Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Trans Australia Airlines

Trans Australia Airlines or TAA was one of the two major Australian domestic airlines between its inception in 1946 and its sale to Qantas in 1992. During that period, TAA set the standard for air transport in Australia, and played a major part in the development of the Australian air transport industry. The establishment of TAA broke the domestic air transport monopoly of the late 1940s, and TAA's ongoing commitment to purchasing the best available aircraft from the 1950s through to the early 1980s was significant not just for its own fleet but for the entire industry.


Up until World War II, Australia had been one of the world's leading centres of aviation. With its tiny population of about 7 million, Australia ranked sixth in the world for scheduled air mileage, had 16 airlines, was growing at twice the world average, and had produced a number of prominent aviation pioneers, including Lawrence Hargrave, Harry Hawker, Sir Lawrence Wackett, the Reverend John Flynn, Sidney Cotton, and Charles Kingsford Smith. Governments on both sides of politics, well aware of the immense stretches of uninhabitable desert that separated the small productive regions of Australia, regarded air transport as a matter of national importance (as did the governments of other geographically large nations, such as the Soviet Union and the United States). In the words of Director General of Civil Aviation AB Corbett, A nation which refuses to use flying in its national life must necessarily today be a backward and defenceless nation. Air transport was encouraged both with direct subsidies and with mail contracts. Immediately before the start of the war, more than half of all airline passenger and freight miles were subsidised.

However, after 1939 and especially after Japan's invasion of the islands to the north in 1941, civil aviation was sacrificed to military needs. By the end of the war, there were only nine domestic airlines remaining, eight smaller regional concerns and ANA, a conglomerate owned by British and Australian shipping interests which had a virtual monopoly on the major trunk routes and received 85% of all government air transport subsidies.

The Chifley Government's view was summed up by Minister for Air, Arthur Drakeford: Where are the great pioneers of aviation? ..... We discover that one by one the small pioneer enterprises are disappearing from the register. It is the inevitable process of absorption by a monopoly. Air transport, the government believed, was primarily a public service, like hospitals, the railways or the post office. If there was to be a monopoly at all, then it should be one owned by the public and working in the public interest.

In August 1945, only two days after the end of World War II, federal parliament passed the Australian National Airways Bill, which set up the Australian National Airways Commission (ANAC) and charged it with the task of reconstructing the nation's air transport industry. In keeping with the Labor government's socialist leanings, the bill declared that the licenses of private operators would would lapse for those routes that were adequately serviced by the national carrier. From this time on, it seemed, air transport in Australia would be a government monopoly. However, a legal challenge, backed by the Liberal opposition and business interests generally, was successful and in December 1945, the High Court ruled that the Commonwealth did not have the power to prevent the issue of airline licenses to private companies. The government could set up an airline if it wished, but it could not legislate a monopoly. The press, always a vociferous opponent of left-leaning governments in Australia, objected strongly to the setting up of a public airline network, seeing it as a form of socialisation by stealth.


With the bill suitably amended to remove the monopoly provisions, the Australian National Airways Commission came into existence in February 1946. The commissioners themselves were prominent high-achievers, including the director-general of civil aviation, the deputy director, a Labor party luminary and former member of the Commonwealth Bank board, the director-general of posts and telegraphs, and the assistant secretary of the Treasury. The Commission was to be chaired by none other than Arthur Coles.

Far from being a Labor Party true believer or a public servant, Coles was one of the richest men in Australia, and the co-founder of a retail empire that remains easily the largest in Australia to this day. Coles had withdrawn from active management of his business in order to use his talents for the public good. He was, to use his own words, a great believer in competition for business and would not have accepted the post of Chairman of the ANAC had the monopoly provision been retained.

The Commission decided on the name "Trans Australia Airlines", applied to the Treasury for a preliminary advance of 10,000 and set about making plans, recruiting staff, and purchasing equipment. Reginald Ansett, the wily proprietor of the small Victorian company Ansett Airways was quick to offer to get the new airline off to a flying start by selling his entire operation to the ANAC as a going concern, including (if desired) his own services as managing agent. The asking price, the Commission decided, was optimistic, and Ansett declined a more modest counter offer.

There was considerable correspondence between the Commission and Ivan Holyman, the Chairman of ANA, with a view to recruiting Holyman as General Manager of TAA at the princely salary of 10,000 pa, and, when that offer was declined, of buying the near-monopoly airline outright. Holyman was not willing to sell, nor to work for a government-owned body, but was interested in setting up a "composite company", the details of which proposal remained unclear.

Eventually the ANAC proceeded with the original plan, to build an airline from scratch. One of the first people hired was Lester Brain, then Operations Manager at Qantas,. Brain had 22 years of pioneering aviation experience behind him and was regarded as the man behind Qantas' reputation for technical excellence. He applied for the advertised position of TAA Operations Manager, but to his surprise and delight, was instead offered an appointment as General Manager - though at 3,000 pa, not the 10,000 that had been offered to Holyman.

TAA acquired its first two aircraft in mid-June 1946, both Douglas DC-3s. A dozen more DC-3s would be added over the next few months, all ex-RAAF aircraft originally bought by the Australian Government under lend-lease. In July, the Treasury released 350,000 to allow TAA to order four larger, more modern DC-4s from Douglas in the United States, and Brain appointed John Watkins as Chief Technical Officer. Watkins would become one of the key figures in TAA success. His first task was to travel to the USA to accept delivery of the DC-4s. He later wrote:

To my utter astonishment Arthur Coles, after the expected pep-talk about the DC-4 assignment, said he was relying on me to find out what new equipment was being developed that would enable us to offer our passengers a better product than our established rival, at a competitive price.

It was typical of Coles, who knew nothing about aircraft, to reason that quality equipment would be vital, and then select the best man for the job of finding it and be prepared to back his judgement.

Douglas DC-3 VH-AES, which made TAA's first scheduled flight, has been preserved and restored to airworthiness.

At this point, political considerations came to the fore again. TAA planned to start regular services on 7th October, but there was a federal election set for September 28th. Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been enormously popular during the darkest hours, but was voted out at the first post-war opportunity. There was no certainty that the Chifley Government would not be treated likewise, and the opposition was opposed to government ownership. Coles addressed the Commission at a meeting on 2nd September 1946.

Gentlemen, the Government wants us to start services as soon as possible. There is a Federal election on 28th September. If we don't have an airline up and running by then and Labor loses the election there'll be no airline. We'll be out of a job. Any suggestions?

After some discussion it was agreed that the airline was not ready. It had a name, some excellent pilots, and some aircraft, but no ground facilities, no sales staff, no documentation, not even tickets. With a great deal of effort, it should be possible to make the planned start date of 7th October. With the discussion complete, Coles said I have news for you. We start next Monday.

After a week of frantic effort hiring staff, borrowing a tin shed at the RAAF base at Laverton because the main Melbourne airport had been turned into mud by heavy rain, creating operations manuals, passenger manifests, tickets, and load sheets - even making passenger steps and baggage carts because there was no time to buy them in the ordinary way - Captains Hepburn and Nickels took off from Laverton at 5:45AM bound for Sydney. TAA's first scheduled flight carried a full load of VIPs and just one paying passenger.