Australia's east coast is, in normal times, a bustling highway in the sky. The Sydney-Melbourne corridor alone is rated as the world's second-busiest domestic route, with almost 150 flights per day.
Meanwhile, the Sydney-Brisbane route ranks just behind the likes of Los Angeles-San Francisco and Cape Town-Johannesburg with 91 flights per day.
Together, those cities form a 'Golden Triangle' of aviation – sometimes also called the Golden Boomerang – threaded between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. And it's a rich vein for airlines to tap, especially when it comes to filling those business class seats with premium passengers paying higher fares and delivering higher yields.
Even when Covid-19 is behind us, the pandemic's far-reaching ripples could take some of the shine off that golden triangle if cash-strapped companies look to conserve their spending and where possible embrace videoconferencing, which over the past six months has become commonplace.
At the same time, this could mean that airlines become more eager – and more competitive – for the business class travel that remains.
Business travel bounces back
The International Air Transport Association reports that "video conferencing appears to have made significant inroads as a substitute for in-person meetings," with corporate travel budgets expected to be "very constrained" as companies continue face financial pressure, even as the economy improved.
But Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce says "we know personal contact, people interacting with each other, has a huge difference from doing it over the Internet."
“I’ve talked to a couple of our biggest (corporate) customers, and one of the CEOs said he was relying on contacts built up over decades to get through the pandemic, but he would eventually need to rebuild those contacts,” Joyce remarked at a Griffith University function on the Gold Coast in late July.
"Most companies" are "people organisations", Joyce reasons, "so I believe that (business travel) will come back. Maybe there will be a hit but it will come back substantially."
Virgin, Rex to chase value
Virgin Australia CEO Paul Scurrah sees any travel budget constraints as favouring the rescued and rebooted airline, which will rely on value as its differentiator.
"We’re going to have a very low cost base, with a very strong high-quality value offering to corporates," Scurrah says, "a very good value but good-quality product."
"In the post-Covid world we know the economy is going to take a while to recover, particularly business travel budgets will be impacted, and people will be looking more than ever for value in their business travel as well."
"So our lower cost base and a stronger balance sheet gives us the opportunity to provide the best-value business option in the country."
But traditional sparring partners Qantas and Virgin may face a common foe in regional airline Rex, which intends to launch flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in March 2021, using an initial fleet of between five and ten single-aisle Airbus A320-series or Boeing 737-series jets.
Rex says its capital city flights "will be priced at affordable levels but will also include baggage allowance, meals on board and pre-assigned seating. Booking channels will include both Rex direct and Global Distribution Systems (GDS). Lounge membership will be available for subscription."
What do you want in business class?
With potentially three airlines vying for business class passengers on Australia's east coast triangle, and in a markedly changed environment, this is as good a time as any to ask what those passengers want.
As a busy business traveller, what's the role of lounges in your preflight experience: are they ideally a quiet place to get some work done before the flight, or are they more about relaxing? Do you rely on them for a decent meal, and a drink or two?
Speaking of meals: do you really see the need for meals on Sydney-Melbourne or Sydney-Brisbane flights where you'll spend barely 90 minutes in your seat?
Should those business class meals be restricted to morning, noon and evening flights, and what counts as a proper business class meal these days?
Given that at least for Qantas and Virgin Australia the business class seats are roughly the same in terms of leg room and overall comfort across a 90 minute flight, are there any other inflight differentiators, or would you rather exchange some of the 'frills' for lower fares?
Getting down to brass tacks: why do you fly business class, what do you value the most from that business class ticket, and what can Qantas, Virgin Australia and even Rex do to earn your business on Australia's triangle routes?
Share your thoughts as a regular business class flyer on the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne corridor in the comments below.