The ability to fly long-haul is something must of us take for granted. Yet it has come about in the space of one lifetime. Only one hundred years ago, no-one had flown across the Pacific. But since the advent of jet aircraft, transpacific flying has become a hotly contested space. Usually, no-one fights harder than Qantas for a piece of the action. Here’s a look at Qantas’ transpacific flight history.
Charles Kingsford Smith paved the way for Qantas
The first-ever transpacific flight took place in 1928. Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles Ulm, Harry Lyon, and James Warren flew from Oakland, California to Brisbane, Queensland, in a Fokker F.VIIb. They left on May 31 and landed in Australia on June 9, having flown via Hawaii and Fiji. The total time in the air was over 83 hours.
It was to be a few years before Qantas followed in Smithy’s footsteps. There were flights across the Pacific, but between Smithy’s flight and WWII, Qantas preferred to look north and west. By the mid-1930s, Qantas had reached Singapore and was eyeing England, laying the foundations for the fabled Kangaroo Route.
Other airlines offer transpacific services before Qantas gets onboard
Meanwhile, the transpacific action got left to airlines like British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines (BCPA), which was a joint venture between the Australian, New Zealand, and British Governments. Between 1946 and 1954, BCPA flew across the Pacific. However, BCPA was a post-war virtual airline. It chartered all the flights to Australian National Airways and their Douglas DC-4s.
In 1951, Pan American began its twice-weekly ‘Stratocruiser’ services through to Sydney. It wasn’t only flights between Australia and North America that were capturing attention. South America was also on the radar. In the same year, there was an Australian Government supported survey flight between Australia and Chile. It ran via Noumea – Suva – Satapuala Bay (Samoa) – Aitutaki (Cook Is.) – Papeete – Mangareva – Easter Island and forged a path for today’s flights between Australia and South America.
Qantas starts transpacific flying
In 1953, an agreement was reached for Qantas to fly to North America instead of British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines (which Qantas eventually absorbed). The following year, Qantas began flying Super Constellation aircraft twice weekly from Sydney to San Francisco and Vancouver via Fiji, Canton Island, and Hawaii. Total flying time was about 30 hours.
It’s not that Qantas avoided the Pacific altogether. In 1941, Qantas crews ferried 19 Catalina flying boats from the USA to Australia. Qantas says the first of these flights was just the second east to west aerial crossing of the Pacific Ocean.
From 1954, possibly motivated by Pan American arriving onto its turf, Qantas moved to catch up. In 1958, it began operating an around the world service. On 14 January 1958, a pair of Super Constellations took off from Melbourne’s Essendon Airport. One headed in a westerly direction, the other in an easterly direction, allowing passengers to choose which direction they preferred to travel in. These transpacific flights arrived flew to San Francisco via Nadi and Honolulu.
Qantas the first airline to operate jets across the Pacific
The following year, Qantas became the first airline to operate jet services across the Pacific with its brand new Boeing 707-138 aircraft. These flights operated from Sydney to San Francisco. The 707-138 was a unique plane. It was a short body variant of the Boeing 707-120. The shorter fuselage increased the jet’s range, enabling Qantas to safely make the hop nonstop between California and Hawaii. There were six Boeing 707-138s made, and Qantas was the only operator of the model.
The 707-138s prove reliable, and Qantas flew them across the Pacific for a decade before they were gradually retired to make way for the larger 707-338Cs. During this period, San Francisco served as Qantas’ North American jumping-off point. In the mid-1960s, the airline turned its attention south. It already operated two routes to London, one westbound via Singapore, the other eastbound via North America. Qantas kicked off the Fiesta Route in 1964. The Fiesta Route went through to London via Tahiti, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Alas, the Fiesta Route was relatively short-lived. Qantas dropped it in 1975. But by then, transpacific flying and long-haul flying, in general, was changing fast. In 1971, Qantas introduced its first Boeing 74, and this revolutionized flying. Hopping aboard one of those 1958 Super Constellation around the world flights to North America would have cost the best part of one year’s wages. Suddenly, the price of flying fell dramatically, and transpacific travel boomed.
Qantas turns its attention to Los Angeles
Arguably, the 1970s were a golden era for Qantas. The Australian Government-owned the airline, so making a profit wasn’t a top tier priority. Instead, it was all about the footprint.
In 1984, Qantas turned its attention to Los Angeles. LAX would go on to be the airline’s North American hub and the entry point for millions of Australians heading into the United States. That year, using long-range Boeing 747SP aircraft, Qantas began non-stop flights between Sydney, Melbourne, and Los Angeles. In 1928, it took Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew 83 flying hours and multiple stops to cross the Pacific. Just fifty-six years later, flying time was down to 16 hours, and there were no stops.
With the advent of nonstop flights, the island hopping flights to North America soon ceased. The focus was on speed and convenience. There’s a lot of myth and legend surrounding these early transpacific 747 flights. Frequent flyers of a certain age still talk about the Captain Cook Lounge, the burnt orange color scheme, the cigarettes, and the decent catering.
That’s all gone by the wayside now. In 1989, Qantas introduced the first 747-400 onto the route. Later, both San Francisco and Honolulu would temporarily drop off the Qantas network as the airline poured its focus into Los Angeles.
The GFC halted much transpacific flying
Not so long ago, this writer can remember Qantas offering up to four non-stop 747-400 flights a day between Sydney and Los Angeles. They were easy to remember, all eights – QF8, QF18, QF88, QF108, QF118. There were also flights to Los Angeles out of Melbourne and Brisbane.
South America also got some attention, albeit on a lesser scale. Qantas had an on again off again service to Buenos Aires, currently off since 2012, when the airline left the Argentian city in favor of Santiago.
But the global financial crisis cruelled the North American schedule. The introduction of the A380 on transpacific crossings also impacted. Qantas elected to run bigger planes and reduce frequencies. Daily departures out of Sydney to LAX dropped back to two in recent years.
The modern era of Dreamliners, efficiencies, and downturns
But it wasn’t all bad news. The A380 proved a massive hit with passengers, if not with Qantas itself. The airline also started flying to more North American destinations. Honolulu and San Fransisco went back into the schedules. New York and Dallas Fort Worth were added. Seasonal flights to Vancouver resumed.
In recent years, Qantas has introduced the Boeing 787-9 onto transpacific routes and withdrew all 747-400 services. The future of the A380 is up in the air. The airline is pivoting back towards San Francisco and was planning to add Chicago to its roster of North American cities.
That was all before 2020 and the travel downturn. In the space of 12 months, Qantas has gone from growing its transpacific services to vacating the market. Qantas has suspended all its international services, probably well into 2021. For the first time in nearly 70 years, Qantas is no longer operating transpacific flights. In some ways, it is the early 1950s all over again.