Four Airlines In One Day: The Lessons Learned

4AirlinesComplete Yesterday I flew all four domestic airlines -- Jetstar, Qantas, Tiger and Virgin Blue -- in a single day, without any of the delays I (or many readers) expected. I can't recommend it as a way for anyone else to spend their time, but it does provide some useful lessons about air travel in Australia.

I don't want to retread the ground I've already covered, so here's the blow-by-blow accounts to read over (if you haven't already)

I can't come up with a standalone logical reason why anyone would fly Sydney-Melbourne-Adelaide-Hobart-Melbourne-Sydney in a 15-hour period, but it did prove educational. Here's what I learned.

Personal experience matters more than the odds. It's very evident from the comments, tweets and emails I received that many people have had such a bad experience with one of the domestic airlines that they'd never contemplate flying with them again, no matter what happens to me (or anyone else). I can relate to this: after UK airline Easyjet managed to run a 2 hour flight 24 hours late, I vowed never to use them again.

The fact is that any airline that did that every single time (or even just a quarter of the time) would soon go out of business, but I don't care. It feels like flying with them would be a risk, even if logically that's actually unlikely. More basely, I just don't want them to have any of my money.

Timeliness is much better than we assume. In a similar vein, people always remember when a flight they've taken runs late, and often assume that's characteristic of the airline. People constantly tell me that Qantas flights get delayed more than Virgin Blue, for instance.

The statistics don't bear that out. In October (PDF link), 86.5% of domestic Qantas flights arrived on time, followed by Virgin Blue with 85.0%, Jetstar with 79.0% and Tiger with 74.1%. The figures for Qantas and Virgin Blue aren't very far apart, and they certainly don't appear to justify claiming that Qantas has more late flights.

The figures also don't suggest that delays are an endemic problem, but clearly we don't believe that. In the context of this experiment, my biggest worry -- and the one which most people mentioned when I told them about it -- was that a flight would be seriously delayed, and I'd end up missing one of my connections. I made contingency plans for that, but it never happened. Every flight arrived on time; most came in a few minutes early. Based on overall airline performance, that was likely, but it still feels odd. If we assumed that one in four flights should be late (which is what Tiger's figures indicate, representing a worst-case scenario), I had a good chance of being delayed on at least one flight.

There's undoubtedly an element of luck there: the weather was good, and I didn't have to worry about luggage. But I'm going to try and remember to be less paranoid in future. (I came to a similar conclusion during Hand Luggage Only, but that did only involve flying Qantas.)

Points aside, there's not much distinguishing Australia's airlines except price. There's lots of things outside of your control that can impact an individual flight experience: other passengers, baggage dramas, bad weather. But once you're on board, the in-cabin experience really is very much the same. I'd argue the biggest difference is actually with Qantas, and that my recorded experience understates it: on my final flight for the day back to Sydney (which wasn't included in the write-up), I got a hot meal and free wine, which just isn't going to happen with the other carriers.

But unless you're flying to WA or Far North Queensland, you're largely looking at flight times of 3 hours or less, often considerably less. In that context, there's not much reason to be hugely fussy about what you get in food or entertainment terms, the seats are all much the same, and convenience (an airline running the schedule you want) or price might well be the determining factors. Assuming you've got a choice, shopping around isn't very risky from an on-plane point of view.

Book early if you want the cheapest seats. Several of the flights I booked were seriously cheap -- I flew Melbourne-Sydney for $50 on a weekday in a prime early morning slot -- but I'd booked them all two months out. When I checked the prices on a couple last week, everything was much dearer. If you know you're going to travel, booking early makes sense.

Board early if you're travelling without checked luggage. The biggest source of delays getting on board across all four carriers was people trying to find room for their onboard suitcases, and it was invariably people who clearly hadn't checked anything else into the hold. Whether this is to save money or to save time is irrelevant. The lesson is if you are travelling with a larger bag, get to the gate (and on the plane) early, so you'll have more space to work with.

Try not to be more than six feet tall. On every plane I boarded, my knees touched the back of the seat in front, but not uncomfortably so. If I was any taller, it would have been a lot more painful.

Travelling with a large laptop is not plane-friendly. Equally, on every plane, I successfully managed to use my Portégé, but it was a bit of a struggle on Jetstar. Qantas offered the most working space, but I still think anything with a 15 inch or bigger screen would be a challenge to use on a domestic flight for extended periods.

OK, enough from me. Got your own flying tips or horror stories? Let's hear 'em in the comments. Here's some thinking music in the form of the song that gave me the original idea for this experiment:

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is getting on a plane again tomorrow. Just the one, mind.

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Comments

    Probably the only other way of fairly comparing the airlines with the model you were using would be to fly each airline via the same route. This would most probably be the Sydney/Melbourne route. One thing that wasn't mentioned was the length of time you were able to use electronic appliances. For example on the Tiger flights I was on (Canberra/Melbourne) the time allowed to use my MP3 player seemed incredibly short.

      @Sydney2K

      I have found the time you're allowed to use appliances generally seems to depend on the pilot. I've had some turn off the seatbelt sign & say you can use devices 2 minutes after taking off, others a good 30 minutes with no differences in weather. I always fly Virgin so it's not like I'm comparing across carriers either.

        I agree, it depends on the pilot. I fly Sydney to Canberra weekly (between a 27 and 31 minute flight, depending on wind) and some pilots allow you to use your electronic devices for 70% of the flight, some don't allow you to use them at all.

    Having used both Qantas and Virgin Blue for the red-eye between Darwin and Brisbane, the difference in service became very important - a late night or early morning flight (we're talking 2am here) is awful enough, but in a cold plane, with no blanket and no pillow and no cups of tea it is even worse.

    Basically, if it is a flight up to 2 or 2.5 hours I'll fly with the cheapest carrier, once it goes beyond that I get picky.

    Flying by Tiger with larger bags is a nightmare. I had this experience twice while flying to Sydney-Adelaide. The flights were okay but after landing the time they take to bring your bags on conveyor belt is unacceptable. First time it was 45 minutes and second time it got worst to 1 hr.!!! So we were just watching other passengers' faces while waiting for our bags..... Does cheap ticket mean delayed service ?

    "Try not to be more than six feet tall"... or failing that, learn how to suck up to check-in staff and score an exit row seat!

    (And no matter how close to boarding time it is, always ask. I'm amazed at how often I see exit rows not full up.)

      I think it ties in with all the carry-on baggage -- you've got even less space if you choose an exit row -- and that few people want to pay the extra charges. (Which don't apply if they decide to put you in an exit row when you check in, which has happened to me on occasion.)

      I'm 6'8" and recently flew Melbourne to Darwin with Jetstar. On the way up there I was lucky enough to score a exit row seat from the check-in staff without even asking. On the return flight I requested one but unfortunately they had all been taken. The flight was a nightmare. Not only were my knees firmly inserted into the back of the seat in front of me, I was also unable to fall asleep because I had nowhere to rest my head since the head rest on the seat only just reached the base of my neck. My legs nearly failed when I stood up and my neck was sore for days. Man it sucks being tall.

      P.S. Great write up Angus.

        Chris, I can't really empathise as I'm only 5'2", but even me with my tiny little legs has knees that touch the seat in front of me on flights. I can't even imagine how anyone taller than me (let alone a foot and a half) has to deal with it. My sympathies...

    I'm always impressed with the ideas you come up with Gus – another corker! Well done.

    For what it's worth, the study that you linked refers to "On Time Arrival" as anything within 15mins of scheduled arrival. I'd imagine that the proportion of flights landing more than 15mins before schedule is almost negligible, so it's basically saying that 15-26% of flights land more than 15mins late.

    So it'll depend on the distribution, but you're still going to end up with a significant proportion of flights that land significantly late.

    I'd be more interested in seeing a statistic for the proportion of flights that land "at or before" their scheduled arrival time. If this was even close to 50%, I'd be quite impressed.

      Flights that arrive early are as problemtic as those that are late; if all the gates are occupied arriving planes have to wait until a gate is free.

      On a related matter it would be nice if a plane has all their listed passengers boarded quicker than predicted that the plane just push off without having to wait for the schedule time to arrive. Let's get in the air! Let's not wait around!

    What a great review of the airline customer experience, Angus. I'm an airline pilot of some 23 years, and as you'd imagine, I travel a lot. However, my seat mostly differs from those you've taken. That said, I see and hear much of what customers have to say about their good and not-so-good experiences. Suffice it to say that when it comes to delays, I’d much sooner have my customers sitting on the ground while we solve technical issues, which unfortunately happen with large, complex machines, than to take the problems into the air and hope that they go away. I know that some customers don’t care a bit about that, but I prefer to care for their safety.

    At one point in your report, you talk about delays caused by passengers and/or their carry-on baggage. I can tell you categorically that the vast majority of delays are caused by passengers who are late to board, for whatever reason. In domestic operations, that generally sets-off a domino effect across the network, including missed departure/landing slots, gate allocations, passenger connections, etc. Any delay generally results in subsequent multiple delays that often cannot be recovered. Airline management have tried to come up with solutions to this problem for ages, but even off-loading late passengers and their baggage doesn’t seem to work. Any suggestions?

    Your comprehensive reports understandably focus on the customer experience, which is, at the end of the day, what matters to most people. However, you might also like to consider some of the other differences between the low and high end of the market. What is it that makes a low-cost carrier “low-cost”? Sure, the business model differs, but apart from paying for services separately, the principle cost savings come in reduced wage, maintenance, training and general expenditure. Take the pilot group as an example. Instead of training pilots within the company in carefully managed and directed programs, pilot training is farmed out (at each pilots’ own expense) and the courses are shorter than full service airlines. In low-cost operations, pilot performance (normal and abnormal procedures) is checked by the airline once every six months, instead of the 5-6 times per year of full service carriers. Low-cost operations work their pilots (and all staff) harder, with less rest between flights, wages are lower, with many repaying loans taken out to cover training costs for years. Would you (or others) prefer to fly on an aircraft where the pilots receive abbreviated training, whose performance is not reviewed/refreshed regularly and who are more focused on trying to pay the bills and/or get a better job than on flying the aeroplane through tired eyes? To me, the answer is simple. Sure, low-cost carriers meet the regulations, but only just. There is no margin, and when one considers that the regulations, which are set by world authorities and our own government, offer the minimum protection over disaster, that is of some concern.

    Apart from cabin service and related issues, I also consider some of the interesting operating procedures of low-cost carriers. I’ve experienced many who have some interesting ideas on how aircraft should be operated. Without going into technical details, there are a number of ways to skin a cat, as the saying goes, but in aircraft operations, there are some methods that are best avoided by a considerable margin. The airline industry is historically festooned with examples of how not to do it, but it pains me to see low-cost carriers constantly revisiting many of these tried and failed concepts.

    Instead of considering how much space one has or doesn’t have, the quality of the food, the joviality of the cabin crew or any of those other things, which are doubtless very important, safety issues are perhaps the more important to contemplate. At no time has it meant more to realise that you get what you pay for. In airlines, much of what you pay for is unseen, and that is precisely the way low-cost carriers want to keep it. What’s important is what you don’t get, and that is what concerns this seasoned operator more than anything.

    In closing, I pose the question "why is it that we accept the price of milk and bread increasing, but we do not accept the same of airfares?" If it costs more to raise a cow and produce milk for the table, then it must also be costing more to operate an airline. That so, how are they cutting the airfares so much? What important things are being cut from your airline experience? You do get what you pay for, trust me.

      An excellent article from Angus Kidman!

      I also enjoyed reading the comments from FFlyer, a career pilot.

      I have the privilege of representing the financial interests of a number of pilots. I like to hear their viewpoints regarding aircraft (i.e. A380 a.k.a. the A180) and the industry in general.

      Is the golden age of flying in the distance past, or on the horizon? It is worth glancing over the variety of tweets from both angry and delighted passengers alike and Skytrax Airline Reviews.

      Kudos to Tiger Airways (I refer to as the Aldi of Airlines), for their "Airways" television series as a way of educating new and experienced flyers with the best way to fly with a low cost carrier (LCC) and ultimately save some money along the way. I firmly believe Travel Insurance (whilst not often necessary), should be built into the airfare of LCC's.

      I have regularly flown all 4 latest carriers with little or no issues. I must add the time of day, departing airport and the destination airport can also play a big part in the flying experience.

      I am seriously concerned about recent and potential safety issues, especially from pilot fatigue, "software bugs" and the engineering concerns of some carriers. Passenger safety is paramount, ahead of on time performance and day to day service concerns.

      More of these articles please!!!!

      PS: When in Melbourne 'any' serious Aviation buff must pay a visit the TAA Museum (across the road from Essendon Airport - enter from York Street).

      As a 30 something who has travelled around Australia many times, I was "blown away" with the set up there. The best days to visit are daytime mid week.

    Did anyone else get the virgin email upgrading you to gold class ,,,,then 20 min later retracting the email...too funny

    As a very frequent flier, something I find as a great variable is the customer service ethic of the cabin crew. I find that so much depends on the quality of the "Head Flight Attendant". QANTAS has some oustanding people in this role who in spite of different crews always ensure their team is friendly and very attentive ... Sadly there are others like the one scored flying Brisbane/Melbourne yesterday!!!!

    I find it interesting that you point out it's usually an individual experience that colours your opinion and expectations of an airline. After working overseas with a few trips across the Pacific I clocked up quite a few miles with Qantas many moons ago. A few years later I booked a trip to Japan with them to boost this number but then found that the next statement showed my balance was zero!
    When I called customer service I was told that my booking would fall outside the activity time limit windows that expired the points. When I told them that I had paid for a flight with them to Auckland 12 months earlier but hadnt taken I was told smugly that was ineligible because "QANTAS has a frequent flyer program, not a frequent buyer program!"

    "In October (PDF link), 86.5% of domestic Qantas flights arrived on time, followed by Virgin Blue with 85.0%, Jetstar with 79.0% and Tiger with 74.1%."

    Your right, the statistics say that perception is wrong -

    But how late is "late" in these stats? I am also one of the people who say Virgin Blue runs significantly more on-time than Qantas. Sure Virgin may have the odd 15-20 min late arrival, but that is nothing compared to the catastrophic fail delays that Qantas seems to have (even though they have more flights and planes). I have probably had at least 4 x 1 hour plus domestic delays in the past 18 months on Qantas, and one 5 hour international delay (Qantas also), but Virgin always gets there within 20 mins of the target time - so I still fly both, but for no fuss quick business trips I now pick VB every time, I know i'll get there faster and on board faster (sensible VB barcode scanners and dual ended boarding).

    I notice our pilot friend had no comment on the seat pitch. Being 6'3" in the old money with osteoarthritis in both knees means anything but an exit row seat means pain after 20 minutes. It means I seriously consider driving rather than flying and for Sydney-Canberra there is no argument - I drive. Airlines might like to consider this with the ageing population.

    Sigh. Another blog with self-serving prattle about airline experiences. If people just stopped and thought about their diametrically opposed expectations, the world would be a better place. For example, people complain about seat pitch, but, then go chasing the lowest priced airfares. Without realising that longer pitch requires a higher price.

    I, for one, don’t give a rat’s about on time arrivals. But, I do care passionately about arriving in one piece. For example, I flew Virgin Blue the other day. I overhead the pilots doing some last minute cross-checking to convince themselves that they were in a fully airworthy condition before they started flying. This “safety first” attitude was clearly going to delay the flight. Simultaneously, also in earshot, was a very impatient person, who was getting very upset with the delay. The type of person who will gladly whinge about on-time arrivals. Some people are rather dense.

    It's good to hear from a real pilot on this issue. The cost thing is what's gets me with Virgin Blue. Why is it that less than twelve months ago I flew with them, and enjoyed 'free' inflight music then, the other day I fly with a $5 fee for Foxtel crap ?!

    Ten channels of crap !

    So, the weird thing is, they cut cost, but then charge for something even they had for free. Blatant value adding is just money porn, in yer face, take it or leave it attitude. I'm still amazed they're not flogging Dick Branson's novel on his glorious life.

    I know the entertainment angle is bit light weight... but you just have to wonder what they're going to try and value add next time.

    All airlines are the same, as it is a Casa requirement for Electronic devices to be used once the seatbelt sign has been switched off during the flight until the captian advises crew to prepare cabin for landing.So it's not a set time or anything like when the caption feels like it. The captain keeps the seatbelt sign as long as he feel it is safe for us flight attendants to get out of our seats do the service pack up & secure for landing.Talking on the subject of exit row seating.Its true if you dont ask you do not get.However in the circumstance that the weight trim of the aircraft is not in proportion exit rows are blocked for take off and landing this is purely for saftey.On time performance is the same with every airline.. why on earth would an airline want to delay a plane to upset anyone. Staff want to go home on time too. Some flight attendants like myself only get paid $4 an hour DTA for every hour we go over.No that's not worth being delayed for.. but we will still smile and act professional because we love our job!!

    I've worked as a Flight Attendant/Cabin Manager at 4 Aussie airlines, including Virgin Blue and Qantas. I've served and chatted with Kevin Rudd, John Howard, Joe Hockey, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbot along side Maureen and Trev off to a funeral. Generally the intentions are the same - we want you back, the happier you are, the easier our jobs are. If we can score a compliment out of it - a bonus that makes our day. Like you and everyone else, we do have bad days - so yes, reality bites and from time to time you'll get a grump. Although I detest the absurd hoops our pilots are made to jump through to get jobs with airlines these days - I do have to disagree with FFlyer - you are certainly not paying for their 'experience' with Qantas (unless youre talking about the dinosaur Cust. Svc managers at QF out of BNE). A friend of mine had virtually no experience, yet finds himself paying Qantas to work on their aircraft!! Many of the pilots i've flown with at Virgin, although not of the pedigree of their purebred cousins at QF, have spent many years flying 747s and other widebody airlines for some of the worlds best airlines. To be honest, give me a skipper who looks at you with respect when you report a passenger concern, over some pompous cigar smoking moron with a god complex - regardless of the airline! Virgin, Qantas, Tiger, and Jetstar are not the worlds best or safest companies (naturally low prices and an old boys club regulator ensure that) - but they are better than most. The sad reality is, Australia is LONG overdue for a couple of hundred fatalities - pilots and flight attendants are told 'it could be you' every year at annual training - but hands down I have no concern sending my family off in the hands of men and women I trust (engineers, load controllers, pilots and flight attendants) every day. My best advice, don't be fooled by loyalty programs - its the aviation answer to the credit card - go with whoever is cheapest - do the same research you would do if you were to spend $200-$300 on a home appliance. Finally - as for the seat pitch, I can tell you now that row 4 on Virgin is about the worst spot you can sit for legroom. Qantas is on average worse than Virgin in Economy on the 737 (30inches vs 32-34inches). Jetstar and Tiger are both about as bad as each other. Not opinion - fact - there are people who actually do measure seat size - Virgin does tend to win in this area.

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