Qantas and Virgin Australia are going all-out in their competition for business travellers on Australia's lucrative cross-country route between Sydney and Perth.
The airline formerly known as Virgin Blue has debuted its new Airbus A330 Coast-to-Coast service. Qantas upped the ante by introducing a Boeing 747 with Skybeds onto the route, alongside its own new A330s.
Australian Business Traveller flew in Business Class on both the Virgin Australia A330 and Qantas 747 from Perth to Sydney, and compared these services across seven key areas:
- Inflight Entertainment
- Food and Wine
We've compared the Qantas Boeing 747 service against Virgin Australia's Airbus A330 because the jumbo is the Red Roo's big gun in this battle, as any glance at Qantas' recent marketing efforts will attest.
The cost of your business class return ticket between Sydney and Perth will depend on a number of factors, but for simplicity's sake we checked the price for a Tuesday-Friday trip in early July, using each airline's website.
Qantas came in at $3038, and Virgin Australia at $2798. The date of the booking also included Virgin Australia's free chauffeur service for getting to and from Sydney airport, although as the promotion ends on July 15 this won't be a factor if you're looking to travel later.
Is Qantas worth the $230 more on a return? Read on and decide for yourself.
Virgin Australia is currently running one daily Sydney-Perth service with an 0800 departure from Sydney, arriving into Perth at 1120; with the return leg leaving Perth at 1300 for touchdown in Sydney at 1910.
This is slated to increase to three times daily in July, although our test booking showed only two flights: out of Sydney at 0600 and 1300, wheels down at Perth at 0920 and 1620; with the return flights leaving at 1000 and 1600, arriving into Sydney at 1610 and 2210 respectively.
Qantas also has three daily Sydney-Perth services, of which one is the flagship Boeing 747 – this departs Sydney at 1010 to land at Perth at 1305. The return flight leaves at 1435 and arrives at 2020.
The other two flights use a Qantas Airbus 330 flight, but Qantas has four different cabin configurations for this. And while Qantas says it will run five "internationally-configured A330 services" on Sydney-Perth a Qantas spokesperson was unable to tell us which specific flights these would appear on services were dedicated to the A330, saying "our A330 services on our East-West have not been given specific flight numbers as they will be utilised across our schedule on different days."
The winner: This will largely depend on your own personal timetable and preferences.
Check-in at Perth
Virgin's Premium line is available for for Business, Premium Economy, Velocity Gold & Silver, and Corporate Plus or Flexible fares. Clearly marked out in purple, it's fast and friendly, with the agent enquiring if we'd had an enjoyable stay in Perth. Priority bags are marked with a purple tag -- and on arrival in Sydney they were out first, just as we arrived at the conveyor belt in Sydney.
(At Sydney, Virgin also offers curbside check-in and a dedicated fast-track security lane with direct lounge access if you've only got carry-on luggage, which is an incredibly speedy option.)
Qantas relies on its Q Bag Tag system, where you check yourself in at a kiosk and drop your bag. It's efficient, but lacks a personal touch for the top-paying passengers. However, you also have the option for human check-in in at a premium lane. The priority tagged bags came out shortly after landing in Sydney, with ours among the first ten off the belt.
The winner: We're calling a tie between the two, although during peak times at busier airports Qantas' self-checking and Q Bag Tags could give an advantage.
Qantas doesn't have a business lounge in Perth so everyone piles into the sizeable Qantas Club.
The food offerings were basic: cold noodles, salads, meats and cheeses, and crackers. The barista service is open only from 6am to 9.30am, and when we arrived the self-serve coffee machines were broken (although they were fixed during our stay). Alcoholic drinks were served only from noon, so a line was quickly forming for a hit of the hard stuff.
The Internet in the Qantas Club was noticeably slow. Seating is in a large room with breakout areas for groups of two or four, but with no meeting rooms.
Virgin Australia's The Lounge is downstairs, immediately past security. It offers only a reduced make-your-own-sandwich food selection with the addition of some pasta salad and dips, but has a choice of a half dozen different wines and a fridge full of interesting beers.
Coffee was barista-made and very good, and the Lounge Internet was speedy and responsive. There are several intimate areas for a quiet chat in various corners, two six-person meeting rooms and a business centre with four PCs.
The winner: Virgin Australia edges out Qantas. Should Qantas open a dedicated business lounge in Perth, along the same lines as its premium Sydney and Melbourne lounges – and when Virgin upgrades the Perth lounge to a similar standard as the new lounge concept from Tim Greer, like we saw in Melbourne last week - it would be a harder call. And of course, at the Sydney end of the trip, Qantas trumps Virgin Australia with its Sydney business lounge.
Virgin's A330 has a business class cabin with twenty-seven seats.
The Qantas 747-400 has three separate business class areas: twenty-four seats are on the upper deck, with the lower deck split between eighteen seats in the nose cabin and fourteen more behind that.
Qantas comes out on top here: the 2-2 seating in the nose and the upper deck are more private, quieter and generally better than the 2-3-2 in the A330. There's also one fewer of the middle seats of three -- where Virgin has three out of 27 as middle seats, Qantas has two out of 56.
But we'd be amiss not to point out that, with only a single Qantas 747 return each day - the other Qantas flights are on A330s. In that case the needle could swing either way, depending on whether the A330s Qantas uses that day are international-configuration Skybed planes, later domestic models with 2-2-2 seating or domestic aircraft with Business class configured more like Jetstar Premium Economy.
The winner: On the strict Airbus A330 vs Boeing 747 terms, Qantas takes this round. If we were looking at Qantas' A330 services things could shape up differently, especially if you were stuck in a middle seat on the Virgin Australia A330, as Qantas' A330 layout has no middle seat.
Qantas' first-generation Skybed on the 747 is an angled lie-flat seat rather than the fully flat bed of the Qantas A380. But it's still a comfortable international-grade business class seat, reclining smoothly from upright to lie-flat and with 60 inches of legroom.
Virgin's seat is the same recliner-style that Emirates used when it flew these A330s, although the seat has been reupholstered in a dark green leather and has a new glossy white shell. It doesn't go totally flat, which is a downside for a night flight, but we were surprised at how comfortable it was for the Perth flights. Legroom is 62 inches.
Qantas would have an advantage if its 747 were on red-eye night flights, where a better sleeping position is more important, although we know some frequent flyers who swear by recliner seats rather than lie-flat beds. But as our examination of the schedule shows, the 747 is on an afternoon flight, not a night flight, so it has no advantage here.
Of course, if Qantas' overnight A330 flight – which leaves Perth at 2355 and arrives in Sydney at 0660 – could reliably be expected to have the international-class A330 with the latest fuly-flat Skybeds, this would be a clear win. But, as mentioned earlier, Qantas has four different A330 configurations and isn't saying which flight gets which plane.
For day flights, we'd actually put Virgin Australia slightly ahead: the recliners have more padding in the right places and are more comfortable in seat mode, since they were designed to be seats rather than beds.
The winner: All in all, this one's a draw – depending on which flight you take, and at what time of day.
Virgin's entertainment is very much last-generation, with six looped movies and nine TV channels. It's not on-demand, so there's no way to pause what you're watching. There's also no 240V AC socket in the seats to keep your laptop or tablet charged up while you work or play during the long flight.
Qantas' audio-video on demand options on the 747 include 60 movies, 250 TV shows, 250 CDs plus radio and video games. There'll be more than enough to keep you occupied for the 3-5 hour flight across Australia. Qantas also has in-flight AC power.
The winner: Qantas by a long streak. On this long flight, you're likely to get bored and frustrated with Virgin's looping system. Virgin Australia has yet to unveil its new in-flight entertainment system, which they say will be a corker, but in this shootout they're clearly behind the curve.
Food and Wine
Quite frankly, Qantas' in-flight food was disappointing. The starter was a slice of cold roast beef on black bread, which was below par: dry and chewy, and it didn't look particularly interesting. All the food is oven-warmed in one go in the same dish, so the Malaysian-style barramundi and the rice that accompanied it were cooked at the same time, which resulted in very tough fish and dry rice.
The steak our seatmate had was beyond well-done. The presentation in general was below par for a five-hour flight's business class meal, being served in the same oven container it was cooked in. Dessert was chocolate cake, ice cream in a plastic tub, or a cheese plate, with a cheddar-style and a blue cheese with apricots, grapes and crackers.
Qantas offered three different types of wine: one Shiraz, one Cabernet Sauvignon, one Semillon. No port or dessert wine was offered, although the crew were relatively knowledgeable about the wine selection. No pre-departure champagne was offered.
Virgin's food was seriously good, and its wine list -- plus celebrity chef Luke Mangan's signature The Australian cocktail -- top-notch. A three-course meal with an elegant dessert and coffee trolley lasts most of the eastbound day flight, and is a great way to spend the time in the air.
Of particular note was Virgin's inclusion of a decent champagne -- a Lanson 99 Gold Label Brut -- as a pre-departure drink and in-flight. The rest of Virgin's wine list is extensive too, with a varying selection of four wines and a port or dessert wine loaded on each flight. (The selection comes from a wine list of eight wines, a port and a dessert wine). The A330 crew were all sent on a wine appreciation course, so know their wines. And individualised service -- with the starter and salads being dressed on the trolley for each passenger, and the main put together with toppings and accompaniments in a fresh dish -- can't be beat.
When comparing the two celebrity chefs' involvements, Virgin's Luke Mangan seemed to be everywhere, with pages in the menu and specific mentions in various places on the wine list and the service. The food was well put together and interestingly created. Qantas' Neil Perry, by comparison, was nowhere in evidence, with boring steak-and-mash and fish-curry-and-rice options that didn't shout gourmet.
The winner: We're calling food and wine as a strong win in the Virgin Australia column.
Virgin's service was impeccable, with crew addressing us by name the moment we started to settle into our seat. Coats and jackets were whisked away in exchange for a glass of champagne and a Bulgari amenity kit, and our things were returned at the end in a Virgin Australia-branded garment bag. Putting things into comparison with the many international airlines we've flown, Virgin's crew were truly world-class.
Qantas' service was efficient and professional, addressing passengers by name, but lacked warmth. Coats and jackets were taken away when a pre-departure drink -- no champagne or amenity kit -- was offered, but with no snazzy garment bag. The service was up to Qantas' usual domestic service standards, but not exceptional when compared with international service, even on Qantas.
The winner: This one's more of a tie as well, with a slight advantage to Virgin for the thought that went into the garment bag and warmer crew -- but we fully acknowledge that this preference is our own rather than a measurable difference.
And the winner is...
The Battle of the Business Classes seems to be a rough draw: Virgin wins a few skirmishes, and so does Qantas. Some of the categories we rated them on proved to be very close calls, and every clear win by Qantas saw Virgin Australia score an equaliser.
It also comes down to your own habits and preferences. Qantas might win on a night flight if its A330 has a second-gen Skybed; ditto if you care more about movies and getting work done than enjoying food and wine. How much you pay for your ticket will likely have a large bearing as well.
And in the end, the real winner is you, the business traveller. You've multiple options to consider when picking between the two airlines, and the current level of competition between Qantas and Virgin Australia has clearly raised the bar on coast-to-coast flights.