Much has been written and said in recent weeks over the plight of Virgin Australia and its pitch for for a billion-dollar government bailout.
Both Qantas and Virgin Australia have been hammered by the coronavirus and related travel restrictions – between them, the two airlines now offer only a handful of flights – and are now in discussion with the government regarding a subsidised minimum domestic network.
When it comes to surviving a prolonged CVOID-19 shutdown, Qantas has deeper pockets to draw upon: almost $3 billion in available cash balance, boosted by a recent $1bn loan against several of its new Boeing 787-9 jets, with another undrawn $1bn on tap.
Virgin Australia, having struggled through seven straight years of losses, went into the coronavirus crisis with only $900m cash on hand – an amount which some analysts believe it could burn through in three months.
And in the context of a taxpayer-funded lifeline, Virgin also suffers from the unpopular optics of being 90% foreign-owned.
Virgin Australia CEO Paul Scurrah continues to lobby for government support, arguing that it's essential to keeping competition alive in Australia's skies and invoking the spectre of a Qantas monopoly.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, predictably, rails against such largesse unless it's proportionally split between the two airlines, to the tune of $4.2 billion for the Flying Kangaroo – either both airlines get something, or neither airline gets anything.
It's a complex and divisive issue, and one which Executive Traveller has not and will not weigh in on. Our editorial perspective is largely one of reporting a story and letting readers decide for themselves.
And there's a story we can report on, and reflect upon, which arguably showcases the benefits of competition.
It's the story of how the premium travel experience on Australia's busy east-west route was transformed in just a handful of years, when the arrival of Virgin Australia sparked a transcontinental turf war between challenger and incumbent.
May 2011: Virgin Australia touches down
On a crisp Autumn morning, a new airline makes its mark at Sydney Airport.
Almost a decade on from launching as a low-cost carrier, and with 36-year Qantas veteran and executive John Borghetti at the helm, Virgin Blue rebrands as Virgin Australia to go head-to-head with Qantas.
Virgin Blue's premium economy cabin is ripped out and replaced by a full-service business class to tackle Qantas’ monopoly on the Australian corporate travel market – especially the motherlode of high-end flyers shuttling between the east coast capitals and Australia's resource-rich west.
Spearheading this are the airline's first Airbus A330s, previously leased to Emirates and now decked out in not only Virgin's new livery but plush lay-back business class recliners with twice the legroom of Qantas' own A330s.
Marketed under a new ‘Coast to Coast’ brand, business travellers also enjoy limousine transfers, a coat-check service, amenity kits and premium inflight meals from Aussie chef Luke Mangan.
(Virgin's Boeing 737 business class proposition is not far removed removed from that of Qantas – in 2011, there wasn't much more you could do in a single-aisle aircraft.)
June 2011: Qantas rolls out the big guns
In response to Virgin's east-west assault, Qantas rosters one of its international Boeing 747-400 jets with many more seats – including angled flat-beds in business class – onto the Sydney-Perth route.
It's a four-hour sprint for the mighty jumbo which usually heads to Asia, Europe or the USA, with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce trumpetting “our competitors can simply not match the service that Qantas offers, particularly the Skybeds, which provide increased comfort on the longer routes between the eastern states and Perth.”
Within months, however, Qantas pulls the fuel-guzzling jumbos off the transcon trek, leaving it to a melange of Airbus A330s and Boeing 767s which have domestic-grade reclining seats.
By January 2012, barely six months into the pitched Qantas-vs-Virgin battle, average business class fares across all domestic routes have tumbled by 27 per cent.
April 2012: Virgin's A330 business class goes flat-out
Virgin Australia takes delivery of the first of six new Airbus A330s boasting even better business class seats, propelling it well ahead of Qantas' best domestic premium proposition.
The seats offer extra storage for carry-on kit, large video-on-demand screens plus AC power points and USB sockets for every passenger.
July 2012: return of the red-tailed jumbo
Qantas reintroduces the Boeing 747 jumbo jet onto its Sydney-Perth roster as a temporary bulwark against Virgin Australia's all-new A330 jets, while also moving to increase the number of its own A330 services on east-west routes.
"A range of changes, including aircraft upgrades and additional frequencies, will be made to provide greater choice and convenience for customers," Qantas says as it wheels out the big birds and the big guns.
September 2012: A330s rules the east-west skies
Virgin Australia announces a rolling upgrade of all Sydney-Perth, Melbourne-Perth and Brisbane-Perth flights to exclusively Airbus A330s, consigning the smaller Boeing 737 jets to the remainder of its domestic network.
Shortly after, Qantas announces that will upgrade Sydney-Perth and Melbourne-Perth flights to an exclusive A330-only service by mid-2013.
November 2012: Qantas' new A330 underwhelms
A factory-fresh Airbus A330 rolls into the Qantas hangars, but the airline is hit with a barrage of criticism when it's revealed to have the same business class seat as its predecessors.
The only concession to improved passenger comfort is a plastic shroud covering the middle seat, to provide what the airline calls an 'inflight workspace' for use by passengers on either side.
Stung by the criticism, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce pledges at the airline's then-annual Christmas drinks with media that an all-new A330 business class is on the way, tipping the possibility of fully lie-flat beds.
February 2013: Qantas promises "world's best business class"
Joyce confirms that Qantas will upgrade its entire fleet of domestic and international Airbus A330s with lie-flat business class from the end of 2014.
The all-new design seats are “very exciting, there's plenty of legroom and we're very confident that they will get an amazing reaction” Joyce tells us at the time, joking that "I certainly swim in the seats given my size!”
“They'll be the best domestic product anywhere in the world, and it leapfrogs anything our competitor's doing.”
August 2013: introducing the Qantas Business Suite
Barely two years after Virgin Australia's A330 launch, Qantas reveals concept images of its all-new A330 Business Suites, which Joyce proclaims "will leapfrog anything the competition is doing, and will be the best domestic business class anywhere in the world."
The 1-2-1 layout gives every traveller direct aisle access, while the seats can adopt in a reclined position for taxi and take-off, before going into fully-flat mode.
Creature comforts include extra-large video screens, a spacious side table plus a nook for stowing tablets, laptops and magazines, and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
However, with the new seats not due to fly until 18 months later, Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti hints to us that he has something even better up his tailored sleeve. "We're certainly not sitting on our hands. This is now business as usual. Product life-cycles are getting shorter and shorter and you have to plan faster and faster."
September 2014: Virgin's new business class is 'The Business'
As the official launch date for Qantas' A330 Business Suite approaches, Virgin Australia pulls back the covers on its own premium cabin power-play.
To be marketed simply as 'The Business', Borghetti touts the seat as being closer to first class than business class.
In common with the Qantas Business Suite and other next-gen business class designs, Virgin's pointy-end pew is generously proportioned: the wide seat converts to the long flat bed, surrounded by plenty of storage space, and every passenger is just one step away from the aisle.
October 2014: Qantas launches the Business Suite
Qantas officially unveils its Business Suite, ahead of a domestic debut in December 2014, with flights to Asia to follow from early 2015.
Modified, redressed and finessed by designers in the journey from drawing board to departure gate, the Business Suite will go on to adorn the business class cabin of Qantas' Boeing 787 Dreamliners and its Airbus A380 superjumbo fleet.
"This will be the best (business class) travel experience between Australia and Asia, and probably the best domestic travel experience anywhere on the globe," Joyce espouses.
August, 2015: Virgin launches The Business
Virgin Australia's flagship business class arrives on the Airbus A330, with the US-bound Boeing 777-300ERs to follow.
If the swish seats and upmarket Luke Mangan meals weren't enough, the A330s even sport a customised Nespresso machine capable of serving real coffee above the clouds, while the Boeing 777 goes one step further with an inflight bar.
Within a little over four years, fuelled by fierce competition, Australia could arguably lay claim to the world's best domestic business class.