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May 26, 2015

From The Age in 1960: The Comet that briefly salved Melbourne's early wounded jet pride

Whatever the ideological enthusiasm for foreign airlines being free to serve Australian domestic routes,  such flights have a  bizarre past, and could be spurned by the non-Australian carriers that keep growing at the expense of Qantas today.

At the height of protectionism for Australian airlines, back in the bad old days of the Two Airline Policy, the susceptibility of politicians and public servants for non-stop jets on the country’s transcontinental routes saw BOAC allowed to carry passengers between Melbourne and Darwin and Air-India to fly the local trade between Sydney and Perth.

The Melbourne flights were made possible by the city’s neglectfulness in building an airport capable of handling the early four engined international jets, the Boeing 707s and Douglas DC-8s. Squirming under the burden of ridicule from those smug Sydneysiders, BOAC, the so very British Overseas Airways Corporation that took over from Imperial Airways and preceded British Airways, had  an unlikely weapon with which the vibrant cultural heart of Australia could strike back.

It was the de Havilland Comet 4. Which also had four engines, but buried them within the wing root of an airframe that was not just much lighter than that of the larger American jets but was capable of taking off from Essendon’s rather short runway and shooting straight up to 40,000 feet in next to no time with as many as 60-80 passengers.

Which could include anyone prepared to pay a 25 percent surcharge over the outrageously high first class domestic fares set on a fixed cost plus margin basis for both carriers under the crushing anti-competitive burden of the Ansett-ANA and TAA duopoly.

The BOAC Comet 4, that briefly conditionally broke into a domestic Australian market

The story was never written up the way it should have been in those politer more restrained media times. The fact was that neither fat cats nor entitled politicians were all that keen to catch a Vickers Viscount or DC-6B  all the way to Darwin via Adelaide and Alice Springs, or worse, via Sydney, Brisbane, Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville and even possibly Mt Isa. No way.

And so Melbourne entered the jet age less than a year after Sydney did with Qantas 707s that couldn’t fly out of Essendon (well, not with a full load of passengers for a long flight) with the otherwise technologically and operationally crippled Comet 4s.

The key to the Comet 4’s relevance to Essendon was a straight wing. One that meant it took off and landed at much lower speeds than the swept wing American ‘hot rods’ but which also flew much faster than the British oddity, and for longer stages.

The Darwin service came about because the useful range of the Comet 4 was so limited it had to land once in Australia for more fuel in order to be able to make it to the outside world from some cities, such as Melbourne, if trying to get to Singapore.

However not even BOAC with its access to HMG’s indulgences in the UK could hack the Comet 4s forever, withdrawing them from all passenger services in the mid 60s.  It took Melbourne until 1970 to open a ‘real’ jet airport at Tullamarine, although the 60s also saw Ansett-ANA and TAA introduce in gloriously regulated tandem the Boeing 727-100, which had no problem blasting off from Essendon, although with such noise that it became politically urgent to relocate those operations to the 24 hour jet airport the new Melbourne International Airport has been since day one.

Melbourne enjoyed with the Comet 4s a short, exotic, totally uneconomic international jet age, which the fat cats loved.

The access of Air-India to the Sydney-Perth domestic market was also strictly limited to spare seats that went on sale for a hefty premium over the monopoly first class fare on the route charged by the two institutionalised Australian internal carriers of the day.  The deal was that you were treated like a Maharajah ( which was to Air-India the same brand icon as a flying kangaroo was to Qantas) in a fast non-stop flight versus slower Lockheed Electra or DC6B or Vickers Viscount services that stopped along the way, until the 727 age came along.

That service was part of a Nadi-Sydney-Perth-Singapore-India city service. From memory, it didn’t last long. The jet age had been delayed on domestic routes at the insistence of Sir Reginald Ansett, but eventually, 20th century jet technology prevailed.

What might be the prospects of foreign carriers flying domestic routes in competition with the Qantas and Virgin Australia groups, notwithstanding the temptation they might see in running externally based Jetstar or Tiger flights over such routes, as some Jetstar and Tigerair (Singapore) branded services are in fact flown today?

‘Difficult’ would be a fair answer, although that doesn’t mean such difficulties couldn’t be overcome, (sarcasm alert) which might depend on whether Australia’s uncompetitive and ridiculously high safety standards were enforced on carriers based under different jurisdictions.

Australian safety standards and the contempt held for them by Tiger Airways when it was 100 percent owned by Singapore interests basically sent that part of its history in this country packing, with Virgin Australia now owning that show and making sure, one assumes, that it never gets grounded by CASA again.

The thought of a really shoddy Asian operation like some of those well known for killing plane loads of flyers bringing such carnage to Australian skies might carry some influence in the respective party rooms in Canberra.

The truth is that Australia has no case in international law, and no practicable capacity, to impose its safety standards, whether they are any good any more or not, on airlines that are flag carriers of major sovereign powers in our near vicinity.

Everyone can sign memorandums and point to ICAO rules. Enforcing them is something entirely different, and ramp checks of foreign carriers in this country are highly unlikely to be the answer.

At the moment foreign airlines can already carry their own passengers on stages like Sydney-Melbourne, if they persist in operating such tag flights, but they are not allowed to sell those seats onto the Australian market. Qantas for example has often operated flights between Los Angeles and New York City for the exclusive purpose of flying Australia originating passengers on that route. However where Qantas puts its major emphasis these days is on its code share business relationships with American Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Its a vastly better way of making money in America, just as it is a superior way to make money for foreign carriers in Australia now.

The appeal of code shares with Qantas or Virgin Australia to foreign carriers far outstrips the potential attractions of staging their own domestic services within Australia against such locally powerful competitors.  That’s why Singapore Airlines, Etihad and Air New Zealand and non-equity partners like Delta and Hawaiian are all over the Virgins.  It’s so much cheaper for them to get Virgin Australia (or in other arrangements) Qantas, to do the heavy lifting for them in terms of providing pilots, jets, fuel contracts, loyalty program trade offs, terminal access and the like.

More than ideological purity is needed to entice competent foreign carriers to take on Australian domestic flights.

Flying within Australia with dedicated capacity is a costly ask, no matter where the pilots and cabin attendants are based and paid.

Business travellers and tour operators alike also depend for their viability on reliable scheduling.  The further away a flight that operates an Australian domestic sector originates, the more scheduling risk there is.

The real merit of the Harper Review’s recommendation on foreign carrier access to far northern domestic routes is that it encourages Qantas and Virgin to avoid neglecting the northern Australian parts of their networks. Or, perhaps, incites them to set up more externally based units in Asia, to fly some of their routes under their Australian brands, but a lower cost base.

Which in theory might seem immensely attractive in some quarters, but perhaps not in real life. The airline game just isn’t that simple.

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7 comments

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7 thoughts on “Foreign jets on domestic Australian routes has a bizarre past

  1. comet

    We forget just how loud jet aircraft used to be.

    As a child I remember ta taking off in Ansett and TAA 727s and DC-9s. They sounded like rockets taking off. Somehow that extra noise made flying more exciting.

    …and I love that BOAC Comet advertisement at the top of this page.

  2. Dan Dair

    A bit harsh on the old Comet there, Ben.?

    It’s wing & overall fuel efficiency were a hangover from the original Comet (Mk 1), which was flying commercially six years before the introduction of the Boeing 707, albeit with only about 40 passengers.!!!

    (Incidentally, there’s a TV documentary out there where a member of Boeing’s design team states that, amongst other things, they too originally had square windows on their early paper-designs, before it all went wrong for the Comet.)

  3. ghostwhowalksnz

    Ben is a bit tough on the Comet, as a kid I can remember them operating out of the short runway military airport used in Auckland till about 1965, the flight being to Sydney and then Darwin.

    The range from Melbourne or Sydney to Darwin was not to be sneezed at for the time as Qantas 707s ( the short bodied turbofan version that no one else bought-John Travolta version) would stop first in Nandi before going on to Honululu. The distance from Sydney to Darwin being about the same as Sydney Nadi, around 1700nm.

    The Comet 4 had a similar range to the first version 707-120 and I dont think anybody would describe the Comet as straight winged, it being 20deg leading edge with 707 being 35deg, but the Comet had more of the trailing edge being straight.
    The lighter MTOW Comet 4 followed British practice in being designed for shorter runways ( or higher altitude, Nairobi and Jo’burg in particular) which disadvantaged the later VC10.

  4. Ben Sandilands

    But….I was in awe of the Comet.

    In 1956 eldest sister and brother and myself set out from Clovelly to see the Comet 3 make a demonstration visit to Kingsford Smith airport.

    By the time we reached the now vanished sand dunes behind Marboubra Beach we realised we wouldn’t get there in time, so began rolling down the sand mountains for fun. Suddenly the sleek nose of the Comet came around the corner lining up the east-wet runway. We saw the oval windows and the golden Speedbird logo on the tail. We.Saw.The.Future.

    We returned home to concerned Sydney and Mary, who had noticed our beloved toy foxie Pippy get home earlier without us. But we were forgiven with a big family dinner and rhubarb pie.

    It was also the year of the Martin B-36, and the Vulcan, and the original Boeing 707 Dash 80 prototype. The sand hills, and our 50s world, and the Comets, have all vanished or fallen silent. The Future we saw was taken up by even grander designs, one of which was among the jets of 1956.

  5. Seth Knoepler

    For anyone else who isn’t even a serious buff a short book which was published a few years ago nicely recounts the highlights and watershed moments of the early jet age, from the Comet mystery/tragedy to that hot dog Dash 80 test pilot. I can’t quite pull up the title/author at the moment though I suspect most of you folks could.

  6. ghostwhowalksnz

    A good plane to compare with the Comet 4 to show how far things have changed is the CS100 which is about the same length and wingspan and has the same 5 across cabin.
    Range being one of those things that are hard to pin down but the DH106 and CS100 come close, just under 3000nm, and the newer plane has a 30km/hr higher max cruise speed.
    The real advance is shown by the max weights, with CS100 being 12.5t, but a lot of that could be less fuel load for same max range. Some figures show empty weights of both planes much the same but Im not sure how reliable they are. However airframe weights would have reduced and engine weights increased

  7. Simon Gunson

    A more fair and reasonable quid pro-quo might be if Aussie carriers were able to build Northern territories into a seamless service into the territory of some Asian neighbors, eg Bali, Jakarta, Singapore etc.

    Why does it have to be a unilateral surrender of Australian sovereignty? – opinion of a Kiwi bloke

    If Bali or Singapore were more like part of a domestic route perhaps services to Darwin might be more economic?

    PS NZ has lost heaps of market share on the Tasman to 5th freedom carriers, but the Kiwi experience is that it makes it very hard for the incumbent player to maintain services and load factors.