46 years after the first Qantas Boeing 747 graced the skies between New York and Los Angeles, the Australian flag carrier is retiring them on the route for good. Friday, Aug. 31 marked not only the last day of the month, but the final day of Qantas’ Boeing 747-400 from Brisbane to New York via Los Angeles. From Sept. 1 on, Qantas’ newest long-haul aircraft, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, will serve the route in the 747’s stead.
For many New Yorkers, seeing the Qantas 747 at New York’s JFK Airport was a special treat. The airline only flew one daily roundtrip from Australia to New York and only recently on the jumbo jet, usually arriving and departing in the late afternoon and early evening hours of the day. However, as we look back to the history of this unique route, it wasn’t always the Boeing 747 that served the route.
A History of Flying from The Land Down Under to the Big Apple
Qantas’ service from Australia to New York is older than the airport it currently serves, or its name at least. Australia’s national airline first began flying to New York in January 1958, 60 years ago, when the airport was called Idlewild Airport. The first flight took off before the jet age was in full swing, meaning that Qantas’ Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellations, affectionately known as Connies, would take the lead and inaugural the service.
The American-made Connies faithfully took passengers across the Pacific, making a few stops along the way to refuel, taking countless Australians to the U.S. where the quad engine aircraft were born. Long before they were tasked with connecting Australia with New York and the rest of the world, the Constellations were given another high priority mission, flying the Kangaroo Route between Sydney and London, a route they had been flying since 1947.
The multi-stop trip on the L-749 Constellation, the L-1049 Super Constellation’s older brother, from Britain’s former colony to the heart of a dying Empire took the Constellation days. Now, the same trip can be done in one-stop and just under a day’s time on the same aircraft that will be replacing the Boeing 747 on the present-day New York route, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, via Perth. Back then, the Kangaroo Route required numerous hops, now it only requires two.
Once Qantas received its L-1049 Super Constellations, it set its sights on New York, the capital of the world in the 1950s. Around the world flights began from Australia in January 1958 on the Super Constellations, making stops in Nadi, Fiji; Honolulu, Hawaii and San Francisco, California, all cities that Qantas flies non-stop to today, before arriving in New York.
Once it arrived in New York, the Constellations continued to push east, flying non-stop to London as the first leg of its trip home. After London, it was on to Rome, Italy; Athens, Greece; Karachi, Pakistan; New Delhi, India; Bangkok, Thailand; Singapore and Jakarta, Indonesia before touching down in Perth on the west coast of Australia. After Perth, it was short hops to Melbourne and Sydney to complete the worldwide trek. Total flying time: around 128 hours. Qantas flew two planes, one in each direction that departed from and arrived back in Australia at around the same time.
The Constellation’s made history for Qantas. Qantas was able to connect far-away destinations in a shorter period of time due to the faster and pressurized aircraft, as well as introduce the roles of flight engineer and air hostess (now flight attendant) onboard its Constellations. The first Connies carried 38 first class passengers at a cost of over $30,000 in today’s currency.
Australia Enters the Jet Age
The Super Constellation’s tenure on the New York was short lived as Australia was entering the jet age with Qantas, who knew that the Boeing 707s were the way of the future. On July 29, 1959, just over a year and six months after the first route to New York on the Connies, Qantas flew the first passenger jet service across the Pacific from Sydney to San Francisco via Nadi and Honolulu, continuing on to New York, then London.
Qantas was the first non-U.S. airline to operate the Boeing 707, which set the scene for a long and prosperous partnership between the Qantas and Boeing. Dominating the route for 13 years, the Boeing 707s set the standard for the New York route, as only the finest aircraft would fly the route for its future to come. The British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) mimicked Qantas, putting its Boeing 707 on the opposite route from London to Sydney via New York, San Francisco and Honolulu.
American actor John Travolta acquired a Qantas 707 following its retirement from the airline to use for his personal use. Travolta, an avid pilot, has a large collection of airplanes but none quite as notable as the Qantas 707 painted in its original paint.
A Coronation for a New Queen
In 1971, Australia was graced with a new Queen, the Queen of the Skies. In September 1971, Qantas received its first Boeing 747 aircraft, an aircraft that would become synonymous with Qantas for years to come and serve as its flagship aircraft. Qantas chose the Boeing 747-200B for its first jumbo jet order with Boeing and it was clear that the aircraft would quickly dominate the fleet and replace the Boeing 707s.
Serving as the new standard for trans-Pacific travel, the 747-238Bs would begin to supplement the Boeing 707s on the New York route in 1972, a year after their arrival to the airline. The first double-decker jet of its kind, Qantas increased its capacity on the route while also introducing luxurious features on the aircraft, including a bar in the upper deck.
It was no surprise then when Qantas started putting the aircraft on popular routes, including to the U.S. After all, the Boeing 707s only had one level for passengers, how could you fit an in-flight bar and lounge in only one level?
The Boeing 747-200 aircraft would’ve undoubtedly been the sole operator of the New York route in place of the 707, had Qantas not stopped flying to New York in April 1973. Qantas had ceased flying to New York because the route was not profitable for the airline at the time. Although this was nothing new, as even earlier service to New York wasn’t profitable past the West Coast, New York lost its main link with Australia.
An Iconic Aircraft for an Iconic Route
For nearly 30 years, a Qantas jet was not to be seen in New York. It wasn’t until 1999 that Qantas renewed its interest in service New York and resumed service via Los Angeles. It was only fitting that the aircraft to bring back the service was the Boeing 747-400, the successor to the Boeing 747-200 that first flew the route 27 years prior.
Aviation had changed a lot during that time, especially for Qantas. The airline had long since retired its Boeing 707s and 747-200s, upgraded to the Boeing 747-400 in 1989 – which flew a record non-stop flight from London to Sydney in just over 20 hours – and acquired the Boeing 767-200ER and 767-300ER. Long gone were the times of in-flight bars and lounges. Now, economics was the name of the game for all airlines.
Returning triumphantly to New York just before the turn of the century, Qantas and its Boeing 747 brought back an iconic aircraft to an iconic route. In the golden age of aviation, the Boeing 747 was a common sight on the most popular route in the U.S., New York to Los Angeles, with airlines such as Pan American World Airways (Pan Am), Trans World Airlines (TWA) and United Airlines flying the 747 from New York to Los Angeles and back.
The 747 was even the aircraft of choice when Jack Walsh tried to fly The Duke from New York to Los Angeles in the 1988 movie Midnight Run with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin. The traveling duo was sat in the nose compartment of the 747 in first class until they were kicked off the flight and had to make the journey on land.
However, the countless widebody twin-engine aircraft that came after the 747 were taking their place on the route and when Qantas returned with the 747, it was the only 747 flying between the two coastal cities, restoring the glory to the iconic route that is still one of the most profitable to this date. When others were moving their 747s away from JFK, Qantas brought one back.
So Close and Yet, So Far
The flight was unique as the only regularly scheduled domestic 747 service in a time where you most widebodies were deployed on international routes, but frustrating for many aviation enthusiasts as it was just out of reach for most. It was the perfect aircraft on the perfect route. The only exception, if you wanted to fly on it, you had to continue on to Australia. Due to federal cabotage laws, Qantas could not legally fly passengers solely from New York to Los Angeles, as it didn’t have eight freedom rights to do so and would be competing against domestic carriers.
While a loophole allowed passengers to book the flight to Los Angeles and then connect onto Qantas’ partner flights, the U.S. government put a stop to that, requiring all passengers to continue on to either Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. The apple of many enthusiasts’ eye was just out of reach unless you were planning a trip to Australia.
If you were lucky enough to be flying onboard the leg from New York to Los Angeles, or vice versa, you could expect the customary Qantas charm and service that included complimentary in-flight meals and alcohol even in economy, which remained even as U.S. airlines were downgraded their service and eliminating such perks. You could also expect a flying time of fewer than 5 hours westbound, as its 4 powerful engines got you there just a little quicker than its twin-engine counterparts.
The 747 flew the route for 13 years before Qantas decided it was time for a change. In a routing that mirrored the multi-leg routes of the Boeing 707 and Constellation’s, Qantas used an Airbus A330 on the New York that flew from Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand, then Auckland to Los Angeles and then on to New York. Thankfully, the flights, QF11 and QF12, were only operated from July 2010 to May 2012. After May 2012, the Boeing 747 was back to reclaim its territory.
A One of a Kind Experience for a One of a Kind Aircraft
After May 2012, the Boeing 747 was back to reclaim its territory but for all of its charm, it wasn’t a perfect flight. As anyone who’s flown into JFK in the early evening knows, you’re bound to face delays due to an enormous amount of traffic and that flight was no different, especially on the 747. Delays to and from JFK would result in delays on later onward flights to Australia as the airline frequently held planes so passengers from the New York flight could make their connections.
However, no delay could defeat the fact that you were on a Boeing 747-400 flying either to or from the place where it all started for the 747 on Jan. 22, 1970 with Pan Am’s first flight from New York to London on Clipper Victor, a game changer for international long-haul travel. The aircraft was so iconic that flag carriers of numerous nations purchased and operated the aircraft just for its prestige.
The Final Flight
From 2012 on, a Qantas 747 flew the route uninterrupted for 6 years and three months until its final flight on Aug. 31, 2018. This was the day that New York lost an icon and aviation lost another legend. The final Boeing 747 flight, QF12, departed New York for Los Angeles at 7:25 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 31, flying just over 5 hours from coast to coast, landing just before 9:45 p.m. on runway 24R in Los Angeles.
Following a short rest in Los Angeles, the aircraft, registration VH-OJT, continued on to Brisbane, the Australian terminus of the flight. From then on, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner would take its place on the route, with undoubtedly big shoes to fill. Ironically enough, thanks to the time difference and International Date Line, the 747s successor on the route departed Brisbane while the final 747 flight was still en route to Los Angeles and wouldn’t arrive in Brisbane until Sept. 2, local time. Time waits for nobody.
Qantas sought to keep the aircraft’s retirement very low key, not even issuing a press release for the occasion or giving the aircraft the ceremonial water cannon salute as it taxied from JFK’s Terminal 8 for the final time. Although the aviation community was well aware of the event, it appeared to be just another flight and not the end of an era for an aviation legend.
An Ode to the Qantas 747
As a New Yorker, I’d frequently see the aircraft at JFK and hope to fly on it one day. Like many, I waited too long. My fondest memory of the aircraft was driving northbound on the Wantagh State Parkway on Long Island after just getting my driver’s license and seeing the aircraft appear 2,000 feet above. It was seemingly flying parallel to the car as it prepared to land on JFK’s runway 22L carrying hundreds of passengers that had been traveling for nearly a day from a faraway place.
As it banked to the left with the name “Qantas” across its side, the white silhouette of a Kangaroo across its tail and a slight trail of engine exhaust in its wake, it graced the skies above Long Island and undoubtedly had all eyes on it as it sailed across the twilight sky. One can only hope that its successor will bring the same grace and dignity to the route, but it has some big shoes to fill.
Qantas will continue to fly the aircraft from Australia to California for the time being including the Sydney-San Francisco flight, an occasional second daily Brisbane-Los Angeles flight and an occasional Sydney-Los Angeles flight until the airline retires them fully from American skies later this year while Vancouver will still see Boeing 747 service to Sydney until January 2019.
The retirement of the 747 comes after United Airlines retired its final 747 in November 2017 and Delta in January 2018. For nearly the past 8 months, Qantas has been the only operator of a domestic 747 flight in the U.S. At this moment, America does not have a carrier flying a scheduled domestic passenger Boeing 747 flight as they are disappearing from the skies.
To Qantas, thank you for keeping the aircraft on the route as long as you did. It has been the greatest pleasure seeing the aircraft grace the skies above New York for the past 19 years.
To the 747, we thank you for your service. Though you are gone from our skies, you are not forgotten.
It seems as though we say this quite often now, but it carries the same meaning every time:
Long Live the Queen.