The Golden Age Of Travel

21 April 2015

You are forgiven in advance for wondering what on earth William Shakespeare and Graham 'Skroo' Turner have in common.

Yes, they are both recognised as preeminent in their line of work, but a 16th-Century playwright and the CEO of Flight Centre?

"The Golden Age is not behind us but before us," wrote Shakespeare around 400 years ago, and Skroo couldn’t agree more. Admittedly, Shakespeare was talking about the cultural zenith of Elizabethan England while Skroo is talking about something much more contemporary: the state of air travel.

 Graham 'Skroo' Turner believes we are currently in the golden age of travel

That philosophical chasm aside, the assertion stands.

Nostalgia has a habit of lulling us into a view of the past through the lens of those rose-coloured glasses.

Which history buff dismisses grainy images of 1930s Sydney Harbour and the well-heeled embarking on their journeys to the exotic Far East and beyond on Empire flying boats equipped with bedrooms, lounges and salons?

Which lover of 1950s Art Deco fails to appreciate the sleek curves of the tri-tailed Lockheed Constellation? Its four massive piston engines and pressurised cabin heralded decades of more efficient intercontinental travel, better connecting Australasia with the world.

Which aviation enthusiast has less than a passion for 1960s memories of the emerging giants of the jet age: the Boeing 707, the Douglas DC-8 and the De Havilland Comet?

Few if any. But truth to tell, the idealism rarely matched the reality for those lucky enough to get a seat: flying was relatively uncomfortable, comparatively time consuming, potentially very boring, and – most important of all – hellishly expensive.

 In the past flying was reserved for the wealthy

The cynic in today’s economy class seat 55D might ask “what’s changed?" The answer is just about everything, and for Skroo that means the golden age of air travel is now and beyond.

As the boss of a global travel business worth billions with more than 2,700 outlets across 12 countries, he should know.

What's Changed?

First and foremost, the cost.

Flight Centre has a rolling study known as the Turner Index which tracks past and present flight affordability comparative to income levels. For example, the 29 passengers aboard the first Qantas Lockheed Constellation bound for London in December 1947 paid the equivalent of $1,170 – about 85 weeks’ pay for the average worker at the time – for the four-day each-way flight.

Based on current average wages in Australia, the 1947 fare cost the equivalent of more than $110,000 in today’s dollars. By the early 1960s, a typical fare cost the equivalent of six months’ wages, or about $34,000 in today’s terms.

When long-haul travel took off 10 years later, an average Australian worker would have spent three months’ total wages on a return flight to London, about $18,000 today. In the early 1990s, Qantas sparked a price war when it reduced fares on the iconic Kangaroo Route to $1,800. That represented three weeks’ pay or almost $4,000 today.

During the ensuing 20 years, fares changed little, with a current, typical Sydney-London fare of around $1,800 representing just 1.4 weeks’ pay for the average worker.

 Qantas' famous Kangaroo Route sparked a time of reduced airfares

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Skroo, a country Queenslander who trained as a vet, knows all about the shift in affordability from a time before his involvement in the travel business.

“I went to Europe in ’72 on a student fare. One-way to Munich cost around $500. I was working as a vet then on around $6,500 a year, so nearly 10 per cent [of annual salary].

“Essentially today to Europe the best fares are around $1,600 to $1,700 and the average wage is $65-$70,000 so it’s about 10 or 12 days’ salary for people.”

Skroo accepts there is a certain romanticism associated with early services on the sleeping berth-equipped flying boats, which took about 10 days to reach England from Australia. However, “the reality probably was a little bit different”, he says.

“And it was incredibly expensive. The average person just couldn’t afford it whereas now the reality is that – out of Australia – the average income earner can go to Europe on a fairly regular basis if that’s what they want to do.”

 Today the average family can afford to take an overseas holiday (image: Getty)

Second, the quality – and this is where Skroo’s belief in the current golden age really takes flight.

“We talk about the [historical] golden age of air travel, but if you look at most aspects there is no doubt the aircraft of today are better.

“In the premium product area [premium economy, business and first] there is just no comparison to 20 or 30 years ago. Even in economy, more and more features are coming in.”

As an example, Skroo cites a recent insight into the cabin on Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways’ new Boeing 787s, including seats offset from adjacent passengers and additional storage innovations.

He points out that today’s modern airliners have excellent in-flight entertainment systems, which would have been unthinkable in the not too distant past.

Then he turns to choice and efficiency. “Flights are quicker and there is more choice. Ten years ago out of Brisbane [headquarters city for the Flight Centre travel group] it was very hard to get one stop to Europe.

“Now there’s plenty of choice and there will be a lot more – for example, Etihad is coming in June direct to Abu Dhabi.”

He admits that one tough albeit necessary change for passengers has been the introduction of greater security, with potential for queues and delays. However there is even an upside to that with a move toward greater scanning efficiency and priority access.

“So in nearly every aspect of convenience, speed, and comfort, we are in the golden era of air travel,” he says.

What of the future?

Despite many being caught out by the big slide in the price of oil, Skroo believes the biggest challenge will come sometime in the next 20 years around fuel costs and their potential for impact on fares.

“There’s certainly no new generation of aircraft that doesn't use hydrocarbons … Whether that’s in five, 10, 15 or 20 years, I have no idea.

“That said, I suspect we’ve got 10 years where air travel will continue to be very, very affordable; fuel efficiency has improved so dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years to offset the cost of oil.

“It’s pretty obvious we’ve got a pretty good next 10 years.”

A golden decade, perhaps.

Steve Gibbons

Steve Gibbons, an aviation industry enthusiast, is a former senior publishing executive with Fairfax, News Ltd and APN. He now runs his own content business at wellreadmedia.com.au