When it comes to transcontinental flights, Australian travellers enjoy one of the world's best domestic business class experiences. Competition between Qantas and Virgin Australia in the lucrative coast-to-coast corridor sees both airlines offering international-grade business class seats and service on their respective Airbus A330 jets.
So how do they compare? On a recent trip between Melbourne and Perth, we took the opportunity to find out...
Getting that Airbus A330 flight
The first trick in getting one of these great business class experiences is making sure you're travelling on an Airbus A330, because many east-west flights take place on the smaller single-aisle Boeing 737 with its far inferior business class seats.
This is one area where Qantas has the edge, due to its larger A330 fleet. For example, a quick scan of Qantas’ schedule for December 2018 shows around 200 flights from Melbourne to Perth, of which 123 flights – roughly 60% – will be on an Airbus A330 featuring the Qantas Business Suites.
By comparison, Virgin Australia is planning 157 Melbourne-Perth flight in December, with around half on an Airbus A330.
Unfortunately, downgrades from Airbus A330s to Boeing 737s do happen with some degree of regularity. If it affects you and you are flexible with timings, it won't hurt to contact the airline and ask to move to a different flight without charge.
Pre-flight: how the lounges compare
Melbourne and Perth both boast relatively new Qantas domestic business lounges with smart décor and specialised cuisine (pizza in Perth and Asian food in Melbourne).
The recently-renovated Melbourne Business Lounge offers many different zones for working and relaxing, although it does get considerably busy during peak travel periods.
The chicken laksa from Melbourne's Spice Bar was flavoursome and a welcome break from the usual buffet fare, though the 'heat' level was dialled down to accommodate milder palates.
Virgin Australia travellers have to make do with 'one-size-fits-all lounges' in Melbourne and Perth, rather than dedicated lounges for business class passengers and Platinum frequent flyers.
The lounges share similar aesthetics and catering, with an atmosphere noticeably more bland and cold compared to Qantas' warmer hues and upmarket vibe.
As with the Qantas lounge there's barista-pulled coffee, although an inferior breakfast spread, and even from 11am there were no substantial food choices apart from a soup and the usual salads.
At their core, despite differences in appearances and catering, the Qantas and Virgin Australia lounges still serve business travellers well with an array of working spaces, AC and USB power ports, decent WiFi and showers.
Domestic priority boarding has always been a contentious topic, especially with Qantas.
Fortunately, Airbus A330 flights are usually located at gates which have two aerobridges, one of which is dedicated to business class.
Both airlines managed the boarding process well for these flights, including announcing priority access for business class, Platinum and Gold frequent flyers first, and checking that no-one was in the wrong queue.
A330 business class cabins
The most common variant of the Qantas A330 on domestic routes has 28 of the airline's branded Business Suites arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 layout.
Designed by Marc Newson and Thompson Aero Seating, these seats are upholstered in black leather with a beige and wooden trim.
The divider in the middle seats is fixed, making a bit more difficult for centre couples to chat (thankfully, this has been rectified in the Boeing 787's updated Business Suites and will be seen on the upcoming Qantas A380 refresh).
Virgin Australia’s six A330s have twenty dark and sleek business class suites in a reverse-herringbone 1-2-1 layout from seat manufacturer B/E Aerospace (now Rockwell Collins), with a retractable privacy divider between the middle seats.
According to official seat maps, Qantas has one lavatory for the 28 business class seats on its domestic A330-200s (the international A330-300 models have two lavs) while Virgin Australia designates three business class lavatories for its 20 business suites.
Airbus A330 business class seats: Qantas vs Virgin Australia
I selected seat 4K on the Qantas A330 for the Melbourne-Perth flight. This is one of only four seats located directly next to the window for maximum privacy (the others are 2A, 2K and 4A).
There’s plenty of storage for small items in on the side console. The main seat controls are here as well, including an approved recline position for take-off and landing.
Legroom is sufficient and there’s enough space around your seat to keep a small bag with you. The footwell is reasonably sized as well.
For the Perth-Melbourne flight on Virgin Australia, I settled in seat 2K. It’s one of ten window seats in the cabin, which all angle towards the side for a good view.
The seats are covered in fabric, which some travellers may prefer over leather due to breathability and comfort.
The seat functions can be controlled via a touchscreen. Unlike the Qantas seats, these Virgin Australia suites lack some small features including massage capabilities and a ‘do not disturb’ button.
The footwell is noticeably narrower and tapered which may be an issue for larger feet. However, I’m appreciative of the split-level ottoman which enables you to store your shoes underneath when it bed mode.
As my two flights were at different times (Qantas in the late evening and Virgin Australia during the day), there were slight differences in the amenities provided.
Qantas supplied a pillow and a thick blanket for the 8:35 pm departure out of Melbourne to Perth.
A pre-departure beverage of Maggie Beer non-alcoholic drink or water was offered. Meal orders were also taken before departure.
Virgin Australia routinely offers sparkling wine, still or sparkling water before take-off.
A water bottle and hot towel were handed out just after departure – a small gesture that was noticeably missing on Qantas. There are no other amenities for this daytime flight back to Melbourne, except for another hot towel before landing.
Dining in the sky
Both Qantas and Virgin Australia offer a three-course dining experience on trans-continental flights to and from Perth.
Here’s the dinner menu from Qantas, whose inflight dining is spearheaded by Neil Perry of Rockpool fame. While there was no printed beverage menu, the wines were a Voyager Estate Chardonnay and Shiraz.
The duck salad was a popular and tangy way to kick off the service.
Unable to choose between the fish and the pork tacos, the friendly cabin crew offered to let me try both if they had some spare after serving everyone else.
Just as well, because the fish turned out to be quite dry. The braised pork tacos were much tastier and moist, being reheated in their own sauce.
A Maggie Beer ice cream bar provided a decent sweet finish, along with a glass of Yalumba Viognier dessert wine.
Over on Virgin Australia, a three-course lunch menu designed by Luke Mangan was delivered before take-off.
The Aussie prawns in cocktail sauce proved to be a delicious starter, with the prawns plump and juicy.
The steamed barramundi turned out much better than Qantas’ attempt at seared fish. It was reheated perfectly and full of flavour.
Rounding off the meal was a small but sweet mango and coconut roulade.
There are also some snacks off a ‘Pantry’ menu to satisfy any late-flight cravings you might have (also pictured here is the wine list).
Both airlines were noticeably slow with the meal service, taking more than 90 minutes to deliver three courses.
Working your way from coast to coast
Need to get some work done during your transcontinental flight?
The sturdy pull-out tray table fits a laptop with ease in the Qantas A330 Business Suite, with easily accessible AC and USB power sockets.
Virgin Australia’s fold-down tray table also does a good job and can be used up high (docked under the screen) or low.
The USB and power outlets are located inside a side console (with enough space for Apple's brick-like MacBook chargers) and there's a small gap for your cables to safely snake out, even with the top lid closed.
Both seats have ample room around your elbows to move, and a few flat surfaces to store items around you as you work.
WiFi is currently available on just one Qantas A330 aircraft, with a second due to be upgraded in December 2018 and the rest of the fleet by late 2019. Virgin Australia plans to fit WiFi across its A330 fleet by 2019.
Relax and rest
Qantas’ HD touchscreen in-seat entertainment screen measures 16 inches across. There’s plenty of new-release movies and complete TV show seasons to choose from.
The in-suite provided headphones weren’t particularly comfortable for me, sitting more on my ear instead of around it. They have an airline adaptor attached to the cable, so you can use these headphones with your own device as well.
Virgin Australia’s HD touchscreen equals Qantas’ at 16 inches. There’s noticeably less content on the system, but it’s perfectly adequate for a domestic flight.
Virgin's over-ear noise-cancelling headphones were located in the armrest and offered reasonable sound quality.
Both business class seats can recline into a fully flat bed for a comfortable sleep (although I only did so on Qantas during the late evening).
Priority luggage delivery
The priority-tagged luggage of business class passengers came out within the first few minutes of the carousel running, which was fast enough in my books.
A330 business class: how Qantas and Virgin Australia compare
Both Qantas and Virgin Australia continue to provide a stellar transcontinental service on what are relatively short flights – sometimes under three hours from Perth to Melbourne.
With the flight experience being quite similar, secondary factors such as pricing, flight timing and frequent flyer program status might become more important.
Qantas has a far superior lounge experience, but many travellers find Luke Mangan’s menus and food to be more appealing than the Neil Perry fare.
Ultimately, the competition between these two airlines has resulted in what is arguably the world’s best domestic business class experience.
Brandon travelled on Qantas and Virgin Australia at his own expense.