Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The importance of a Gin and Tonic

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday  27 January 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

Several years ago flying to Armidale on Qantas, I asked for a gin and tonic only to be told that they no longer served alcohol. I have avoided Qantas as much as possible since.

This may sound an extreme reaction. Surely the man can go for an hour without a drink! However, in my mind it marked the final end of an era, a sad full stop on part of our history.

I suspect that it is hard now for some Armidale people to realise that until the second half of the eighties New England people generally flew on New England owned and headquartered carriers. They were our airlines.

The rise and fall of New England civil aviation deserves a book in its own right. I can only point to a few of the key features.

In Tragedy in New England Skies (AE 6/1/10), I spoke of the formation of Virtue Air Transport and its transformation into New England Airways.

By 1935 New England Airways had flown more than a million miles and had begun to spread its wings.

In October 1935, it was transformed into a new company, Airlines of Australia, with 60% of the capital held by the UK’s British Pacific Trust.

The Trust then sold its shares to the Ivan Holyman controlled Australian National Airways combine. While Airlines of Australia survived for a period after this, its fate was now sealed and it exited stage left.

In 1947 the next major New England airline emerged with the formation of East-West Airlines by Armidale grazier Don Shand.

The early history of EWA was just as remarkable as that of New England Airways asEast West Airlines DC3 Port Macquarie the company scrabbled to survive.

Slowly the company built up its route structure. The photo shows the first landing at Port Macquarie of an EWA DC3.

In 1961 EWA faced its greatest threat when the then Minister for Civil Aviation in the Menzies Government told the company that it must merge with Ansett. Government policy provided for just two airlines and there was no room for a regionally based upstart like East West that was starting to get pretensions above its station.

When East West announced the threat it created a major political storm. The Minister responded by denying that he had said anything of the kind.

Member for New England David Drummond was in a very difficult position. The Menzies Government was on a knife-edge with a one seat majority. However, Drummond also knew that the Minister was, at best, gilding the lily.

White and shaking, Drummond rose to speak to an almost empty House of Representatives. The House and press gallery filled as he spoke, confirming the company’s version of events.

Drummond’s reputation for honesty was such that his statement effectively destroyed the immediate threat.

Don Shand died in 1976. Five years later a consortium led by Bryan Grey (the later founder of Compass) and Duke Minks made a successful bid for EWA.

The new owners took EWA into an aggressive strategy that challenged and finally broke the two airline policy. However, they then sold the airline to Western Australian businessman Rick Stowe who on-sold it to Ansett in 1987.

It may have taken twenty six years, but Ansett had finally gained EWA!

As EWA exited stage left, the door was opened for the third major New England carrier.

As part of the takeover, Ansett had had to agree to East-West giving up some its New England routes. These were taken over by Tamworth based Eastern Airlines.

To fund its expansion, Eastern brought in Australian Airlines as a partner, becoming Eastern Australia Airlines. Then, as had happened before, Australian gained complete control.

All this may seem a long way from the simple question of a gin and tonic.

When I first flew East-West on a regular basis I formed the habit of ordering a gin and tonic on the flight. I carried this onto Eastern. It was just a nice thing to do associated in my mind with home.

When I asked why I could not get a gin and tonic on that Qantas flight, I was told that Qantas Link had just taken over from Eastern Australia and that Qantas Link did not serve alcohol.

An era had ended.

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