When Ansett Airlines used one of its subsidiaries, Kendell, to launch 50-seat regional jet services to Tasmania from the mainland in the mid-1990s, it was hailed as marketing coup that would usher in a new era in commercial aviation.
The Canadair CRJ100 – which was actually a stretched business jet – was causing a sensation around the world, especially in the US, as airlines began ordering them by the dozen to replace slower turboprops and older, slower jets (like Avro RJ – the former BAe146 - which is still flying in Australia) for regional feeder services and, in some cases, hub-busting non-stop services on longer routes that previously required a stop.
Ansett’s idea – a smash hit with business travellers – was that the CRJ100s would replace Boeing 737s that were double their size and therefore, without flooding the market with unfillable seats, it could run as many as 14 return services a day on the Melbourne-Hobart route instead of four or five.
Even though dozens of CRJ100s are now parked in the American desert because the cost of fuel per seat was much higher than the turboprops they replaced (which are now back in fashion for that reason), Ansett stole a march on the former Australian Airlines, which had just been sold to Qantas by the federal government.
With just two small cities of 200,000 and 100,000 people, Tasmania has always been a conundrum for the airlines, because it doesn’t have the critical mass to justify high-frequency services by relatively large jets like the A320 and the 737.
A further complication is that it is a highly seasonal tourist market, with people flocking there by the thousands in summer before the numbers drop away in winter.
Qantas’s subsidiary QantasLink, which the national carrier had inherited from Australian Airlines, was in prime position to step into the Tasmanian market, as it has already done in the past year in the Canberra market, where its 110-seat two-class Boeing 717s are a better fit that 168-seat Boeing 737-800s on services to Brisbane and Melbourne and preferred by customers over slower Dash 8 turboprops.
But, with a Tasmanian state election looming in March and Qantas in the news about its losses globally, World War Three broke out earlier this month when Qantas announced the QantasLink 717s were coming to Hobart from April.
Federal Tassie MP Andrew Wilkie accused the airline of abandoning the state and the Australian Services Union said the decision to end mainline services to Hobart not only meant the loss of 35 Hobart-based Qantas jobs but - unless reversed - would also mean the airline would lose market share and the right to be known as the national carrier.
The airline struggled to be heard when it said the changes were about ‘‘making sure we have the right aircraft on the right routes in support of leisure and business travel opportunities between Tasmania and the mainland’’.
Wilkie said the job cuts were an example of ‘‘another alarming downgrade of Tasmania’’ in the airline group’s network.
“No wonder Qantas is in trouble financially. It’s effectively abandoning destinations, axing staff and patching it up with subcontractors,’’ he said. “When people fly Qantas they expect just that, not a succession of subcontractors.’’
The fact that 35 Qantas ground staff who are losing their jobs will be replaced by 45 new Hobart-based pilots and cabin crew was lost in the shouting.
The airline also won support from Tourism Industry Council Tasmania chief executive, Luke Martin, as the switch to the 717s “ultimately means more frequent and better scheduled services into Hobart, which is what travellers want".
In fact, the 717s and, before them, a fleet of Bae146s, have been flying around Australia since 1990, first with Australian Airlines and now with Qantas on contract to Cobham Aviation Services (the former National Jet Systems) as a low-cost jet service option that allows the national carrier to stay in smaller, predominantly tourist markets, like Cairns, the Top End and the Red Centre, as well as in mining markets in Western Australia.
But, when it comes to Qantas, everyone’s an owner, whether they have shares or not. Australia’s largest airline has 23 million back-seat drivers.
Time for your road test: have you flown on the QantasLink 717s in the outback in the all-economy layout? Is it the same standard of service as the Qantas mainline operation? The 717, with its rear-mounted engines, has a reputation for low-cabin noise - except if you're sitting down the back. How do you rate the ride? Do you prefer small jets over turboprops? Post your comments below.