Australia’s busiest and most competitive airline route will host an epic dogfight as ‘country airline’ Regional Express challenges Qantas and Virgin Australia for the hearts, minds and wallets of business travellers – at least those who fly in business class.
Armed with a fleet of Boeing 737 jets, Rex will launch flights between Sydney and Melbourne on March 1, 2021.
It’s the opening gambit in a network which will extend to Brisbane from April, and could eventually bring most of Australia’s capital cities under its wing by late 2022.
But right now all eyes are on Sydney-Melbourne, which in normal (read: pre-Covid) times ranks among the world’s business domestic routes.
The three-horse race
To carve out its own slice of this lucrative market, Regional Express has pegged its lowest Sydney-Melbourne business class fare at just $299, with standard business class at $399 and a fully-flexible business fare at $599.
Despite the sweeping price variance each business class fare offers the same core experience, including no fee for moving onto an earlier flight did your schedule changes or your meetings run short.
By comparison, for the same period in early March 2021, Qantas charges a flat $715 for its Boeing 737 business class, with Virgin Australia’s two-tier business fares at $450 and $600.
(These prices, while correct at the time of writing, may well change if Qantas and Virgin decide to meet Rex’s challenge and match its fares.)
Rex’s business class passengers will be served a full meal alongside Australian beers, red and white wine, with free WiFi also on tap.
As Regional Express Deputy Chairman John Sharp puts it to Executive Traveller, this is “a Qantas offering with a Jetstar price.”
“For the first time (travellers) don’t have to choose between low fares with minimal service and premium pricing for more reliable flights.”
But while Sharp didn’t name-check Virgin Australia, there’s no doubt that the resurrected airline is also in his crosshairs.
That won’t be helped by Virgin’s adoption of a similarly mid-market position nestled between Qantas and Jetstar, or that Rex’s Boeing 737s were aircraft previously leased by Virgin – meaning they are crowned by eight of Virgin’s familiar leather-clad business class seats.
Ironically, while Rex is best known as a regional airline connecting 59 destinations across all six Australian states, it has capital cities and business class seats buried in deep in its DNA.
The airline was founded in 2002 by merging two regional subsidiaries of Ansett Australia – Hazelton and Kendell – after Ansett famously collapsed in 2001.
Now, almost 20 years later, Ansett’s distant descendant will once again throw down the gauntlet to incumbent heavyweight Qantas.
Cut-price fares aren’t the only arrow in Sharp's quiver. New and improved lounges at both Sydney and Melbourne will bookend the 90-minute journey.
To cope with the added load from nine daily Sydney-Melbourne flight “we’re building a brand new lounge at Sydney Airport,” Sharp tells Executive Traveller, adding that this should be ready by March 2021, “and we’ll also expand our existing lounge at Melbourne Airport to make it much bigger.”
“We (also) plan to build a new lounge at Brisbane Airport to accommodate our flights between Sydney and Brisbane, and ultimately between Brisbane and Melbourne.”
Still to come: Rex Flyer
However, noticeably absent from Rex’s capital city launch will be a frequent flyer program.
Sharp is willing to gamble that, in at least the short term, the lure of low fares will outweigh collecting points and status credits.
“We’ll look at developing our own multi-faceted frequent flyer program in the future, but at this stage, we’re just focusing on getting the airline up and running,” Sharp tells Executive Traveller.
That program will be a revamp of the Rex Flyer loyalty scheme, which previously ran on a 'coffee card' concept of buying nine flights and getting the tenth free; speculation is that could skew towards a more conventional points-based system.
Also on the cards is “a new and improved” version of the Business Flyer program, which lets businesses claim two free flights for every eighteen Rex flights.
“Historically, we’ve awarded benefits to the person who pays for the ticket, rather than the passenger who takes the trip,” Sharp explains.
“When you think about it, that’s a better deal than most, because the two tickets that you get after the 18 are treated as fully-paid ticket, so there’s no limit on the number of seats available… and you’ve got full flexibility in terms of changing the time of flying or the date of flying.”
Additional reporting by Chris Chamberlin.