After eight long months of local lockdowns and interstate lock-outs, Australians are once again taking to the skies. For many, it could even be their first flight of the year.
The changes to the air travel experience wrought by COVID-19 are obvious – at the airport, in lounges and during the flight itself – so if you're jaunting around in business class, what are the meals like, and how do they compare between Qantas and Virgin Australia?
Qantas has already bounced back from the abbreviated boxed meals of a few months ago (as shown below) with hot plated dishes back on the menu.
For its part, Virgin Australia remains in a 'holding position' ahead of the relaunch of its business class proposition early next year.
Virgin has moved on from the days of #NoodleGate, when business class passengers were handed a pot of Fantastic-brand instant cup noodles ($1.60 from Woolworths) and now distributes snack boxes, which we expect will be replaced by something more substantial in the coming months.
While we can't imagine the airline's former Luke Mangan creations being plated up at the pointy end, there's still plenty of scope to offer a delicious, healthy meal to business travellers who might have gone straight from check-in to departure gate, or made just a quick coffee pit-stop at the lounge.
But for now, what's the state of business class fare in the air?
Here, some Executive Traveller readers share snaps of a few recent business class meals served on board domestic Qantas and Virgin Australia flights.
Qantas' business class breakfast selection (shown here from Brisbane to Darwin) is familiar territory for many long-time frequent flyers: a frittata, sausage, spinach, tomato relish with a yoghurt, fresh fruit and a bakery item.
A hot chicken-and-veg lunch, accompanied by cheese, crackers and the mandatory Lindt chocolate, was served on the return leg from Darwin to Brisbane.
Another hot Qantas lunch (this one from the diabetic special meal selection) served flying business class between Brisbane and Mackay.
For this 9.20am Sydney-Hobart flight: a kale, black bean and broccoli salad (matched with a Heirloom Pinot Grigio).
Switching over to Virgin Australia business class: breakfast on the popular Sydney-Melbourne route is a boxed serve of cereal, milk, snacks and a bakery item (two chocolate brownies).
Post-breakfast, the snack boxes shift their focus to, well, a variety of snacks, where the closest thing to a simple sandwich is a bag of baked Lavosh crackers.
If this contest is about business class meals, then Qantas wins without even trying – although it bears repeating that Virgin's snack boxes are a temporary measure, with the challenger's new business class experience yet to be revealed.
Also worth taking into consideration is less the difference in food than the difference in airfares.
As a rule, Virgin's business class tickets now cost significantly less than Qantas as the challenger shifts to its new mid-market 'value' trajectory.
Depending on the route and to an extent the popularity of the flight, the delta is several hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars – and that'll buy you a pretty decent meal on its own.
How the fares compare
To illustrate, here's a spot check of Qantas and Virgin Australia business class pricing on several key domestic routes around the middle of January 2021.
Between Sydney and Melbourne, Qantas' business class fares mostly sat at $715, with some flights at $922 and a handful at $1,144.
Virgin Australia's rates were pegged at $449 for Business Saver and $599 for the flexible standard Business fare.
On the Sydney-Brisbane route, Qantas business class showed at a steady $900, with Virgin's business class fares again at $449 and $599.
For Melbourne-Brisbane business class, Qantas varied between $817 and $1,163, compared to Virgin Australia's $549 and $699.
Finally, the transcontinental trek from Sydney to Perth: Qantas showed only $2,571 tickets in business class, with Virgin at $999 and $1,299.
By any measure those are substantial differences, especially at a time when so many businesses are tightening their belts and travel budgets.
Admittedly, some other factors come into play.
One is frequency of service, and how well the airline's timetable suits your own schedule: Virgin doesn't always list as many flights as Qantas.
A solid example is the Sydney-Perth route, where our mid-January check showed Virgin Australia with only two flights per day against four or five by Qantas.
And most if not all of those Qantas flights were on an Airbus A330, which boasts a far superior business class experience for the five-hour trip than Virgin's Boeing 737s.
But again, this is part of the overall package – as are elements such as the lounge and inflight WiFi – and in the end it comes down to where the individual business traveller sees value.