Australasia’s two main flag carriers, Qantas and Air New Zealand, are redrawing the world travel map by pioneering the ultra-long-haul route between South-East Asia and South America.
The two powerhouse economic regions 16,000 kilometres apart now have same-airline connections via Sydney and Auckland that are otherwise available only via the Middle East or North America, which requires an extra three to six hours’ travelling time.
Until now, the only direct air service between South-East Asia and South America, was a three-times-a week service from Kuala Lumpur to Buenos Aires, Argentina, via Johannesburg, South Africa, axed in 2012 and Singapore Airlines’ flights to Sao Paolo via Barcelona, Spain, which ended earlier this year.
Qantas and Air New Zealand are investing considerable marketing in the Asia-South America connection as they fight the traditional reputation of Australia and New Zealand as end-of-the-line destinations Down Under.
The development of aircraft technology has provided the breakthrough which now enables the long over-water routes between Australasia and South America close to the South Pole to be flown by twin-engine aircraft for the first time.
Previously, only much larger four-engine planes were allowed to operate in such remote regions of the world far from the nearest airports.
Air New Zealand entered the market a year ago after its 312-seat Boeing 777-200ERs were certificated to be flown up to five and a half hours – 330 minutes – from the nearest airport after Boeing and the major engine manufacturers were able to demonstrate to national safety regulators previously undreamed of reliability that has virtually eliminated in-flight engine shutdowns as a result of malfunctions.
Until 20 years ago, the only direct connections between English speaking Australasia and Spanish-speaking South America was a time consuming “milk run” two or three times a week with at least one change of airline via Easter Island, Tahiti and New Zealand.
By comparison, there are 15-20 return flights a day on the Australasia-USA route, even though the 12,000 kilometres between Sydney and Los Angeles is 700 kilometres further than Sydney to Santiago, Chile.
In the Southern Hemisphere’s other direction, there are long-established direct flights between Australia and South Africa, since both are English-speaking former British colonies.
In most cases, twin-engined planes like the Boeing 767, 777 and Airbus A330 haven’t been permitted to fly more than three hours from the nearest airport for safety reasons until about five years ago, which sometimes has meant huge diversions and extra travel times.
For example, when Virgin Australia, through its formerly subsidiary V Australia, began a short-lived service between Melbourne, Australia, and Johannesburg, South Africa, such a big diversion was required that the westbound flight took around 16 hours – three hours more than the time needed for a four-engined Boeing 747 on a more direct route flying close to Antarctica.
That was a severe economic penalty at a time of high fuel prices.
Air New Zealand entered the Auckland-Buenos Aires market in December 2015 after the withdrawal of Aerolineas Argentinas that had been servicing the Sydney-Buenos Aires route via Auckland with four-engine Airbus A340s.
The three weekly services are now flown by 302-seat Boeing Dreamliner 787-9s, with the frequency rising to four a week over the coming southern summer peak period.
Qantas first flew to South America in 1998, operating 747-400s from Sydney to Buenos Aires, but later axed the service in favour of a daily code-shared A340-300 operated by its One World alliance partner Lan Chile (now named Latam) to and from Santiago.
In 2012, Qantas complemented the daily Latam service with three weekly non-stops from Sydney to Santiago, with code-shared links to onward South American destinations.
In the past year, Qantas has boosted the weekly frequency to four services and recent government statistics show the route is extremely popular with the 371-seat 747s flying about 85 per cent full.
In its regular reporting to the New Zealand stock exchange, Air New Zealand doesn’t separate its reporting on the Buenos Aires route from its overall operations to the Americas, but with average loads per flight to the region approaching 90 per cent of seating capacity, Air NZ’s flights are also extremely popular. Like Qantas, Air NZ has recently started flying beyond the traditional west coast gateways, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and now operates five 777-200ER flights a week to the US oil capital, Houston, Texas, mirroring Qantas’s daily A380 flights to Texas’s commercial capital, Dallas.
In fact, both airlines have been quite adventurous in the past, with Air New Zealand in the 1980s pioneering services to London via Tahiti and Dallas and Qantas in the 1960s flying the “Fiesta Route” to London via Tahiti, Acapulco, Mexico, and Hamilton, Bermuda)
“Qantas’ Sydney-Santiago service is a very important route in our global network,” the Australian airline told AirlineRatings.com. “From Santiago we see many business and leisure customers using this service to connect with Qantas’ 60 domestic and regional operations to explore Australia and a growing number of customers connecting onwards with Qantas’ services into Asia such as Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai and Singapore.
“The Santiago-Sydney services is also popular with students travelling to Australia on study trips.”
LATAM is the biggest airline group in South America and connects with nearly 100 onward destinations in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
Air New Zealand is equally enthusiastic about the growing Asia-South America market.
“Growing traffic between South America and Asia is a clear strategic goal for Air New Zealand and key to further establishing Auckland as a true hub,” the airline told AirlineRatings.com.
Air NZ’s codeshares with Aerolineas Argentinas provide direct connections to Sao Paolo and Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
“We’re confident that there’s a viable future market for Air New Zealand between Asia and South America (hubbing via New Zealand) provided that we can secure further access to airport slots in key Asian markets at viable timings,” Air NZ said.
In fact, both Air NZ and Qantas either have or will soon have new Boeing Dreamliners that will be able to operate non-stop to any city in South America from Auckland or Sydney.
The long-term prize for both airlines is Sao Paolo, business capital of the world’s ninth biggest economy, Brazil, servicing 200 million people.
Qantas already has many mining executives that shuttle between Brazil and Australia.
But the Brazilian economy is currently mired in recession – one of the hazards of the airline industry that, like all recessions before it, will soon end and unleash a new flurry of air travel to and from the rest of the world – especially on the new direct route to Asia.