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Sunday, May 31, 2009

WORLD THEIR OYSTER FOR AIRLINE PIONEERS

david ellis

THE first thing most would-be company owners do when musing over what to call their new outfit is to bring in the big guns of marketing, advertising, logo design and corporate law.

But back in 1946 two blokes who were to create what would become one of the world's most successful airlines, had no interest in such normal business practicalities: instead, one simply went to a Manila pub to get inspiration there, telling some foreign correspondent mates he drank with when visiting the Philippines, that he wanted a name for an airline he was planning with a business partner in Hong Kong.

Over a philosophical glass or eight the wordsmiths came up with Cathay Pacific – "Cathay" being the historic name for China, and "Pacific" because the partners wanted to one day fly to Australia.

And so an airline was born, its owners Roy Farrell, an American and Sydney de Kantzow, an Australian having known each other from their Second War flying days in Asia, and each having a vision for an airline linking China, Asia and Australia.

Both had business interests in Shanghai, but moved to Hong Kong where they paid HK$2 to register their partnership, and in September 1946 launched Cathay Pacific with a cheap surplus US Air Force Douglas DC-3 they dubbed "Betsy."

It was an instant success, and an import-export company they set up to generate airfreight business equally so – particularly de Kantzow's idea to fly fresh Sydney rock oysters to Hong Kong for luxury-strapped British expats.  

To meet demand for seats and airfreight the partners bought a second DC-3 within a few months, five more the following year and two Catalina flying boats to operate to the Portuguese colony of Macao off the coast of China; in their first six months they carried 3,000 passengers and 15,000 kilograms of cargo between Asia and Australia alone

But like most airlines, turbulence lay in wait for the fledgling Cathay Pacific, and in 1948 the British Governor of colonial Hong Kong dropped the bombshell that as "foreigners" the partners could in fact not own more than 20 per cent of their own airline. They would need a British partner who would relieve them of 80 per cent.

John "Jock" Swire, head of prominent Hong Kong trading company, Butterfield and Swire liked the idea, invested the required 80 per cent and assumed an active role in Cathay Pacific's day-to-day operations.

Then in 1948, Cathay made unwanted history when the Catalina flying to Macao became the world's first victim of air piracy: a group of Chinese gunmen hijacked the plane inflight, mistakenly believing there was a cargo of gold aboard. They shot the pilot and the plane crashed into China's Pearl River estuary.

Ironically the only survivor of the 23 passengers and three crew was one of the hijackers, Wong Yu-man who was held for three years but never charged as neither Portuguese Macao nor British Hong Kong had laws covering air piracy; on release from prison in 1951 Wong died in China in what one newspaper dryly observed "appeared a suitably contrived accident."

And as a result of the hijacking, Cathay Pacific became the world's first airline to screen passengers and freight with metal detectors.

Further turbulence followed when Britain and Australia, protecting their own BOAC (later British Airways) and Qantas, restricted Cathay Pacific flights to their countries, and it was many years before both routes were fully freed to Cathay Pacific.

Another incident in 1972 once-again focused world attention on Cathay Pacific. After one of its jet-engine Convairs crashed in Vietnam, Hong Kong police charged a Thai police officer with sabotage and murder, alleging he'd put a bomb in the bag of his wife whom he had insured heavily before putting her aboard with their child.

He was acquitted and no one else was ever charged.

Today Cathay Pacific Airways operates 97 passenger aircraft and 24 freighters to 120 destinations world-wide, employs 18,800 staff globally and carries approximately 1-million passengers a month.

Pretty good results from a beer in a bar, and one old DC-3 – which, incidentally, is on display at Hong Kong's Science Museum having been sold by Cathay in 1955, and bought back 30 years later after being found still flying freight around the Australian Outback.                                                               

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] BOEING 777-300ER – flagship type of Cathay Pacific's fleet of 121 aircraft.

[] ONE of the airline's first two Douglas DC-3s, restored and on display in Hong Kong.

[] AUSTRALIAN wartime pilot, Sydney de Kantzow (second from right) with fellow pilots before he co-founded Cathay Pacific Airways.

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