For 12 brief years, Australians in possession of pockets deep enough and a taste for adventure grand enough could take to the skies in an aerial palace that exceeded anything in history. Throughout the 1930s, QANTAS Empire Airways ran a series of flying boats from Sydney’s Rose Bay to Singapore, where passengers were transferred to British planes for the onward trip to London. These wide-bodied pleasure-craft carried first-class airmail between Australia and the Mother Country. But they were also capable of carrying 15 fortunate passengers who, with the help of three attentive crew, could reach London in a remarkable nine days, far surpassing the slow sea voyage. Quoits and mini-golf helped pass the time and at night, passengers were settled into bed. The cost of the trip was the average annual wage, these days the equivalent of around $70,000.
The winds of change in the form of WWII ended those glorious days. But for the half century that followed, air travel remained the province of the select few. If you weren’t rich, you saved hard. By 1990, prices were more affordable but the cost of a one-way flight to Tokyo was around $3,000 in today’s dollars. Now that same ticket would set you back $600.
More Australians are flying now than ever before for the simple reason that we can. Flying is now five times more affordable than it was 20 years ago. Greater competition between airlines, a proliferation of ticket types and the entry of low cost carriers means that taking the kids to visit Grandma in Townsville each Christmas is now within the reach of many families.
It also makes a big difference to the bottom line for companies connecting with national and international markets. Much of the affordability stems from greater choice. These days there are many more carriers serving our market. A quick check on line reveals around 35 airlines now offering services to London. A decade ago, only three Chinese carriers offered just 11 services per week from China to Australia while none of our airlines flew there. Now there are 71 weekly flights between our two countries, with both QANTAS and Jetstar flying into China.
All of this means we are taking to the skies like never before. Within Australia last year, we took a record-breaking 55 million trips and our market grew by nearly six per cent, more than twice as strong as the US and European markets.
Internationally, we took around 16 million international flights last year, not bad for a nation of 23 million people. A tally of all international travellers in the last year shows that almost 29 million people passed through our gates. With international experience telling us that every million passengers create 1,000 jobs, the value of airports to our economic health should never be ignored.
The Prime Minister recently released the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper and if any evidence is needed that our national orientation is indeed turning towards Asia, our aviation patterns confirm it. Of the 20 leading destinations for Australians heading overseas, ten of those were Asian. And those numbers are growing remarkably. Asian travellers are also arriving here at historic levels, while from New Zealand and the UK they’re going backwards. From an aviation point of view, it is indeed the Asian Century.
The growth of the middle class across Asia is opening up enormous opportunities for Australia. Right now, China has 70 new airports under construction and growth in traffic to Australia will be worth at least $9 billion to our economy by the end of this decade.
Taking advantage of these opportunities is the challenge for us and in this regard the Australian Government has not been idle. In 2009, the Australian Government released its first ever Aviation White Paper. This important document tackles the many complexities of modern aviation and plots a path to the future. Almost all of its 134 recommendations have now been either implemented or are well down the path to completion. We now have our first aircraft noise ombudsman. There is also an airline customer advocate to help everyday Australians disgruntled with a travelling experience.
Last year we signed a landmark ‘open-skies’ agreement with Japan allowing airlines open access to each other’s skies. Work on a similar deal with China is underway. Importantly, we’ve also vastly expanded the number of seats that airlines can offer. We’ve doubled seat capacity with Indonesia, China and Vietnam and are about to sign off on a similar deal with Thailand. In fact, we now have similar arrangements with every ASEAN nation, a key building block for growth with Asian economies.
Business, family reasons or a holiday, it’s all the same, there’s simply never been a better time for Australians to take to the skies. Air travel has never been as safe, as fast or as affordable. It is also providing us with access to the monumental Asian marketplace. By freeing up the aviation sector and partnering directly with Asian governments to expand capacity, Australians and our friends in the region are able to fly like never before.
For a nation girt by sea, it’s never been as easy to leave home
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.