Earlier on in the year I wrote a video and picture trip report about Virgin Australia's brand new domestic business class offering on their boeing 737-800 aircraft, their most popular body in their fleet. You can view that report right here. They've recently poised themselves to take a slice of the lucrative business traveller market in Australia, a market which Qantas has had a monopoly over since the spectacular collapse of Ansett in 2001. Virgin Australia has now become a full service carrier, with proper lounges, a decent business class offering, and a ever expanding partner airline list. They still have a long way to go, as I alluded to in my previous report, Virgin Australia are going to have a hard time being a real threat to Qantas without the backing of a large international alliance such as Star Alliance, much like Ansett was. Virgin Australia's interline agreements with odd bedfellows like Delta, Singapore Airlines, AirNZ and Etihad means that joining an alliance is a little tricker for Virgin than first meets the eye.
Meanwhile on the Qantas front, everyone is constantly being reminded how the flag carrier of Australia is haemorrhaging money, and needing to lay off staff, and shift its.maintenance.bases off shore (leading to the rather dramatic union strikes late last year). However by Qantas' own admission, its domestic business is performing extremely well. So how does Australia's legacy carrier compare to the fresh new face of Virgin and its assault on the business traveller? I am remiss for not posting this trip report much earlier on in the year but haven't had a chance to fly this segment in business up until the other week. I strongly encourage you to read both my previous trip report, and this one in order to get an idea of the differences between the two product. And it's here that any differences should become important, because this trip report is the exact same route as my last (MEL-HBA), on the exact same type of aircraft (B738), but with two different carriers. Let the comparisons begin.
I had been in melbourne for the week for a big scary job interview, as well as a Lady Gaga concert, which was fantastic by the way. I had a truly excellent stay at the Sofitel on Collins in melbourne, one of Accors flagship properties in the capital of Victoria. What's great about the sofitel in melbourne is that Accor AClub Platinum status is actually recognised, a rare event now that everyone seems to be AClub platinum.
I booked the cheapest room availible but was automatically upgraded upon checkin to a king luxury room on the 45th floor. Excellent show. Even better, upon entering the room was a little gift, a fruit platter, some pralines, a signed welcome card by the hotel manager and a half bottle of Moet brut imperial, whilst not being my favorite sparkler is still a fantastic gesture. The views were pretty spectacular as well.
I've also posted a video review of the hotel which you should also check out...
Qantas and Jetstar operate out of Terminal 1 at Melbourne international airport. T2 is international, and T3 is Virgin Australia. Most of the depatures level of T1 have been replaced by Qantas computer kiosks, qantas' so called 'new checkin experienced' launched almost 2 years ago. Everything is automated, you go up to a kiosk, enter your details, and then your boarding pass is printed and your baggage tags, which you have to stick on yourself. Then you go over to the bag-drop conveyer belts, which have a touch screen next to them. You pop your bag onto the belt, scan your boarding pass, some lasers scan your bag, and your bag.disappears. It's all rather clever really, and totally dispenses with any human interaction at checkin whatsoever. That may or may not be to some peoples tastes, but I don't mind. For the most part its really rather quick and efficient, and you have to be a bit of a nonce to muck it up. There aren't any priority kiosks for business class passengers, and sometimes at busier hours, its hard to find a kiosk free and you have to wait for one to free up.
Regular check in desks still exist, but there are only about 3 which seem to have a constant line up. I guess not everyone wants to check in with a computer? All in all the checkin experience is .better than Virgin at melbourne, who are still confined to the cramped terminal 3 with traditional style checkin desks. It should also be noted that Qantas passengers who only have carry on baggage can check in at the Qantas club or the Qantas business lounge, much the same with Virgin.
The inescapable long lines of MEL security. 3 lanes for all of Qantas, and all of Jetstar, moving extremely slowly due to fat idiots who argue the point of not being able to bring on their spray can.deodorant.on the plane because they stink like a pig.
Qantas operates both a domestic business class lounge at MEL, and a Qantas club. For non-australians, Qantas club is a paid membership lounge, you pay $800+ plus per year for lounge access at Qantas Clubs (which are like regular lounges except they're loud, extremely busy, and generally worse). I've never understood people who buy qantas club access, because if you'd be flying enough to take advantage of lounges to make the $800 outlay worth it, then you'd probably be a Qantas Gold member anyway, in which case you'd get lounge access for free. A bit silly, if you ask me. Either way the Qantas Club is HUGE and there are people everywhere, and lots of screaming children. I think i'd much rather go wait at the boarding gate.
What is rather funny is that when you go up the escalators to the Qantas Club, the singular lounge dragon is there furiously working at her computer terminal. I walk up to her to show her my boarding pass, and without me even getting my boarding pass out, she says "oh you're fine, go through". I observed how everyone else just kinda... walked through. Boarding passes weren't being checked, Qantas Club cards weren't being checked. Kind of hilarious? Anyone could go in. Not a complaint, merely an observation.
The business lounge in melbourne is located within the Qantas club, so you go into Qantas Club, and then into the business lounge. A lounge within a lounge, get it? I like the domestic business lounge in melbourne. It's a big lounge, but not nearly big enough. The place gets B U S Y at peak hours. It's a real struggle to find a seat, and everyone has their eyes on the lucrative seats with tarmac views. Mostly everyone in the lounge are suits, returning to Sydney, Brisbane or Perth after a long day of busy, busy business in busy melbourne.
.The food offerings are great though, and there's a constantly manned bar serving up a good selection of Aussie beers, wine, and mixed drinks. Also, proper coffee is served and there is a barista who actually knows what they're doing. Qantas loses points for the coffee machine only operating during peak times (where as the virgin lounge coffee machine is constantly staffed), but the coffee is waaaaay better in the Qantas lounge. Qantas uses vittoria coffee, which is not by any means fantastic, but nice and strong (owing to its 10% robusta blend). My drinks of choices whilst in the lounge are a caffe latte, a gin and tonic (they use gordons - yuck!), and an excellent Seppelt Sparkling. Food wise, I was hungry and hadn't eaten, so I had a bit of a the marinated beef cooked in pale ale with rice, some salad, a mexican tomato and lentil soup, and a slice of seriously good apple cake with my coffee. That beats the virgin lounge food and drink offering any day.
The view from my seat... nothing much to look at for now...
A stockboard for all the businessmen doing their business... look at those guys over there on the right, they look busy.
You can even have a shower if you're that way inclined. These showers are not nearly as nice as the ones in the virgin lounge, which were much more modern and had nice shampoos and conditioners as well. No such thing in the Qantas showers, and it was still a bit dirty and gross from the last businessman who took a shower in there.
QF1013 departing 19.20
Photo © Daniel Tang
Photo © Soon-Gyu Ko - Korea Aero Photos
Well, the flight. Boarding was called on time, and unlike virgin, a.separate.lane existed for business passengers, but everyone boarded at the same time. I was probably the third person down the jetway. And when we arrived at the door, the crew weren't quite ready for us. The head purser, who was a lovely middle aged lady (in true qantas fashion) was making minor adjustments in the galley before letting us on. A quick glance at the boarding pass, a "Welcome on board Mr Brimfield, 1C just to your right". Great start. Tried to take a few photos, but in between everyone walking down the aisles it was a little hard so I apologise for the lack of photos. Please check out the video trip .report as well, which has video of the lounges as well all in sexy high definition.
Cabin is in good condition, no better or worse than the virgin aircraft that I travelled on in my previous trip report. But then again the aircraft is not that old, entering service in 2008. Whilst the Qantas millenium business recliners are not as sexy as the leather draped Virgin seats, they are more comfortable, and have foot rests that extend from the base of the seat. Qantas has a new leather recliner on all its latest BSI 737's, with inseat AVOD but i'm yet to see it.
The flight actually ended up being 40 or so minutes late. We sat on the tarmac for about half an hour due to traffic delays, melbourne was down to 1 runway (instead of 3) so there was a rather large ATC hold. Not Qantas' fault so that's no reflection on them.
Before take off, we were offered sparkling water or juice. I opted for the latter which was quite yummy. All served in rather nice chunky glassware. Hot towel service also. I noticed that the chief purser was really quite personable when greeting passengers, she recognised passengers from connecting flights, as well as frequent flyers and addressed a fair few of them by first name. I think that's fantastic, and Qantas should be commended on having lovely people like that in their ranks. One thing I did notice about the crew in general is they seem to be so much more down to earth than Virgin crews. Most of them are a bit more senior, have been doing the job for a while and just seem really relaxed about it all. Whilst I didn't complain about the service I.received.on my virgin flight, this flight made the virgin crew seem rather rigid, and kind of uptight. .It's hard to explain the difference, the Virgin crew were a bit mechanical perhaps trying a bit hard to be better than Qantas. The Qantas crews are just a bit more natural, relaxed, and it actually makes it a better flight.
Food was pretty good too, it was a chicken glass noodle salad served with a Neil Perry.vinaigrette. The desert seemed a little stodgy, a little vanilla cupcake with mock cream, but then again my virgin meal didn't even come with a desert. I had this with a picollo bottle of a victorian yarra burn sparkling which not baaaad but not great (too much residual sugar but cute bottle!).
So conclusions... well, this is what I can say. Qantas has a lot going for it on the domestic front. It has a great rewards program, excellent crews, and a comfortable hard product. The food in the lounges is top notch, as is the checkin experience. Where is virgin doing better? Well, the Virgin lounge is much nicer in melbourne, thats for sure, but it's also much newer, and also a lot less busy. Not being able to find a seat in the business lounge at night time is a bit poor, and Qantas would really be wanting to get onto that. Also, Qantas' prices for their business fares are out of this world compared to Virgin who tend to be about 15-20% cheaper than Qantas. Business air travel is expensive in Australia, there's no getting around that, but price is going to be a major consideration for large businesses who need to make the decision between the two carriers. Where does this leave us then? Well, on the whole of things, I think that Qantas still comes out on top. It's product is largely more comprehensive than Virgins, largely due to the fact that Qantas is shifting a lot more pax than virgin are, but they've got the years of experience that Virgin lack which shows through the soft product. In time, Qantas will need to improve its hard product. refresh its lounges in order to keep up, but for now i'm giving Qantas the superior vote.
[Edited 2012-07-01 07:38:15]
[Edited 2012-07-01 07:38:56]