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)
- Four Airlines In One Day
- Four Airlines In One Day: Jetstar
- Four Airlines In One Day: Virgin Blue
- Four Airlines In One Day: Tiger
- Four Airlines In One Day: Qantas
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.