Virgin Australia is increasingly promoting itself as a business travel alternative; domestic business trips are a core part of Qantas' profitability. But how much difference is there really between the two? Road Worrier decided to find out by flying both in a single day.
Last Wednesday, I had a last-minute (by my standards) day trip to Canberra for work purposes. Following Lifehacker's standard advice on the subject, I researched flights and discovered that the best arrangement was to fly Qantas in the morning and Virgin Australia for the return to Sydney in the evening. Regular readers will be aware that I tend to fly Qantas most of the time; for the morning flight, its schedule was the only one that was suitable, and there wasn't a particularly pronounced pricing difference. However, in the evening, Virgin was notably cheaper, which made it the more appropriate selection for what is, ultimately, a very brief flight.
Since I took advantage of Virgin's offer last year to status-match Qantas frequent flyers, my economy Virgin ticket still included lounge access. As such, the trip seemed like a good opportunity to test out just how the two airlines compare when you're on the road for work. Canberra is in many ways the ultimate business travel destination; hardly anyone flies there for pleasure. This was the first day in almost nine months that I actually wore a suit, and if I hadn't, I'd have definitely been in a minority on both flights.
I didn't fly in business class. That was partly because most business travellers don't, and partly because it's often not an option anyway for Canberra. My morning Qantas flight was with QantasLink, which is a single-class plane; Virgin's E190 has two rows of "business", but the seats are identical and the only real point of differentiation is a hot meal. In transit terms, what's on offer in the terminal is just as relevant to having a productive day.
Below, I've compared how the two airlines performed in the areas that matter from a business travel perspective. It's fair to say that in most departments, there's really not much that separates them, and both offer a notably better experience than the budget alternatives (Jetstar and Tiger). But in a crucial area, one did fall behind. Read on to find out which one.
Booking and check-in: tie
Both airlines let you check in and print boarding passes in advance, which is the fastest way to speed through an airport. Qantas' super-speedy boarding option where the pass is printed at the gate wasn't a choice I used this time, since you can't select your seat in advance on QantasLink flights without going through the online check-in process anyway.
My flights both called on time, boarded on time and landed on time. Individual experience will vary with this, but punctuality statistics suggest that there's little variation between the two. (It also helped that the flights weren't full and most people had minimal luggage.)
On-board food: tie
You can't serve much food and drink on a flight that's barely in the air for 30 minutes, but both airlines did their level best. Qantas offered up a muffin, trail mix, juice and a hot drink on the morning flight. More surprisingly, Virgin Australia gave out free alcoholic drinks and a snack (cheese and biscuits) to everyone on the evening flight. This is not something Virgin does on most flights, where paying for everything you consume is the norm. Indeed, our cabin crew went out of the way to point out that this wasn't a new, standard service; rather, it's an apparently essential step to persuading Canberra types to consider the airline. Regardless, I wasn't objecting.
Lounge facilities: Qantas
This was the one area where Qantas definitely won out. Virgin's Canberra lounge is serviceable enough — it has food and drink and Wi-Fi and power outlets — but in every department, it pales next to the recently revamped Qantas facilities there, or what I'd experienced that morning in Sydney. My biggest objection was the cube seating around the tables which offer power outlets, which was really uncomfortable to sit at. When I arrived at 4:30pm, the lounge was also close to maximum capacity; if I had been 15 minutes later, I'd have had no outlet access at all.
The free Wi-Fi was easy to access (just connect up, no sign-in screen), but didn't offer the same speed as the recently revamped Qantas offering from Optus. In Sydney, I routinely see 20Mbps download speeds; Virgin's offering was lucky to crack a tenth of that. That said, it wasn't so slow as to be objectionable.
Virgin is due to have a new and expanded space in Canberra when terminal rebuilding is finished, which might solve the space and rubbish furniture problems. However, I don't think it will fix the other area where Virgin lags behind somewhat: hot food and drinks. As a platinum flyer, in a Qantas lounge, I'd have a couple of hot meals (plus soup) to choose from in the evening, along with salads, snacks and a selection of wines and bears. With Virgin, the one hot food option I had was toast. The wine was also notably cheaper than the Qantas selections. I'd planned my day around dining in the lounge, and toast was, honestly, not what I had in mind.
If you aren't going to use the lounge anyway, there really was nothing much else to separate the two airlines on this flight, and you might as well choose on price and schedule. But where those are equal, right now I'd still argue Qantas has the edge for working on the go.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman does not recommend fly-in fly-out visits on a regular basis. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.