75 years ago, Qantas launched its own iconic route, now one of the world’s key air journeys: the Kangaroo Route. Connecting Sydney, Australia, and London, the United Kingdom (UK), the journey at first took several hops – hence the name – to reach its destination airport. At the time, even the most modern equipment still lacked sufficient range for long-reaching flights with direct or one-stop flights between the two cities.
While aircraft changed, the route‘s importance remained, as it connected two Commonwealth nations throughout the years.
A hop and a skip
Officially, Qantas launched the Kangaroo Route on December 1, 1947, when an aircraft bearing the airline’s minimalistic livery began to skip and hop across several cities throughout Asia and Europe to reach London.
The four-engine aircraft, specifically a Lockheed L-749 Constellation, flew for five days between Sydney and London, stopping in more than a few cities: Darwin, Australia, Singapore, Calcutta, India, Karachi, Pakistan, Cairo, Egypt, Castel Benito, Libya, Rome, Italy, before finally touching down at the British capital.
However, prior to Qantas offering their own bespoke trip to London, it also partnered with other airlines to connect the two dots on the map. During the 1930s, a flight from Sydney to London would take twelve days, as Qantas, partnering with Imperial Airways – a predecessor of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) – flew a De Havilland 86 to Singapore. Passengers on the DH86 would then hop onto Imperial Airways’ aircraft to London Heathrow Airport (LHR).
According to a Qantas factsheet, the flight was crewed by three pilots, one navigator, a single radio operator, two flight engineers and three cabin crew members, serving a maximum of 29 passengers on the aircraft. Tickets would set customers back as much as £525 ($645). While the sum might not look too large, adjusted for inflation (at 2018 levels), the ticket’s price was $35,000.
As technology continued to develop, though, the number of stops was reduced, initially with the arrival of the Super Constellation, an upgraded version of the L-749.
The dawn of the jet age allowed Qantas to continue cutting cities from the Kangaroo Route, minimizing the hops required to reach LHR. While the Australian carrier had the de Havilland Comet in its fleet, the Boeing 707 was the first jet-powered aircraft to travel to London on October 27, 1959, slashing the journey time ‘to 33 hours compared with about 63 hours’ while using the Constellations.
In addition, the 707 caused a change to the route itself, because with fewer stops and a more reliable powerplant, it was necessary to adjust where the spare engines were placed.
“With the piston-engine Constellations, Qantas ensured there was access to one spare engine at every stopover port on the route, either one of the company’s own engines or one borrowed from another carrier.
Following this precedent, three spare Pratt & Whitney engines were positioned at three key ports outside Australia. These were withdrawn after one year when none had been used,” according to the airline’s piece on the history of route and jet aircraft.
Aircraft manufacturers continued to push boundaries and the 1970s saw a kind of royalty arriving on the scene, namely the Boeing 747 or The Queen of The Skies. The wide-body jet reduced the size of the world, metaphorically speaking, and allowed more people than ever to travel as companies were able to further slash ticket prices for air travel.
Qantas’ first Boeing 747 operating on the Sydney to London route took off in November 1971. By the end of the decade, according to the carrier’s own historical factsheet, it was the only airline in the world operating a 747-only fleet. The Kangaroo Route now involved only one single stop: Singapore.
As Boeing kept improving the ‘Queen’, the arrival of the 747-400 into the Australian airline’s fleet meant a record was about to be broken. In 1989, the airline flew the first direct flight between London and Sydney. The Boeing 747-400, registered as VH-OJA, flew a ferry flight from the LHR to SYD. The 20-hour flight was not a scheduled passenger service and was only a demonstrational flight that required a special fuel mix, improving the efficiency of the four engines by up to 4%. Nevertheless, Qantas continued one-stop services on QF1, the official flight number of the Kangaroo Route (QF2 being the return service to Sydney).
Not stopping: Project Sunrise
A couple of decades later, the presence of aircraft in the sky had completely changed compared to when Qantas first flew the Boeing 747 on a one-stop to London. Both Airbus and Boeing introduced aircraft that theoretically were able to fly direct between the two cities, namely the A350 and the 787 Dreamliner.
However, the Kangaroo Route itself had evolved too. Singapore has been a staple of the itinerary between SYD and LHR ever since the Aussie carrier inaugurated the route but a partnership with Emirates in 2013. On March 13, 2013, Qantas began stopping at Dubai International Airport (DXB) rather than Singapore Changi Airport (SIN), marking the end of the long-standing SIN’s role on the ‘Roo hops. The Australian airline would eventually return to SIN, though.
In August 2017, it announced that it was renewing its partnership with Emirates, making changes to the airlines’ joint network. The Airbus A380 would now operate the Kangaroo Route for a brief period. Most importantly, Qantas also changed the routing of its Melbourne-Dubai-London services, replacing the stop in the Middle Eastern city with a stop in Perth. Once that service had begun, it would claim the title of being the Kangaroo Route.
On March 24, 2018, a direct connection opened between the two countries. The aircraft for the flight was the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
At the announcement of the Perth – London flight, Alan Joyce, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Qantas, said: “We’ve said the Qantas Dreamliner is a game changer, and that’s becoming real today,” He added, “It’s a level of convenience Australians have never had before,” noting that the route “has kept changing with new technology”.
Just one year later, while Qantas was celebrating its centenary, the airline reiterated its intentions to operate research flights going directly from Sydney to London and New York without stopping at all. The project – first announced in August 2017 and dubbed Project Sunrise – would use a re-purposed Boeing 787 to fly directly between SYD and LHR.
The flight took 52 passengers on a 19-hour flight between the two cities, as well as an earlier flight to New York. The outbreak of COVID-19 stopped all international travel and ultimately delayed plans to launch the route to at least 2025, but prior to this, Qantas tentatively turned to Airbus to build an aircraft for the ultra-long-haul flights, namely an Airbus A350-1000.
“The A350 is a fantastic aircraft and the deal on the table with Airbus gives us the best possible combination of commercial terms, fuel efficiency, operating cost and customer experience,” Joyce said in December 2019. He added: “Can I thank both Airbus and Boeing for the tremendous effort they have put into Project Sunrise. It was a tough choice between two very capable aircraft, made even harder by innovation from both manufacturers to improve on what they had already spent years designing.”
The order was finalized in May 2022.
In the event, though, the pandemic forced Qantas to make changes to the Kangaroo Route. Instead of flying through Singapore or directly from Perth, the journey would now make a single stop in Darwin, Australia. In October 2021, once borders began reopening globally and international travel was getting back on its feet, the airline said that from November 14, 2021 until at least April 2022, it would fly the Sydney-Darwin-London itinerary. The reason driving this was that Western Australia remained closed to travel, prohibiting Qantas from stopping in Perth Airport (PER). In February 2022, Qantas indicated it would continue flying through Darwin International Airport (DRW) until June 2022.
In May 2022, earlier than expected due to the borders reopening in Western Australia, Qantas once again flew directly from PER to LHR.
June 2022, however, brought even more direct routes to the airline’s network. Joining voyages to London were flights to Rome, Italy, Johannesburg, South Africa, and Jakarta, Indonesia, as following COVID-19, ‘that traveler preference for point-to-point travel is higher than ever,’ according to Qantas.