New alliances and allegiances mean that many Australia-bound travellers will soon transfer in the Gulf rather than Asia. Alex McWhirter reports on how it will affect passengers.

It’s all change for Australian services from spring 2013. For decades, Asian airports such as Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore have functioned as aerial junctions astride the extensive kangaroo route.

Every day, dozens of flights from Europe with major carriers such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Thai Airways touch down in these Asian hubs. Within a couple of hours, their passengers have switched flights and are bound for one of many Australian gateways.

The Asian airports still have an important role to play, but from April a good chunk of their custom will defect to the Gulf hubs of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. The shake-up has come about because Australia’s Qantas has torn up its 15-year-old joint venture agreement with British Airways. Instead, it has forged a marketing and codeshare tie-up with Emirates. It means that Qantas will now route its London-bound flights out of Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai rather than Singapore.

It also means that Qantas passengers departing other Australian gateways and who are bound for other European destinations will find themselves rebooked on to Emirates for all or part of their trip – with the exception of Sydney-Frankfurt, which continues to route via Singapore until October 2013.

At the same time, because Qantas has reduced its Singapore flights, the Air France-KLM group has had no option but to switch allegiance from Qantas (at Singapore) to Etihad at Abu Dhabi, who will now take passengers on to Australia.

To top it all off, Doha-based Qatar Airways will join the Oneworld alliance in a year’s time. Full details have yet to emerge but alliance membership suggests that by 2014, some British Airways passengers will find themselves transferring flights in the Gulf rather than Asia. Meanwhile, SIA aims to offer improved connections for its Australian passengers proceeding beyond the gateway cities thanks to closer ties with Virgin Australia – which also has links with Etihad.

Why the changes? Qantas is finding it increasingly difficult to make any money on its traditional kangaroo route flights to Europe. Were it not for its new Emirates link, the airline has indicated that it would have had to abandon its European services entirely.

Why can’t the likes of Qantas and BA make money? First, the yield (or revenue per seat) is low. London-Sydney is three times further than London-New York but the premium fares are not three times more expensive. Leaving aside promotional transatlantic rates, London-New York in business class can cost roughly the same as London-Sydney. In years gone by, BA and Qantas would have raised their fares to compensate for the lack of yield. But today’s level of competition means that option is no longer open to them.

The second reason is utilisation. Planes earn money on every mission. A British Airways B747 leaving Heathrow for Sydney on a Sunday night does not return to base until Wednesday morning. So that B747 could achieve only one round-trip during that time, whereas if it were flying to New York, it could have fitted in three round-trips. Curfew restrictions also mean BA’s plane has to spend ten hours marooned on the tarmac at Sydney.

Then there’s staffing costs. Some 20 cabin and cockpit staff are required for a BA B747 flight to Sydney. They can be away from base for ten days at a stretch, during which time they must be accommodated and fed both in Singapore and Sydney.

Another issue is that of “putting it back together” when things go wrong. When bad weather or technical problems strike, it takes time to regain the schedule. It’s also costly seeing as the carrier must take care of a plane-load of passengers should the flight be delayed en route.

Lastly, the three direct airlines – BA, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic – fly only from London to Sydney or Melbourne, but many passengers have to travel to or from London to join their flights, so direct services may be more inconvenient and expensive.

The likes of SIA, Cathay Pacific and Emirates succeed because their flights out of Europe are not destined for Sydney alone. They can utilise their assets more effectively by switching staff and planes between network destinations. An SIA A380 leaving Heathrow for Singapore is not automatically continuing to Sydney. Upon arrival at Changi, it may be sent back to Europe or rostered for a regional flight. It therefore earns more money because the more missions flown, the greater the revenue.

Route flexibility allows indirect carriers to mix and match destinations. Emirates can fly a Mancunian, a Glaswegian, a Dusseldorfer, a Venetian and many others to five Australian cities with one change of plane. These travellers would not be able to do that with British Airways, Qantas or Virgin Atlantic.

Why has the Gulf taken centre stage? Partly it is because of its geographical location, but also because the kangaroo route has changed. No longer do passengers only fly to and from the main European cities, and the Gulf carriers, with their focus on secondary cities, meet the demands of the new market.

There are drawbacks. Nothing is ever straightforward in aviation, and the new Gulf routings are no exception. First, the Gulf airports may not offer the same comfortable transfers as, say, Singapore Changi, which has won the Best Airport in the World award in our annual readers’ poll for 25 consecutive years.

Then there’s the matter of flight timings. For more than 20 years, kangaroo route passengers have departed Australia at around tea time and arrived in Singapore in the late evening, with the overnight sector to Europe undertaken when it’s time for bed. The Gulf routings will dictate different travel patterns that may not be convenient for everyone.

Qantas’s most important flight, QF1, will still depart Sydney at tea time (1605), but instead of an eight-hour five-minute flight to Singapore, passengers will face a 14-hour 30-minute marathon to Dubai, where the service touches down at 0035. Will passengers’ body clocks allow them a deep sleep at tea time? If not, they’ll have to grab some shut-eye on the final seven and a half-hour stage to London. This departs Dubai at 0205 to give a traditional early arrival into Heathrow at 0635.

Passengers may also find different products on each sector. If you are flying right through on a Qantas or Emirates A380 then that isn’t an issue. But Emirates has a varied fleet, and readers often grumble on our forum about the different types of premium seating.

Emirates also has no premium economy cabin, and the dense ten-across economy cabin on its fleet of B777s is criticised by regular travellers. A Qantas economy passenger changing from an A380 to an Emirates B777 in Dubai will notice the difference.

Still, there’s no disputing the fact that the Qantas/Emirates partnership will lead to shorter and more convenient flying between Australia, Europe and Scandinavia.

Decline in direct flights

  • For more than 30 years, the kangaroo route has been a declining business for British Airways and Qantas. In 1973, Qantas was serving points in Europe as varied as London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Rome, Vienna and Athens. Today it operates only to London and Frankfurt, and the latter will be dropped next year.
  • Back in 1988, BA boasted in its timetable that it was “on top Downunder”. In those days, it served more Australian cities from Europe than any other carrier. In 1988, BA flew to Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Today, it serves only Sydney.
  • During this time, the number of kangaroo route passengers has grown by leaps and bounds. But the new traffic has been syphoned off by the newly emerging airlines of Asia and the Gulf.
  • At the same time, the heightened competition has driven ticket prices down to uneconomical levels for the European carriers. Australia once enjoyed direct service from Alitalia, Austrian, KLM, Lufthansa and Olympic Air. Today, the only European carriers serving the country are our British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. But for how much longer?