My first trip report for some time. Quite a while in fact. I normally wouldn’t bother with what has been a very standard Australian domestic flight between Melbourne and Sydney, a trip I have made so often it’s almost dull. But, with a semi-new player taking to the skies here, and a dirt cheap round trip purchased, I present this humble report from a place where flying is still not only possible, but being actively encouraged to kick-start domestic tourism.
Like most of the rest of the world, COVID-19 has taken a fair toll on the Australian aviation industry. Tiger Airlines has not survived. Virgin Australia nearly went under, but has managed to stave off bankruptcy, but is a mere rump of itself. Qantas and Jetstar have largely remained intact, albeit operating on a reduced (but gradually increasing) capacity. One airline here, however, has managed to achieve the impossible, and expand their horizons. Regional Express (REX), an airline connecting capitals with small and often remote towns with a fleet of SAAB 340s, has joined the jet age, and started flying trunk routes between capitals.
How they have achieved this is interesting, but essentially, they’re using former Virgin Australia aircraft and crew, and offering a competitive price-point. I managed to snag a return flight for a weekend trip from Melbourne to Sydney for <$100 including luggage, which is nothing to sneeze at here. I was keen to sample what REX might offer in a jet aircraft, having flown them regionally a couple of times.
So, with that in mind, one Friday evening after work I turned up to T4 at Melbourne Tullamarine Airport to begin my REX adventure!
I had checked in online, but still needed to drop off my bag. I fronted the counter where two staff were sitting waiting. A cheerful good afternoon was bade, followed by “Are you flying to Sydney on the 8pm?” When I replied affirmative, the lady said “good, because we don’t have any other flights today!”. A strange conversation, but very much keeping with the straight-talking attitude of an airline used to serving countryfolk.
I had pre-booked 26D (at cost), but was offered an emergency exit seat for no additional fee – which I gladly accepted. My bag was tagged by a human and I was given a boarding pass printed on thin paper.
After I moved away from the counter, I did see the self-check in and bag drop area for REX, so I could have done it all myself – but nice to speak with a human. As you can see, there are no other flights of an evening, the rest listed were the next day’s flights.
With time to kill, I got a bite to eat in the terminal, and wandered to the gate. Now, T4 at Tullamarine is a tale of two terminals. Firstly, are the close gates, the remaining part of what was originally part of Terminal 3, before it was redeveloped. These gates used to be used by Tiger, and adjoin the retail and food area. They have seating, and are comfortable enough to wait at. The remaining gates, used by Jetstar, are a good 10-15 min walk along a corridor, have very little seating, and are generally unpleasant places to be. Fortunately, REX jet flights use the closer gates, so I could sit comfortably and enjoy a view of VH-REX, as well as the setting sun
Boarding was announced on time, and an orderly queue was formed. Despite masks being a requirement to be in all Australian airports, and for all flights, a number of passengers were given masks and reminded to wear them.
ZL182 MEL – SYD 19 March 2021
STD: 2000hrs (on time)
STA: 2130 (arrived about 2110 from memory)
On board, I expected to see an ex-Virgin aircraft, and I was not disappointed. They’ve really only made changes to the livery, nothing to the interior. Same “business class” first couple of rows, then the tried and true charcoal leather with Virgin coloured head rests.
I found my seat, and made myself comfortable. In a double win, I only had a seat mate at the window, with space in between us. For $49, this flight was becoming seriously good value and comfortable! Slowly, the rest of the passengers came on board, but I’d estimate we were only 60% full. The FA gave us the usual “you are sitting at an exit row” spiel, showed us the special cards, but largely left us to read them on our own. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about REX is that they don’t treat you like a complete moron – they assume, rightly or wrongly, adults are capable of understanding instructions and don’t need to be spoon-fed. That said, I’m almost sure these staff would have been ex-Virgin, so they retained the highly professional edge that some of their SAAB-based counterparts have lost. Not a criticism, just a commentary.
Pushback was on time, we taxied out past the other terminals to the East-West runway, and took off fairly promptly. Flight time to Sydney is booked in at 90 mins, but this is mostly to allow for ground congestion, especially in Sydney. Actual flying time if there are no delays in the air is around 1 hour. So given the quiet skies, we landed well and truly early.
The overall flight itself was pretty straightforward as you’d expect. There was a magazine to read (JQ seem to have done away with theirs for now), and service was a pack of mixed nuts and a glass of water. Beer and wine were available for purchase, but there was no menu, so I guess you would be given whatever they had on hand. Soft drinks may have also been available, but I didn’t partake in anything except for my snack and water.
Crew were attentive, announcements were made as one would expect. After landing, my bag was available within about 1 minute of getting to the belt, and I made a train 15 mins earlier than I expected. It was 20 mins from doors opening after landing to getting on the train, so I cannot complain at all about that!
In fact, there’s nothing to complain about at all. A 1 hour domestic flight was enough to know that if REX can keep up a competitive price-point, a frequent enough service, and crucially, seamless connections through to other cities or regional areas, they should be able to survive (assuming Australia manages to remain largely COVID-free and internal borders remain open). They have already expanded to Adelaide and the Gold Coast from Melbourne and Sydney, so anything is possible.
To summarise, REX are basically flying as Virgin-lite (which Virgin themselves are also doing). So, given they’re operating ex-Virgin metal, ex-Virgin crew, expanding in to Virgin routes, and offering a similar service to what Virgin do…it’s hard not to nickname them anything other than VIRGINAL EXPRESS!