says: “the Flying Kangaroo’s wings are clipped for now, but it’s still got plenty of ambition. And we plan to deliver on it.”

a person wearing a hat: Not out: Baseball cap celebrating the Qantas centenaryQantas Founders Museum © Provided by The Independent

Not out: Baseball cap celebrating the Qantas centenary

Qantas Founders Museum
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