Business class comparison: Qantas vs United Airlines, Sydney to San Francisco

By David Flynn, July 7 2016
Business class comparison: Qantas vs United Airlines, Sydney to San Francisco

Qantas' re-entry onto the Sydney-San Francisco route has broken a monopoly enjoyed by United Airlines for the past few years, and also made it more appealing for travellers to Fog City to fly direct rather than make a time-consuming stopover at LAX.

But United hasn't taken anything for granted, with the US carrier and Star Alliance member rolling out its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner to deliver a superior ride on the 13-hour trans-Pacific trek.

With just two airlines on this route it's a clear-cut either/or decision: so how do the business class travel experiences of Qantas and United Airlines compare?

Frequency

Qantas flies Sydney-San Francisco (QF73/74) six days a week, skipping Tuesdays.

United Airlines has locked down a daily slot for its UA870/863 service – providing the daily frequency which business travellers prefer in order to plan their schedule with maximum flexibility.

Flight times

Qantas QF73 leaves Sydney at 1.30pm to reach San Francisco around 9.30am.

United has opted for an earlier run, with UA870 wheels-up from at 10.30am for a 7am arrival into San Francisco which also dovetails into United's schedule for connecting flights out of its San Francisco hub to the rest of the USA.

Lounges

Qantas enjoys a natural advantage here, with Sydney being the Flying Kangaroo's home port – and where you'd expect to find its flagship lounges.

It's true that after almost a decade of solid use, the Qantas International Business Lounge is in serious need of an upgrade.

But the variety and quality of meals, drinks and service are outstanding for a business class lounge, and flyers on QF73 out of Sydney can sample fresh juices as well as gelato made in the lounge's own kitchen.

Start your day with a healthy juice at the Qantas Business Lounge...
Start your day with a healthy juice at the Qantas Business Lounge...

(And of course, if you hold Platinum status in the Qantas Frequent Flyer scheme then you can head upstairs to the unbeatable Qantas First lounge.)

Read: Expert tips for making the most of the Qantas first class lounge

United's business class passengers out of Sydney have a choice between the lounges of Star Alliance partners Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines.

United steers you to the crowded Air New Zealand lounge where there's barista-pulled coffee, an 'egg station' for poached or fried eggs cooked to order plus the usual scrambled eggs, baked beans and grilled tomatoes.

The AirNZ lounge: average breakfast spread but great coffee
The AirNZ lounge: average breakfast spread but great coffee

AusBT review: Air New Zealand lounge, Sydney Airport

However your business class boarding pass also opens the doors at the neighbouring Singapore Airlines lounge which is less crowded and has a much broader range of dishes from the traditional Western breakfast to antipasto, smoked salmon, frittatas, chicken congee and lasagne.

Visit the Singapore Airlines lounge for a better breakfast spread
Visit the Singapore Airlines lounge for a better breakfast spread

Our tip: visit the AirNZ lounge for the coffee and the Singapore Airlines lounge for the rest of your breakfast.

The winner here, however, is clearly Qantas – at least for your outbound Sydney leg of the journey.

When you're flying back from San Francisco both airlines serve up a sadly sub-par lounge experience.

Qantas relegates all but its VIP frequent flyers to the decidedly average Air France Lounge instead of the excellent Cathay Pacific lounge, which turns away most Qantas travellers despite being part of the same Oneworld airline alliance.

Read: Flying Qantas from San Francisco? Here's your airport lounge strategy...

United's SFO lounge clearly expects you to dine in the air, with only soup, salad and snacks on offer.

'Dinner' at United's San Francisco lounge...
'Dinner' at United's San Francisco lounge...

Savvy flyers head next door into the lounge of Star Alliance member EVA Air for a superior spread of Chinese dishes.

The aircraft

Qantas flies a Boeing 747-400 on the SYD-SFO route. She may be the venerable 'Queen of the Skies' but despite an interior refresh she's showing her age.

Qantas flies the Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet to San Francisco. Aaron Bradford
Qantas flies the Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet to San Francisco
Aaron Bradford

United has upgraded all its Australian flights to the very latest Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which aces the jumbo in every way.

The Dreamliner is significantly quieter, has a modern spacious cabin and even flies smoother.

United's Boeing 787 Dreamliner makes for a great flight
United's Boeing 787 Dreamliner makes for a great flight

More importantly for passengers, higher humidity in the cabin, cleaner air filtration and a lower effective altitude than the 747 makes the flight more comfortable and reduces the effect of flight fatigue and even jetlag.

You'll step off your United flight at San Francisco feeling fresher, more awake and alert, and ready to stride into your first meeting or presentation.

The seat

Both Qantas and United are out of step with the latest in business class seat design.

Forget the 1-2-1 layout, direct aisle access and personal storage spaces of the newest business class seats from Virgin Australia, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Etihad Airways.

On the Sydney-San Francisco route Qantas and United fly seats arranged in pairs...

The Skybed II on Qantas' Boeing 747
The Skybed II on Qantas' Boeing 747

... although United edges the Red Roo by providing a little more room to keep your carry-on kit close at hand.

United's Boeing 787 business class
United's Boeing 787 business class

At least both seats convert into a fully-flat bed for the 14-hour flight.

Sleeping

And speaking of sleep: although almost the same width, the Qantas' Skybed II feels noticeably wider in bed mode than its United counterpart.

It's also a better snooze experience: Qantas dresses the seat with a mattress to flatten out the bumps, provides a quilted duvet cover and a pair of cotton pyjamas.

Qantas offers a more rounded sleep experience
Qantas offers a more rounded sleep experience

With United you get just a pillow and a blanket. But if you're a light sleeper who can do without those creature comforts, then the quieter and less tiring ride of United's Boeing 787 is a better choice.

Meals

American airlines in general don't exactly knock the ball out of the park when it comes to in-flight meals. Even in business class the food is 'good' rather than 'great'.

United sticks to the basics with mains: choose between beef, chicken, fish or pasta – while breakfast is cereal or an omelette.

Qantas' association with Neil Perry's Rockpool Group yields much better fare, from small plates to mains bolstered by soups, salads and sandwiches, plus a more extensive wine list.

Work and play

The benefits of flying a modern jet like the Boeing 787 again works in United's favour.

There's inflight Internet which runs at a useable clip and costs just $US17 ($23) for the entire flight without any data limit.

You also get a much larger personal video screen, at 39cm against Qantas' 30cm panel (both airlines' libraries of movies and TV shows have more than enough to please passengers on the trans-Pacific trek).

And the winner is…

Which airline makes the best play for your Sydney-San Francisco business travel budget?

All things considered, it's surprisingly close and depends on which factors you prioritise: Qantas wins for lounges and inflight dining but United's modern Boeing 787 makes the 'core' experience of the flight a far better proposition.

Also read: How to buy a San Francisco Clipper card

David Flynn travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Qantas and United Airlines.

David

David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

sgb
sgb

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

30 Nov 2015

Total posts 745

I'd sooner use lounges that wern't showing their age, arrive into Fog City at a decent hour so the entire day isn't wasted, fly on an aircraft that is state of the art, and be all that much fresher for it.  United's basic food offering doesn't go wrong unlike some of the Qantas offerings. Oh, and United's cutlery you can actually use because it's not all flattened, try drinking the tomato soup from a flattened spoon like I had to last week.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 481

Assuming Qantas upgrades this sector to the 787 when they arrive it will be quite a lopsided contest! 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

31 Aug 2015

Total posts 126

Both Qantas and United are about to offer new business class seats. I think Qantas will lose the advantage for a short period time when UA overhauls and gets the Polaris seats until they get 787's. (Also, there has been mention of new routes before replacing aircraft on existing routes.)

Both are welcome changes though. We as customers benefit from the competition.

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

14 Jan 2014

Total posts 318

Uniteds B787's are back of the list when it comes to upgrading them to the Polaris seats, so it's gonna take a LONG while for that to happen

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

31 Aug 2015

Total posts 126

2017 is the entry date for the first of the Qantas 787's. So the aircraft change for Qantas is a long way away too. I am not expecting anything in the short term.

31 Mar 2016

Total posts 644

"Uniteds B787's are back of the list when it comes to upgrading them to the Polaris seats,...a LONG while for that to happen"

All true but will this issue be really relevant in the SFO-SYD mkt within 2yrs from now?

1.  Based on Boeing 787 assembly schedule, I est. the 1st 789 delivery for QF will occur near the very end of 2017.  By the time QF receive a pair to potentially do SYD-SFO(Needs @ least 2 to maintain daily or even the current 6x wkly rotation), it's 1Q2018 @ the earliest.

2.  UA is scheduled to receive 1st 35K in 2018(Specific mth was  not revealed).  The firm order was placed 3yrs ago for 35 frames and I suspect a lot of folks here missed it.

3.  Assuming UA won't take 1st delviery until Dec2018, it's entirely possible that a pair of 35K will be available for SFO-SYD daily by 1Q2019.  UA already stated a long time ago that a large portion of its 35K fleet will be deployed for Trans-Pcf missions based in SFO hub.

4.  I'm willing to bet every cent in my pocket that Polaris(Or a newer product @ an even higher design std) will be installed in J on every 35K delivery to UA.

5.  Technically, 35K is an upgauge fm 789 but it's moderate especially for a trunk route fm UA hub like SFO-SYD where QF manage to fill the even larger 744.  Most importantly, Polaris has a much higher cabin flloor area consumption rate than the current J on UA's 789.  Net increase in seat count for UA may not be as great as some might think....I est. it'll be around 300seats on UA's 35K or 50seats more than the current 789 on SFO-SYD.

Conclusion:

In the J segment of SYD-SFO mkt, QF will enjoy about 1yr of hard product superiority over UA fm 1Q2018 to 1Q2019.  After that 1yr, they'll return to parity.

Bottomline:

It no longer matters how many yrs it'll take UA to start installing Polaris on 789 for SFO-SYD mkt.

Eli
Eli

30 Jul 2015

Total posts 101

UA have 10 777-300ER's coming.  They can easily send these to SYD from LAX and SFO  ;-)

Mal
Mal

14 Jun 2013

Total posts 360

"Both Qantas and United are about to offer new business class seats."

Not really. United's new Polaris won't be fitted to the Boeing 787-9s for many years, the Dreamliners are 'last in line' behind the rest of United's international fleet.

As for Qantas, if you're thinking of the Boeing 787s, yes they will begin flying from late 2017 but the first ones will be on Asian routes, most of the 787s will arrive in 2018-2019 so a Dreamliner on SYD-SFO is still a good 2+ years away.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1127

Not sure where you get the idea the first drealiners will be on Asian routes. These are dominated by A330s. The talk and seat count for the first QF 787s is for long rage: Melb-Dallas Syd-Chicago and Perth-London. Asia will get 787-10s after 2020. 

Mal
Mal

14 Jun 2013

Total posts 360

Not sure where you're getting that from, Patrick.

"Asia will get 787-10s after 2020" Bzzzt, wrong, Qantas doesn't have any 787-10s on order.

As for Dreamliners on Asian routes: Qantas and Alan Joyce have repeatedly made clear that the first five 787s will mainly replace 747s and that in turn is most likely to be Asian routes like Hong Kong and Tokyo, especially as those routes can be flown with a single 787 for a daily service. Longer 747 routes such as SYD-SFO would need several aircraft, while other 747 routes such as South America and South Africa spend much of their flight over large bodies of water for which the four-engine 747 is rated but the twin-engine 787 is not.

I agree we will see some new services like Sydney-Chicago or Melbourne-Dallas early in the QF 787 era, routes with a 'wow' factor for the capabilities of the new plane and also opening up new 'monopoly' markets for Qantas. But look to Asian 747 services to be the first swapped for the 787.

"The talk and seat count for the first QF 787s is for long rage" It's all the same seatcount, there is no 'short range' 787 config, so don't think this means the 787 will only be doing 'long-range' flights.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1127

Mal, just because there are no 78-10s on order now does not mean their won't be in the future, i.e for delivery around 2020. The latest discussion on the first five 789s is about space; larger galleys etc to be able to provide multiple meals in a long flight. The retirement of the 747s has been deferred until around 2020 as they are still economic with low fuel prices. My point about seat count is fewer seats for more comfort (and a weight trade off)  over 15+ hours. We do not know if there will or won't be a shorter range configuration, but I suspect there will be. If not then it will be 78-10s for the shorter range flights, which is what they have been optimised (by Boeing) for.

This is alll speculation of course and we wont know the 789s detailed configuration and routes until early to mid-next year; and when and how many 78-10s until 2018 at the earliest, but are perfect with around 300 seats for one for one A333 replacement, and good for a 747 replacement in Asia.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1127

Mal in addition the shortage of  slots for both Honk Kong and Haneda make it very unlikely QF will go to a plane with as few seats (225 or so) that the 789 is being planned for. It may well be that QF move Dallas to an all 789 route (Syd, Bris, and Melb: total seat count up from 500 to 700 per day) to free up an A380 for Hong Kong for year round rather than seasonal services (Haneda deos not allow A380s except at the wee hours of the morning); but we shall see.

31 Mar 2016

Total posts 644

"..787s, yes they will begin flying from late 2017..."

I don't know why but I get the perception fm QF(i.e. reading between the lines across various QF statements re 789 intro plan) that delivery will indeed occur in late 2017 but service entry will be more like Jan18 @ the earliest.

Totally logical given time required for initial training+familiarization for crew in the air+on the ground especially for foreign QF stations intended to serve a completely new type for QF.....well I guess they may leverage JQ crew in some cases.

31 Mar 2016

Total posts 644

"Also, there has been mention of new routes before replacing aircraft on existing routes."

Per the 789 order announcement by QF, my interpretation is the opposite: QF ordered 789 x8 to replace 744 x5

And 1 of the few remaining QF routes where 744(Not 744ER) is deployed and long enough to max the fuel burn advantage fm a 789 is precisely SYD-SFO.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Mar 2014

Total posts 40

Nice review of Qantas and United on the SYD-SFO route!

But i do have to disagree with your comparison of SYD lounges. Ignoring the QF First lounge for eligible QF Platinum passengers, i find the NZ and SQ lounges both superior to the QF business lounge in every aspect.

Mal
Mal

14 Jun 2013

Total posts 360

I've been to all three lounges, SQ has best fitout and 'ambience' and the work pods are especially great but the Qantas lounge easily beats SQ and Air New Zealand for f&b. Air New Zealand's meals are particularly pedestrian although that's not a surprise as most of their guests are just doing SYD-NZ so that's a very short flight compared to 8 hours for SYD-SIN and 8-14 hours for Qantas passengers mostly going SYD-Asia, SYD-US and SYD-Dubai.

30 Jan 2014

Total posts 43

Yes good comparison. But I also must make note regarding lounges. The qantas business lounge at Sydney is always so busy it totally ruins the experience that should feel 'exclusive'. I shudder when thinking about flying out of Sydney on a QF or partner flight in the mornings. That's why these days I actually consider other alliances out of Sydney just because my experiences have been so poor. Parting with thousands of dollars for a business class flight then having to dodge hundreds of people in the lounge and now they want to offer single pass buy ins.. *shudder*

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

08 Feb 2011

Total posts 12

just stepped off UA flight 863 into Sydney, having flown both airlines on this route now, United win hands down, I dont get this love affair with Qantas food in the air, it is generally rubbish, the plane is old and so are the seats, movie selection and plane are far supperior on United as well. 

Qantas just seem to rely on australians always flying with them, and we wont even mention the Qantas lounge in SFO it is well bad!

sgb
sgb

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

30 Nov 2015

Total posts 745

The tide has turned. Qantas food is awful, like United's was 20 years ago.

rg
rg

24 Mar 2014

Total posts 14

This review omits the fundamental question of in flight service which normally makes United no go !!!


Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Business class comparison: Qantas vs United Airlines, Sydney to San Francisco