- A solidly familiar business class seat
- Friendly and genuinely happy crew
- Affordable fares, even at the pointy end
- Some meals need work
- For now, no WiFi or frequent flyer scheme
- A new challenger for east coast business travellers
Long known as a regional airline flying nimble Saab turboprops, Rex has now joined the Boeing 737 jet set with an ambitious plan to challenge Qantas and Virgin Australia for a slice of key capital city markets.
That plan took flight on March 1 2021 with the debut of direct Rex Boeing 737 flights between Sydney and Melbourne. The airline has already announced that Adelaide and the Gold Coast will follow, while Brisbane and Canberra are also in the pipeline.
That network comes courtesy of six Boeing 737s, which ironically used to be leased to Virgin, with the option to add four more by the end of 2021.
Rex sees its position as being a value-oriented airline – again, similar to Virgin Australia after its rescue and reboot by US owners Bain Capital – with affordable yet all-inclusive pricing.
For business class, this means appealing to the self-employed – people who run their own business and treat the company's money as their own, because basically it is ;– as well as business travellers flying on 'best fare of the day' rules or working a project with tight budget constraints.
Also in the mix are the many leisure travellers who'd appreciate moving up to the pointy end of the plane for a little extra comfort.
With all that in mind, here's how the Rex Boeing business class experience shakes out. This review is based on flights between Sydney and Melbourne (ZL33 and ZL152).
How much does Rex Boeing 737 business class cost?
What you pay for your ticket is an essential yardstick in determining the overall 'value' of a flight, especially on short routes such as Sydney-Melbourne, where you'll spend around 90 minutes in the air.
As with any new entrant into a market, Rex rolled out eye-popping prices: Sydney-Melbourne business class launched at $299, with subsequent discounting across March to $199.
Looking at the back half of April 2021, after school holidays have ended, and Rex's Sydney-Melbourne fares are still sitting at $299.
These rates are still being matched by Virgin Australia, while Qantas is north of $700.
As for the second wave of routes: at the time of writing (early March 2021) Rex's Sydney-Gold Coast and Melbourne-Gold Coast business class fares were pegged at $299 and $349, respectively, with Melbourne-Adelaide business class also at $299.
The take-away: Rex's low pricing has to be taken into account in setting your expectations of its overall business class experience.
Rex airport lounges at Sydney, Melbourne
Speaking of 'setting expectations', Rex's Sydney and Melbourne lounges are simply not in the same league as those of the Qantas (even the Qantas Club) or Virgin Australia lounges.
As Rex's heritage is that of a regional airline flying regional routes, its lounges are closer to a pared-back regional model.
If anything, they represent the most basic and perhaps even the original definition of what an airport lounge should be: a quiet behind-closed-doors space away from the main public terminal and departure gate where selected travellers have no trouble finding a comfortable chair and can enjoy a complimentary cuppa (for coffee, think Nespresso rather than barista) and a light snack, with WiFi also on tap.
Those closed doors swing open for not only business class passengers but members of the paid Rex Lounge program, Priority Pass cardholders and, outside of peak weekday hours, casual 'walk-ups' at $33 per visit.
We've previously reviewed Rex's Sydney Airport Terminal 2 lounge in detail, and in the COVID-19 era all that's changed is food and drinks moving from self-serve to being available on request at the counter.
During our mid-morning visit the selection included breakfast cereals, fruit, wrapped muffins and pastries and a variety of instant noodles, plus chips, biscuits and nuts.
(Rex intends to open a new lounge at Sydney T2 before the end of 2021, boasting not only a larger footprint but an upstairs location with views over the airfield.)
Oddly, Rex's Melbourne lounge – nestled away in a distant corner of Terminal 4 – remained in self-serve mode during our visit.
Flying Rex Boeing 737 business class
All of Rex's first six Boeing 737-800 jets were formerly leased to Virgin Australia, which shed almost half its fleet (and thousands of pilots, crew, ground staff and office employees) in a dramatic downsizing under new owners Bain Capital.
Rex retained Virgin's fitout, including the same leather-clad business class seats, purple perspex divider and even the magnetic 'thou shalt not pass' cable separating business and economy cabins (which still boast Virgin's extra legroom and standard economy seats).
As such, any reader who's flown in Virgin Australia's Boeing 737 business class will find nothing new about the Regional Express equivalent, apart from the headrests which now bear Rex branding.
There are eight business class recliners, spread across two rows of four; each seat is 19.5" wide, with a centre console offering elbow room and a small (shared) extendable tray for drinks or snacks, and a business-only lav up front.
However, unlike Qantas' Boeing 737 business class, the Rex seats have no swing-up legrest at the front, nor handy AC/USB power outlets.
The lack of powerpoints is far from a deal-breaker, especially on short hops up and down the east coast, but nobody ever said "No" to a quick top-up of their smartphone, tablet or even laptop when there's work to be done.
We certainly hope that should Rex attack the east-west transcontinental market with its proposed second tranche of four more ex-Virgin Boeing 737s, they'll either come with AC/USB or see those slots fitted.
Row 1 of Rex' Boeing 737 faces the bulkhead, so even travellers of average height will find their feet propped up against the wall rather than being able to fully stretch out; you'll also need to place any carry-on bag (even a compact laptop bag or purse) into the overhead locker instead of keeping it within easy reach.
Choosing a seat in row 2, however, affords more useful legroom plus under-seat stowage.
(For what it's worth, it's not just the aircraft which came from Virgin: on our two Rex Boeing 737 flights, most of the flight deck and cabin crew were former Virgin Australia employees.
Several actually begin their careers in aviation at regional carrier Hazelton Airlines, which was eventually folded into Ansett Australia and later merged with sibling Ansett subsidiary Kendell Airlines to create Regional Express, so there was more than a bit of 'full circle' there.)
Finally, Rex permits business class passengers a flat 32kg of checked luggage and allows at-airport standby to move to an earlier flight at no charge, if your meetings wrap up early – as long as you're prepared to risk going to the airport in the hope of there being an empty seat on an earlier flight.
Rex Boeing 737 business class meals
So you've spent a brief spell at the Rex lounge (they're not ones you'd arrive early for), settled into your Rex Boeing 737 business class seat and are once again above the clouds... how's the food and drink?
On the Sydney-Melbourne corridor, you've got barely 90 minutes in the air, so inflight meals can assume outsize importance: when else in life can you not go 90 minutes without eating?
But in business class, meals are a given, and there are times when the schedule of a busy traveller – sometimes mornings, more often evenings – means that the only chance at having anything like a 'proper' meal at a normal time will be when you're flying.
Rex promises it business class flyers are served meals that "take in the flavour combinations of home-style country cooking with a weekly showcase of gourmet ingredients from some of our exceptional Australian producers."
Depending on the time of day, highlights are promised to include Tasmanian smoked salmon, Australian artisan cheeses from Bruny Island and Gippsland, and hand-made desserts.
On our evening flight, the dinner service offered a choice between
- slow-braised beef in red wine with soft polenta and greens (accompanied by a delicious lime, yoghurt and coconut cake from Sydney's Little Secret Bakery)
- Bruny Island cheese platter: wedges of a hard French-style 'raw milk' unpasteurised cheese, a medium with pinot-washed rind, and a soft white mould similar to a brie, served with wheat crackers, quince paste and some grapes
We opted for both, although thoughtfully shared the cheese platter with our seat-mate.
While obviously on the lighter side for a main meal, the cheese platter was delightful, as was the accompanying Robert Oatley GSM from South Australia's McLaren Vale.
(Other wines on pour were a Wildflower savblanc from Margaret River and an Oakridge Yarra Valley Rose; Rex says all its wines are "sourced from smaller boutique vineyards across Australia to give you a taste of what this beautiful country has to offer.")
On the other hand, the beef sounded promising but the presentation alone was unappealing, and as for taste, it fell short of the mark for what you'd expect from any domestic business class flight.
Rex's decision to adopt single-use 'environmentally-friendly' materials may raise some eyebrows from those who prefer more conventional dinnerware: the business class meals arrive on cardboard trays, in cardboard and paper containers, and even the cutlery is made from bamboo.
What Rex Boeing 737 business class doesn't have...
There are some areas where Rex falls short of the established expectations of many business travellers and frequent flyers.
The airline offers no app, and its website could be most charitably described as 'retro' – although there's still online check-in and DIY boarding pass printing, and in concert with the launch of the Sydney-Melbourne jet services, check-in kiosks and bag drop facilities now adjoin the Rex airport counters.
However, on our trip, there was no priority lane through Sydney or Melbourne airport security for business class passengers – another time- and hassle-saver normally enjoyed by Qantas and Virgin flyers.
And while Rex's ex-Virgin jets came fitted with inflight Internet and at-seat video screens, at the time of writing neither WiFi nor inflight entertainment were running.
Executive Traveller understands that Rex intends to flick the WiFi switch once the necessary contracts and approvals are in place, with free WiFi part of the package for business class flyers.
Finally, unlike Qantas and Virgin Australia, Regional Express currently has no frequent flyer program for individuals.
The airline plans to rework and reboot its old Rex Flyer rewards scheme potentially in 2022, while also refreshing the still-available Rex Business Flyer program aimed at businesses.
"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," Regional Express Deputy Chairman John Sharp told Executive Traveller in the lead-up to Rex's Sydney-Melbourne launch.
Read more: The (eventual) return of Rex Flyer
Summary: Rex Boeing 737 business class
You can use our experience to judge Rex's Boeing 737 business class for yourself, or – and this is not unrealistic, given the airline's very keen pricing – book a flight with Rex and make your own call.
If you're just doing a city-to-city trip such as Sydney-Melbourne, Sydney-Gold Coast or Melbourne-Adelaide, Rex's primary appeal will be price: but at the time of writing, Virgin Australia is matching Rex's Boeing 737 business class fares of $299 or $349.
Once Virgin launches its new business class catering (expected by the end of March) and potentially brings back free WiFi (which for now remains TBA), the combination of Virgin's better lounges and Velocity Frequent Flyer program may tilt the travelscape in its favour.
We get the feeling that the new battleground for Sydney-Melbourne business travellers is more likely to be Rex vs Virgin than Rex vs Qantas or indeed Rex vs Everybody Else.
However, Rex is still worth sampling and should be saluted for bringing a fresh dose of competition to the business class duopoly.
The author travelled as a guest of Rex.