WHEN migration from Europe to Australia first got going in the 19th century, it would take several months to get there by ship. Even by the end of the second world war, the trip would still take over 30 days. But in 1947 Qantas, Australia’s flag carrier, cut the time it took to fly between the two to a matter of days when it opened a new air service between London and Sydney called the “Kangaroo Route”.
Even so, the trip was slow and expensive compared to today’s flights. The original “Kangaroo route” took four days and nine stops, and cost at least £525 per passenger—equal to two and a half years’ wages for an average worker. Now the same trip, via Dubai or another Asian hub, takes less than 24 hours and costs less than a week’s pay.
Qantas hopes that a new non-stop service between Britain and Australia will again revolutionise the economics of flying between the two countries. On the morning of March 25th, the first scheduled nonstop flight from Perth to London landed at Heathrow Airport. Taking 17 hours, the Qantas flight is the world’s second longest, after the route between Doha and Auckland operated by Qatar Airways.
After arriving in London on the inaugural flight, the airline’s chief executive, Alan Joyce, has been busy this week plugging the service in London. Many of the journalists who travelled on the flight in business or premium-economy class with him were impressed with what they saw.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliners that fly the route for Qantas offer lower levels of cabin noise and turbulence than a normal airliner. The service also offers a food and drink menu designed by experts at the University of Sydney, which is designed to improve hydration and reduce jetlag on the flight.
The service is perfect for busy business people that need the extra three hours the flight saves by avoiding a stop to refuel. But one journalist from the Sun, a British tabloid, who got stuck in economy class, was less impressed with the service:
I know I shouldn’t think about it, I’ll scare myself to death but after seventeen hours in the air, I can’t get the worst case scenario out of my head. No, not a plane crash. I am convinced that I am breathing more farts than air.
I’m on Qantas’ inaugural Perth to London flight, the longest to and from the UK, and the atmosphere in the pressurised tube I’ve been sharing with over 200 other bodies has gotten quite stale. And while I’m not the only journalist on the flight, I am the only one who has been sat in economy for the nine thousand and one mile journey.
…is shaving a couple of hours off your journey really worth taking on the all new endurance sport of extreme long-haul flying?
Will the new service make commercial sense if many passengers do not want to be jammed in an economy class seat for 17 hours? Qantas has occasionally run non-stop flights from Britain to Australia as publicity stunts, most notably with its first Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet in 1989. They carried no passengers or even galley equipment, unlike the Perth to London flights of today, which is the start of a regular scheduled service.
But the new Perth-London flights are no publicity stunt, says Andrew Charlton, a former chief legal officer at Qantas who now runs an aviation consultancy in Europe. There is little, if any, money to be made by carrying economy passengers from Australia to Europe on connecting flights. Gulf carriers such as Emirates and Qatar, as well as the Chinese flag carriers, are willing to do this for less than it will ever cost Qantas.
Many of its customers end up flying on its partners’ aircraft, encouraging them to defect wholesale to them for future flights. If Qantas can offer a direct service for business people that want to get between London and Australia as quickly as possible, it can keep hold of its most profitable passengers while leaving more price-sensitive passengers to other airlines.
And so the age of ultra long-haul flights is likely to be a boon for Qantas. It has already challenged Airbus and Boeing, the world’s two makers of big airliners, to build aircraft that can fly the much longer route between London and Sydney by 2022.
So far it has found it easy to fill the relatively small Dreamliners it uses on the Perth to London route. Mr Joyce claimed this week that its business and premium-economy offerings are already 90% booked over the next month and that it is basically full in economy. But with fare levels around 50% higher than for flights that stop in the Middle East, like the original Kangaroo route, this will not be a trip for everyone.