If you’re shuttling between Sydney and Singapore this month, here’s something to reflect upon.
August 2013 marks the the 75th anniversary of Qantas’ original Empire Class flying boat service between Sydney’s Rose Bay and Singapore, a trip which in 1938 used to take four full days (with three overnight stops) instead of today’s eight hour jaunt.
But everything was different back then – especially the way we travelled.
Forget about the endless concrete of airports: passengers headed to the Rose Bay Flying Boat Base, nestled on the edge of Sydney Harbour to board one of Qantas’ magnificent Empire Class flying boats.
The zenith of a golden age of commercial flying between the wars, the flying boats were primarily designed to carry first-class air mail but they quickly embraced a modern spirit of romance and adventure, opening international air routes and strengthening ties within the British Empire.
Qantas flying boats ushered in an era of stately and pleasurable flying – and they were built for comfort and safety rather than speed.
Only 16 passengers could be accommodated during flights with overnight legs, but they enjoyed “the most luxurious saloons ever prepared in an aircraft” spread over a series of tiered cabins including a smoking room and bunk-like sleeping berths.
Hudson Fysh, one of the founding members of Qantas and managing director at the time, recalled: “Getting up out of his chair, a passenger could walk about and, if he had been seated in the main cabin, stroll along to the smoking cabin for a smoke, stopping on the way at the promenade deck with its high handrail and windows at eye level to gaze at the world of cloud and sky outside.”
There’s plenty of romance in that vision, but it came at a price: a Sydney-Singapore return trip was slightly more than the average annual wage of the time, which in today’s terms would mean handing over some $72,800.
That included three overnight stops en route to Singapore – at Townsville, Darwin and Surabaya – spent at sumptuous hotels while the aircraft lay at moorings in a nearby lake or seaport.
The second leg of what had already been tagged as Kangaroo Route, from Singapore to London, took a further six days.
It was a brief shining moment for the flying boats before the start of World War II saw the aircraft stripped of those wide seats and sleeping bunks, to be replaced by guns and bomb racks.
The short-range Empire Class was replaced in 1943 by the longer range Catalina flying boats, which were retired in the early 1960s but gave their name to the five-star Catalina restaurant adjacent to the site of the old Rose Bay terminal.
Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT