It was a battle of epic proportions. The upstart Virgin Blue versus the embattled Qantas, the jets from the jungle Embraer against the mighty Boeing, while Bombardier volleys shots from the side. Who will win the day?
Okay, maybe I'm being overly dramatic for a 25 minute flight, but I needed some reason to write another trip report
for the short flight between Sydney and Canberra.
I had only flown Virgin Blue twice before, back in 2004, between Sydney and Rockhampton to attend my father's funeral. We shared a row with a partly intoxicated airline neophyte and passed through storms that had passengers screaming. Not a great first impression.
Anyway, I was eager to give them a second go, this time with more seasoned eyes. When the opportunity came up to attend a meeting in our nation's capital I searched for a way to include at least one Virgin Blue leg in my itinerary. It would also give me a first chance to fly in one of the new Embraer EMB 170 jets, or "Capital Jets" as Virgin call them.
My return leg was to be on a Qantas Boeing 737-400, partly because I wanted to compare the service, but also because the times were much more convenient. The price difference between the two services was $24 and considering that I bought the cheapest fares I can't be accused of wasting taxpayer funds to satisfy my aviation addict needs!
I checked in online as soon as I could on the day prior to departure, choosing my own seats. Online check-in is a great service, meaning that you can reach the airport even later, an important consideration for an early morning flight.
I woke early, my head still suffering from the effects of a cold and a Sunday spent trying to write up my presentation. We left the house before sunrise and as I sat on the train to the airport I could see patches of white frost on the ground besides the tracks.
CityRail Millenium train to the airport
Sydney Airport is at its best early in the morning and in the evening, when the sun casts a softer light against the hard angles of the terminal buildings. With my boarding pass printout I was able to bypass the long queues at the check-in desks and make my way straight through security.
T2 entrance from the train station
Virgin Blue check-in desks
Jetstar check-in desks
The airside facilities were much improved from my previous two visits to the terminal, with a wide range of eateries and shops. But these held no interest for me and I walked to my gate in the hope of engaging in some plane spotting, to set myself in the mood for my flight.
CARRIER: Virgin Blue
AIRCRAFT: Embraer 170
My departure gate was 39 and just beyond this was the end of the gate pier, offering wonderful views over the runways and international terminal. I watched the elegant Virgin Atlantic A346 be towed out to a remote stand next to Singapore Airline’s A380 and an orange and silver Jetstar A320 decorated with a Sea World livery taxi out from its gate. And then there were all the Dash 8’s, 737’s, 767’s and assorted other aircraft landing, taking-off, taxiing and just sitting there waiting. Each had a story to tell, an exotic destination or departure point, passengers from across the country and the world.
Virgin Blue 737
Virgin Atlantic A346
Jetstar A320 Sea World livery
Singapore Airlines A380
My own aircraft was quite small in comparison to the majority of behemoths out there. A 78 seat Embraer 170, pointed nose and thin winglets, red and white with touches of blue, silver wings. It was to be only my second flight on an Embraer, having flown a narrow Sichuan Airlines ERJ-145 between Chengdu and Yichang in China last year.
Our Virgin Blue Embraer 170 Brazilian Blue
The cabin felt quite a bit larger in this model. We boarded through a jetway and into the front entrance of the aircraft. I passed the three rows of premium seating and took my place in seat 9F on the right hand side of the white walled cabin. My seat was upholstered in blue leather with red highlight on the headrest. I can’t say I really liked the colour scheme, though it matches their utterly unsubtle corporate identity.
The aircraft still looked brand new, although there was no “new plane” smell – or maybe my nose was just too congested to detect it! Legroom was fine and the seat was comfortable. Fortunately nobody sat next to me so I had plenty of space. Certainly, it was more spacious than its closest competitor on the Sydney-Canberra route, QantasLink’s 72 seat Dash 8 Q400.
We pulled out from the gate on time and began our long taxi out to the more northerly Runway 16L, which I hadn’t been on for a long while. The crew began their safety demonstration. No humour here, but then this is not one of their leisure runs and they probably don’t want to offend some dour public servant (not that all of us are humourless!). The only male flight attendant looked strangely familiar. Surely that wasn’t Dislocated David Williams of Jetstar’s “Going Places” documentary and advertising fame. Flying on Virgin Blue? I resolved to ask.
The nominal trip time is 55 minutes, but half an hour of that is probably spent just taxiing out to the runway. I had plenty of opportunities to watch other aircraft operations during that time. Another decorated Jetstar A320, this one in support of the Australian Kangaroos rugby league team landed, followed later by another sports-themed aircraft, Air China’s Olympic red and yellow A330 touching down on runway 16R. It was thrilling to watch the drama of these descents from so close.
Go Roos - Jetstar A320
Air China Olympic livery
LAN Chile A340
Asiana 772 - flown on this plane before and prefer this old livery
Jetstar A332 - been on a few of these lately
Eventually we reached the end of our runway and positioned to begin our take-off towards the north, our backs to the water. The thrust felt especially powerful against my back racing down the runway. My seat was pushed back and felt a little flimsy as we leapt into the air. We quickly turned east, taking us over the warehouses and factories of Botany. As we kept turning the runways of Sydney airport became visible to my right, twin fingers jutting out into Botany Bay.
The previous day’s sky had been perfectly clear, but as we continued out across the coast and over the ocean we ascended into a thin layer of clouds. I hate clouds, because they imply turbulence, though I knew that the shaking wouldn’t last long through this cloudbank. The jet did shake and bump with rapid oscillations that were actually quite unpleasant. I shouldn’t like to be in this jet during rough weather.
We turned south for a while, parallel with the tall sandstone cliffs of the Royal National Park coastline and Illawara Escarpment. Then, as we approached Wollongong, the heading moved inland and across the bushland, water reservoirs and fog filled valleys of the Illawara.
With an actual flight time of only 25 minutes there is no real time spent in cruise. The Capital Jets have no onboard entertainment, no seatback screens. Meals were offered for a price, but I had no interest in eating.
While the landscape below changed from bushland to a yellow patchwork of farms the skies had changed from clear to high grey cloud. The cloud and the early morning sun lent the landscape a wonderful, mystical light as we began our descent into Canberra.
More shakes as we crossed over the hills on our way into Canberra’s airport. I was on the wrong side of the aircraft to see if there was snow on the ranges. Instead I watched us cross the slightly less interesting landscape of new housing developments, a racecourse and a quarry as our aircraft got closer and closer to the ground.
Finally we touched down on the tarmac, passing the government jets, Qantas aircraft and even a Tiger flight as we sought out our gate. The flight crew thanked us for flying Virgin Blue and announced that the temperature outside was zero degrees Celcius.
As the other passengers hurriedly disembarked I lingered, taking the opportunity to ask one of the attendants if I was correct about David Williams. Indeed I was, though as he was busy collecting rubbish in the back of the airport I didn’t have a chance to find out why he was now with Virgin Blue. It probably explains why on my three trips with Jetstar International I had never observed any familiar faces from “Going Places”!
Fortunately our flight must have come in earlier than a number of others because soon after I reached the taxi rank the queue suddenly extended a lot further behind me. It was a fair wait for taxis at the airport with all the public servants, consultants and journalists arriving for day or week long meetings just like me.
As I sat in my meeting room I noticed the sky clearing up for a sunny day and was happy. That is, until a front arrived later in the afternoon, rain descended from the clouds like a mass of jellyfish tendrils and the trees shaking wildly in the wind. Not another flight into a storm like last time, I hoped.
By the time the meeting closed the skies had mostly cleared again. I returned to the airport with more than an hour to kill. Canberra’s Airport Terminal is not a particularly interesting place, with only a couple of shops. Not being a member of any airline club all I could do was to sit in the black and red Qantas gate lounge and watch the aircraft movements in the evening light, read my newspaper, listen to music and relax after an intense day of intranet planning.
Qantas Boeing 738
Tiger A320 - not a sight you see in Sydney
My Qantas 734 flight - boarding soon
AIRCRAFT: Boeing 737-400
It was dark outside by the time we boarded our Qantas 737-400 through the jet bridge. I was surprised to see that the aircraft seats had been reupholstered with the new grey and gold honeycomb fabric. I won’t say that it is particularly attractive, but it’s nicer than the rundown blue fabric from my last flight with them.
I was disappointed to see that my seat 17F was just behind the wing. I hadn’t been able to reserve anything close to the front, despite checking in very early online. The aircraft was packed and I felt a little squished width wise by the other two people in the seats adjacent to me, the cabin having a 3x3 arrangement.
Apparently many of these passengers had been moved from an earlier Q400 QantasLink flight where a computer had failed just before departure. Thankfully I was to experience none of Qantas’ recent failures on this flight.
I had accepted a headset during boarding and plugged it into the seat audio socket, listening to live ABC radio for an Olympic update. The cabin was also equipped with ceiling mounted CRT monitors. During the flight a news update was screened followed by a recent episode of The Hollowmen. I wondered if it was appropriate to display a comedy about the goings-on of the Prime Minister’s policy unit on a flight in or out of Canberra. Too close to home for many! After coming out of a meeting with communicators and marketing types I could certainly appreciate it.
Take-off from Canberra seems to involve an inordinate amount of taxiing for such a small airport. We lifted off into a darkness marked only by runway and street lights. Canberra is an attractive city at night from above, but the 734 is a confidant aircraft on ascent and it was soon a featureless black outside of the window.
The professionally attired and experienced cabin crew began serving food and drink before while we still angled upwards, pushing the trolleys against the inclined gravity. Our snack was a tandoori chicken roll with Turkish bread, quite decent really, along with a soft drink or alcohol. The two ladies next to me were both given quaint little wine bottles.
Our short cruise was soon over and the crew began collecting the rubbish. Suddenly the flight became really rough. Oh no! The seatbelt lights were switched on and a terse message from the flight deck ordered everyone back to their seats. I watched the wing lights to indicate where we were in the clouds. I knew it was cloud that was doing this, probably the weather front that I had seen in Canberra. We rose and dropped suddenly. But the 734 handled it better, stronger, than its lighter cousin in the EMB 170.
I knew that it would soon be over and was very glad when we emerged from the cloud to see the city lights beneath us. We came in from the north-west and over the Parramatta River, descending over floodlit sports fields, mercury lit streets and neon signs, before finally touching down at the airport. As we pulled into the gate I watched the full moon rise above the horizon, a yellow globe between the blue and red lights of the terminal structure.
I was soon back in the terminal and straight down to the train station for the ride home. And when I climbed into our car at the other end and was greeted by my wife, unborn child and an excited dog I knew that, as much as flying is fun, it was wonderful to be home.
So how does Virgin Blue compare with Qantas? I could not honestly fault my flight with Virgin Blue. It was competent, it was comfortable. Nothing went wrong. Yet for all the recent criticism of Qantas I still enjoyed them just that bit more. It would be difficult to argue that the meal and inflight entertainment was worth the $24 premium I paid, but they subtly managed to evoke the image of old-world airline service. As a very visual person I just find Virgin Blue, well, ugly. But that certainly wouldn’t prevent me from using or recommending their services in future.
Now, the Virgin Blue EMB 170 versus the Qantas Boeing 737-400. It’s not an entirely fair comparison as the EMB 170 is in a smaller class, but I do prefer the 734 as I think it has a nicer ride. The EMB 170 felt a little flimsy and soft in comparison, though Virgin Blue’s seating was probably more comfortable. But if I had to compare the flight in the EMB 170 to QantasLink’s Dash8 Q400’s then the EMB 170 wins hands down. It is faster and more comfortable by far. Full seats rather than the narrow Dash 8 seating and full legroom for window seating as well. So in Olympic terms I’ll give the gold medal to Boeing, representing the USA, the Silver to Embraer representing Brazil, with the bronze going to Bombardier for Canada.
A full set of photos from the flight is available on my photo gallery
You may also enjoy reading my other trip reports