Australians are well known as keen travellers, and our geographical isolation has meant that air travel has long been a very important part of this aspect of our national identity. Perhaps unusually, this has grown into a strong local affinity for certain models of aircraft – especially the big ones. But is this set to change?

The Boeing 747, for example, has long held a special place in Australia’s heart. It was a 747 that set the then record for a flight carrying the largest number of passengers while evacuating 673 people from Darwin after Cyclone Tracy in 1974, it was the 747 called ‘City of Canberra’ that set the new commercial aircraft distance record in 1989 when it flew non-stop from London to Sydney, and it is a 747 immortalised by Paul Kelly in ‘Sydney from a 747’, still sometimes played while a flight circles the Harbour as it waits to land.

The current favourite is the A380, which was so quickly embraced and absorbed as part of our travelling lives. Its rock star status is such that Qantas have recognised that passengers may book particular flights just to fly in this model, with a section on its website headed ‘How do I book the Qantas A380?’ setting out the particular flight numbers and routes on which a passenger can be (almost) guaranteed to fly on one. It has become one of our familiar characters, and for a lot of expats the A380 is one of the important constants of our trips home. There is nothing like the feeling of stepping off QF2 in Sydney on Christmas morning – material worthy of the Qantas Christmas advert.

Sentiment vs. science

Despite all this, recent reports suggest that the place of the larger models in Australia may be changing. We have traditionally used widebodies for the almost inevitably long-haul nature of international travel from Australia, and smaller aircraft for intercity and regional flights, but the latest technology and local congestion levels indicate that perhaps this distribution should be reversed.

According to Bloomberg, a flight to Melbourne leaves Sydney Airport every ten minutes, while the flight from Canberra to Singapore only runs four times a week. Both airports are equipped to deal with large aircraft, so it would seem obvious to suggest that the 737s usually used to run between them be replaced with a larger model to reduce airport congestion.

On the other hand, the next generation of long haul models are smaller but far more efficient than the current fleet, with lighter airframes powered by two increasingly fuel-efficient engines rather than four older style engines. Qantas will have taken delivery of eight of its much-anticipated Dreamliners by the end of this year, connecting Perth directly to London and Brisbane to Los Angeles. The Dreamliner will carry 128 passengers fewer than the current 747 used on the Brisbane > LA route, but will do so on half the number of engines and using 20% less fuel than aircraft of comparable size, indicating that smaller might actually be becoming better for long haul flights. Flying a smaller aircraft with a better passenger load factor is also good news for airline bottom lines, so there is definitely an argument to be made there.

New faces, new places

So despite the potential changes to some of our more cherished ideas of what air travel in Australia looks like, there are definitely reasons for optimism. While the arrival of the Dreamliner has been the major headline for some time, Qatar Airways began a new daily route between Doha and Canberra this week, Melbourne Avalon Airport announced regular AirAsia flights to Kuala Lumpur last week, and the Asian travel demand keeps increasing, as noted by many at the Dublin conferences and the Singapore Airshow, so there is every indication that we will continue to be part of and benefit from that boom. New aircraft models are making exciting new travel options possible – and if anyone would be eager for that, it would surely be Australia.