The A320 recently became the most produced family of jet airliners in history, however the type had a slightly rocky start in Australia. Initially it looked like both TAA and Ansett would purchase the new Airbus but in the end Ansett were the only one of the two big domestics to take the plunge.
The big two domestic Australian airlines, TAA and Ansett, had a long history of researching and then buying the best available products in the market, all the more important when both were locked into the two-airline system and had to agree to operate the same fleets. By the mid-1980s both were beginning to look for replacements for their older 727 fleets and at the time the choice was limited to either the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 or all new Airbus A320.
At this time the reins on the two-airline system were relaxing, but still both airlines had ordered equal numbers of Boeing 737-300s (12 each). For TAA these would replace the last of the DC-9s, while Ansett was looking at moving on its 737-200s. Ansett’s purchase was partly driven by fears that the government would allow the quiet 737-300s to fly into Sydney outside the 23:00-06:00 curfew hours, and if TAA had it and they didn’t they’d miss out.
In the larger category the A320 was quickly identified as superior to the MD-80 and at the 1985 Paris Airshow Ansett placed an order for 8, with options for another 9, for a 1988 delivery.
TAA was also interested in the A320 but publicly said it would prefer Airbus to stretch the baseline design to 160 seats from 142 (so basically an A321). Nonetheless this didn’t stop TAA from placing an order for the new Airbus. On December 20 it announced an order for 9 at a value of some $650 million. The first was scheduled to enter service in April 1989, with all online by the end of 1990.
The A320 would never appear in the TAA livery and not just because the airline was renamed as Australian Airlines. When Boeing developed the 737-400 it became clear to Australian that they could acquire almost the same capacity via an equal number of 737-400s but at about $100-130 million less in cost. The fact that the service entry period for the new A320s also coincided with the end of the two-airline policy and deregulation also made Australian cautious at such a cost outlay.
As early as August 1986 Australian’s management proposed starting negotiations with Airbus to cancel the A320s. By October 5, 1987 Australian was able to announce that it was ‘deferring’ its A320 order, although it kept the right to reschedule delivery for sometime in the 90s. This announcement came only 5 days after the airline had announced a follow-on order with Boeing for 4 more 737-300s. What was not announced was that Australian also acquired 8 737-400s and 3 further options at the same time.
In hindsight Australian may have made the right decision, for short term financial reasons, but there is little doubt that the A320 was the superior aircraft. Indeed, improvements to the type effectively forced Boeing to create the 737 Next Generation line. Although no mainline A320s would ever wear the Australian kangaroo (I know that a pair of Network Aviation examples now wear QantasLink colours) Ansett had no such reservations about the Airbus.
The A320s were a success and Ansett added four more in 1991/92 and then another 8 between September 1995 and November 1997. These final frames allowed Ansett to finally retire its last Boeing 727-277s in April 1997.
The second A320, VH-HYB, was chosen to wear the special Sydney 2000 Olympics scheme and repainted in December 1996, with the operation taking 2,500-man hours. She wore the scheme until December 2000.
Another of the A320s, VH-HYN, was repainted in June 2000 into a special Olympics Torch Relay scheme and named 'Unity'. This aircraft was used to fly to Auckland to ferry the Olympic flame between their and Uluru. The Olympic scheme was removed in January 2001.
Ansett’s issues towards the end of the 1990s are complicated and contentious but the A320s became the backbone of the domestic fleet, alongside 737-300s, and older 767s. When Ansett collapsed on September 14, 2001 it was to be only the A320s that would ever fly in Ansett colours again.
Limited operations were retstarted as Ansett Mk2 on October 1, using 19 of the 20 A320s (VH-HYY was returned to its lessor). This slimmed down airline was primarily an attempt to keep the name alive long enough for a buyer to be found. It offered single class no frills service and briefly it appeared that a successful buyout by the Tesna consortium would allow a reborn Ansett to survive.
Ansett Mk2 used some of the old Ansett’s assets, such as gates and lounges, but was a shadow of the former airline and not viable on its own. The plans for the new carrier included replacing the existing A320 fleet with new aircraft from Airbus, in a two-class configuration, operating full service flights. Unfortunately, at the end of February 2002 the takeover plans abruptly stopped as Tesna withdrew their bid, leaving the administrators with little option but to cease all operations at 23:59 on March 4, 2002.
The last service was operated by A320 VH-HYI between Perth and Sydney, which landed at 06:53 on March 5. All the A320s saw further service, with the majority going to second line airlines in North Africa or Eastern Europe such as Air Moldova, Armavia, Nouvelair Tunisie, Air Memphis, Air Luxor, UM Air and BH Air.
The A320 would go on to have a major career in Australia with Qantas' low cost subsidiary Jetstar, as well as to a lesser extent Skywest and Air Australia, but it is a shame that the old name of Ansett can no longer be seen on the type.
Gunn, J. Contested Skies: Trans-Australian Airlines, Australian Airlines, 1946-1992
1985, July: Ansett wants A320 and 737-300. Flight International
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: