Daily Archives: 13/09/2011

Qantas – and home thoughts from abroad

Qantas, we are promised, will still call Australia home.  This is encouraging, but there’s no doubt that the flying kangaroo, and particularly its iconic kangaroo route to London, is in serious trouble.  Many things have be blamed: rising fuel costs, the rising $A, the rise of Asia as a destination and the rise of Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates and Etihad.

Home is such a tricky concept, anyway.  My grandmother called England ‘Home’, even though she never saw the place until she was over 60.  For Anglo-Australians born before the First World War, ‘Home’ (always capitalized) was a concept rather than a place, the term used by parents or grandparents who had left, and who never expected to see the place again.

In the early 20th century, international travel was costly, not just because a first or second class cabin was expensive, but because the trip was so slow.  A journey to England and back took 5 to 6 weeks each way, during which time passengers were out of the workforce.

This was not a problem for those paid to travel as part of their job, or for those living on investments, whose share portfolio would go on working, even if they did not.  But for the immigrants coming out in steerage, those 5 weeks of enforced idleness were often the longest period they would ever experience without an income coming in.  This cost, added to the discomfort of the trip, made it something to endure only once.

Brisbane-Singapore Air Service, 1948

Original in State Library of New South Wales, from The Commons, Flickr

When Qantas began its first commercial passenger flights to England at the end of the 1930s, most ocean travel remained either a one-way journey in steerage for immigrants, or the preserve of senior corporate or government men who today are still to be found up the pointy end of the plane.

International travel was an expensive luxury, out of the reach of all but a very few – or, of course, the unlucky many men, and a few women, who travelled to Europe and (sometimes) back on troop ships during two world wars.

After World War II, travel opened up.  Renewed European immigration meant more ships coming out, and shipping lines were keen to attract a back cargo of mainly young Australians, venturing beyond their own shores for the first time.

Then there were those, like my grandmother, embarking on the journey of a lifetime: a costly pilgrimage to see the iconic places – Buckingham Palace, Nelson’s Column, Lords Cricket Club – that were part of their upbringing.

In Australia, air travel only gradually out-competed sea travel in the post-war period.  Then in 1967, the Arab-Israeli War shut the Suez Canal, which remained closed to shipping until 1975.  Some ships sailed around South Africa, but the journey was longer and more expensive.  Meanwhile other ports along the imperial shipping routes – Colombo in Sri Lanka, Aden in Yemen – were becoming politically unstable, as the old eternal verities of ‘Britain East of Suez’ gave way to post-imperial Britain, begging to be allowed into the Common Market.

In 1974, the Boeing 747 – the jumbo jet – arrived in Australia, airfares began to fall, and sea travel could no longer compete.  Qantas thrived on the new pilgrimage trade, as baby boomers flew the kangaroo route to London to buy an old Combi-van outside Australia House for their own once-in-a-lifetime European tour.

But it turned out that the boomers went on travelling.  Ironically, the once-in-a-lifetime journey is now likely to be a grey-nomad treck around Australia, while the pilgrimage sites overseas have changed.  Gallipoli or Zanzibar or Egypt are on the agenda now for repeat travellers, and going via London or Frankfurt makes no sense.

Meanwhile, when the children and grandchildren of post-war immigrants set out to see their own version of ‘Home’, they are heading to Greece or Italy, Lebanon or Vietnam.

Pilgrimage has always been one of the strongest motivating factors in travel.  In Christian Europe, people dreamed of making a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Rome or Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostella.  For Moslems, performing the Hajj remains a key objective for travel.  For a thousand years and more, Moslems have converged on Mecca, and its port of Jeddah on the Arabian Sea, bringing people from Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean.

All these journeys led to Arabia.

The Mercator projection, which we commonly use to convert a 3-dimensional globe into 2-dimensional maps, underestimates the centrality of the Arabian Peninsula.  This great chunk of land is far more central, marking the point where East African and Eurasian tectonic plates collide.  The pilgrim routes of the Hajj traced a hub and spoke pattern, coming from Mali or Java or Central Asia – or from Gallipoli or Zanzibar or Egypt.

The Middle East airlines, with their hub and spoke patterns based on Dubai or Abu Dhabi on the Arabian Peninsula, are doing well from changes in Australian patterns of travel.  Perhaps their greatest strength lies in geography, and there is absolutely nothing Qantas can do about that.

Acknowledgement: A lot of this comes from a conversation with my friend John Moorhead, long ago, based on a conversation he had with a mutual friend, the late Clayton Bredt, even longer ago.