Ansett's Golden Years.

by Roger McDonald.


With no sign of artery hardening or stiffening of the joints, Ansett marks its 50th anniversary with grand overseas plans but with increasing domestic pressures. Roger McDonald prepared this report as the airline enters its second half century.

"From my business experience, especially with transport. I have not the slightest doubt of the extension of our services. I am keen to purchase additional aircraft and, if the first week is any indication, that purchase will not be long delayed. We have carried 30 passengers and the parcel volume has been maintained,” announced Reginald Myles Ansett, managing director of the newly formed Ansett Airways Pty Ltd after his embryo airline had completed just seven days’ flying from its Hamilton, Victoria base."

When making that statement to Victorian media Ansett could not have foreseen a similar statement would be issued nearly 50 years later when the current joint managing director, Sir Peter Abeles, announced at the 1985 Paris Air Show an order for eight Airbus A320s with a further option on nine ‘‘to extend Ansett Airlines into a global aviation company; offering planes, operational know-how, staff and management as part of an international transport and communications Company.”

As well as the A320s, Sir Peter announced Ansett was increasing a previous order for Fokker F50 turbo-props from 15 to 22 aircraft with these additions configured for operation in the U.S. A company called Corsair jointly owned by TNT, News Corporation and Leslie Hong, would conduct the leasing of the Fokker F50s. Hong was a senior Boeing salesman who handled the sale of Boeing aircraft to Ansett.

The expansion of Ansett into international operations continues the path started by Reg Ansett in September 1937 when new services were introduced between Melbourne, Mildura and Broken Hill. The following two months saw services commence between Melbourne, Narranderra and Sydney; and between Sydney, Narranderra, Mildura and Adelaide. This expansion required moving the airline’s base from Hamilton to Essendon.

The history of Ansett Airways and its subsequent titles of Ansett-A.N.A. and Ansett Airlines of Australia has been well documented. The constant expansion of the company was the result of Ansett’s drive and dedication. This growth came about by acquiring a number of other airlines.

Sir Reginald’s control of his company came to an end early in 1980 when after a bitter share battle between a number of interested parties, control passed to two of Australia’s most aggressive business entrepreneurs: Rupert Murdoch, who controlled the large media company News Corporation Ltd and Sir Peter Abeles, who controls TNT. Both men became joint managing directors and chief executives and have held the positions since. Ansett was made chairman until his death in December 1981.

The first major decision of the new owners was to order more than $400 million of new Boeing aircraft, comprising twelve B737-200, four B727 Long Range models and five B767-200s. The joint managing directors said it was their intention to have Ansett operate the most modern aircraft fleet possible. Another early decision was to transfer the air freight business into a separate identity, Ansett Air Freight with TNT becoming responsible for its management. As a consequence, its headquarters was moved to Sydney where TNT is located although its three Lockheed Electra Freighters continued to be based in Melbourne.

The recent announcement of worldwide operations continues a policy set in place by Sir Peter and Rupert Murdoch to take any opportunity to expand their airline’s impact within Australia and nearby regions. To this end they announced Ansett had reached an agreement with the Vanuatu Government to form a national airline for the country and would take a 40 per cent interest in it. The new airline commenced services from Australia in September 1981 using an Ansett DC-9.

The deal to form Air Vanuatu was quickly followed by a management contract with the Western Samoan Government to manage its national carrier, Polynesian Airlines, from February 1982. Both these management contracts continue today. A recent development is arrangements made with the Cook Islands to operate international services, probably commencing this year.

These overseas ventures by Ansett were not the first. Reg Ansett tried to get a foothold in New Zealand aviation during 1960 by taking a 40 per cent shareholding in a new internal airline, South Pacific Airlines of NZ. The original promoters failed to raise sufficient capital to purchase a DC-3 ‘Viewmaster’ from Hawaiian Airlines and when the operation appeared to flounder, Ansett came in with extra capital and provided two DC-3 aircraft at an attractive price.

Even though Ansett supported this airline with management and technical assistance, the New Zealand Government would not assist the company because of the non-local Ansett shareholding. In a move to gain Government support, Ansett donated his shares to the airline’s employees and wiped out debts owing to his company during August 1964. The move didn't save the struggling airline and it ceased services in February 1966.

The deliveries of the first of the new Boeing 737s and 727s in June 1981 brought in a new corporate livery referred to as the 'Southern Cross' scheme.

The new colours brought with it a revamping of all the airline’s ancillary services, catering and airport lounges. The revamping of the whole airline brought with it a new marketing strategy and aggressiveness not before seen in Australian aviation. Features introduced included: flight club lounges for first class passengers and subscription members, a vastly improved inflight catering service and additionally, chauffeur services and special car parking arrangements.

The first of the new Boeing 767s arrived in June 1983 after an earlier decision to delay their introduction due to a serious downturn in the Australian economy which was affecting traffic. The fourth B767 arrived in August, giving the airline excess capacity, so outside work was sought for some of its B727s. It was decided to convert one, VHRMX to a freighter for Ansett Air Freight and three others were leased from December 1983 to Wien Air Alaska of Anchorage, Alaska. However with the demise of this carrier late in 1984, the three have been leased to Republic Airlines of Minnesota, U.S.A. The three aircraft have since been sold.

The revamping of Ansett Airlines was closely followed by its associated airlines in Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales. An early decision by the joint managing directors was to give each state airline its own individual local identity with their own board of directors embracing both Ansett nominees and local identities.

Each carrier was given a high degree of autonomy and all were allowed to select a new operating name, but only one, MacRobertson Miller Airline Services made a radical change in name, to Airlines of Western Australia. Airlines of New South Wales became Air New South Wales and Airlines of South Australia remained. However the three airlines selected striking colour schemes for their aircraft and associated equipment.

Of the three state airlines, only Airlines of Western Australia had new aircraft ordered for its fleet. Following competition with the British Aerospace 146, Fokker clinched the order involving two F28-4000 series aircraft for delivery in late 1982 to join seven other F28-1000 series aircraft already with the airline. One of the smaller F28s - VH-FKD - was transferred to the NSW airline in March 1983.

A W.A. Government decision to license another operator, Skywest Airlines, to operate competitive jet services to Karratha and Port Headland from 1984, brought a decision by Sir Peter Abeles to order two new British Aerospace 146-200s to give Airlines of Western Australia a competitive marketing advantage over Skywest/East-West who intended operating F28-4000s.

The earlier decision to give each of the state airlines a local identity was reversed during 1984. It was decided to tie in each airline with Ansett so in November 1984 AWA became Ansett WA. In recent months the Northern Territory operator, Airlines of Northern Australia, has been renamed Ansett N.T. and Airlines of New South Wales has become Air N.S.W. All airlines, apart from Airlines of South Australia have adopted the blue, white 'Southern Cross' colour scheme of the major airline.

The recent arrival of the two new BAe-146s allowed Ansett WA. to transfer further F28s to Air N.S.W. When announcing the BAc-146 order, Sir Peter said they were being ordered to give the Western Australian airline a competitive advantage in the Pilbara region of the state where competition was being introduced for the first time. Even though the BAe-146 is designed as a 100 seater, those in Ansett’s service have been fitted with 75 seats in a five abreast arrangement to give it comfortable seating and the leg room found on international flights.

Similarly, the F28s have been completely refitted with less seats of the same standard as the BAe-146. The two are now in service and are being used more on the airline’s longest flights through Derby, Kunnunurra to Darwin and beyond. The Western Australia marketing manager of Ansett, Ted Karasek, told FLYING: “The passenger response has been exceptional throughout our network. The aircraft are being scheduled into most of our ports on some days each week to give some stimulus to traffic. Also, it gives the airline a new marketing tool in all our areas.”

The introduction of competition into Western Australia, not only on the routes to Port Headland and Karratha, but also to Kalgoorlie and Geraldton, where Skywest Airlines operate competing commuter services with Jetstream aircraft, has caused Ansett W.A. traffic to remain static at around 390,000 over the last three years. Pending new developments in the northwest of the state such as Phase Two of the North-West Gas project and the development of the Harriet Oil Fields south of Karratha will provide a welcome stimulus for it in the Pilbara region.

The newly renamed Northern Territory operator, Ansett N.T. is virtually an offshoot of Ansett W.A. who provide aircraft, staff and operational assistance, until a decision is made as to what direction it will take. One F28-1000 is now carrying Ansett N.T. marks and plans are for the two remaining Ansett W.A. F28-l000s to be so titled. All internal N.T. flights carry an Ansett N.T. Flight No. including the BAe-146 flights from Darwin to Gove and Groote Eylandt and the weekly extension to Cairns.

The airline’s own F28 is used on the route from Alice Springs through Tennant Creek and Katherine to Darwin and the higher frequency flights from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock (Yulara). Traffic on the latter route to Yulara is facing more competition from other operators who are mounting direct services to the famous tourist attraction from points around Australia.

Airlines of New South Wales became a jet operator for the second time in March 1983 when it received F28-1000 VH-FKD from Western Australia. The airline had operated the same aircraft for six months from November 1970, but severe drought and a declining state economy caused it to be withdrawn and transferred to W.A. The jet was used initially from March on flights between Newcastle, Brisbane and the Gold Coast until it received dispensation from DoA to operate into Dubbo, Broken Hill and Cooma from July. The Cooma jet service has remained a seasonal one, being only active during the snow season. Further work for the F28 was found by a weekly Brisbane - Norfolk Island service in July and a direct Sydney - Devonport service in December.

Even thought Air N.S.W. and East-West don’t directly compete within NSW, both ‘clash’ in a number of interstate areas such as Maroochydore, Devonport, and indirectly, Norfolk Island. Ansett through the NSW airline, stymied East-West, which planned in October 1981 to start cheap flights between Sydney and Canberra by introducing its own flights. The flights were not successful and were dropped the following July.

The renaming of Airlines of New South Wales to Air N.S.W. did not follow the original intention of using Ansett N.S.W. The general manager Jon Hutchinson, told FLYING: “Consideration was given to using the name Ansett N.S.W., however it was decided to keep a degree of autonomy so as the public wouldn't see our new competitive services with East-West as an Ansett Airlines clash with that operator.


This article has been reproduced with the author's permission.