Fuelled by record profits, the arrival of advanced Boeing 787 jetliners and a general sense of rediscovered mojo, Qantas is slowly updating and expanding its international network.
The latest addition to the route map is Melbourne-San Francisco, with the new QF49/QF50 service taking wing this past weekend.
It’s a welcome move for Melbournians who’ve previously had to make an early-morning dash to Sydney to connect with Qantas’ Sydney-San Francisco service, and links two cities with similarities in both tech startups and lifestyle sensibilities.
But it’s not just the flight itself which is new: the schedule is almost entirely opposite that of most flights from Australia’s east coast capitals to the US west coast.
Instead of leaving Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane mid-morning, QF49 is wheels up from Melbourne around 10pm.
As a result, rather than reaching Los Angeles or San Francisco in the morning as we’ve become accustomed to, QF49 touches down at 7pm.
Instead of having to defeat jet lag by pushing through a long day, the challenge becomes a matter of getting to sleep in San Francisco when you’ve already been sleeping most of the flight from Melbourne.
Australian Business Traveller stepped onto Qantas’ inaugural Melbourne-San Francisco service to take its measure.
Before setting out on this long trans-Pacific hop, business class travellers, Qantas Gold frequent flyers (and their Oneworld Sapphire equivalents, such as Cathay Pacific Marco Polo Gold) and Qantas Club members can relax in Qantas’ international business lounge.
An all-day salad bar included the likes of potato salad, pasta salad, tomato salad and 'Asian slaw' with fried noodles, while there was also a creamy pasta and meat dish plus ready-made focaccia sandwiches.
While this lounge ticks the boxes for the business traveller, the bunker-like location and uninspiring design makes this one of Qantas’ most underwhelming international lounges.
The outlook is must brighter if you hold Qantas Platinum or Platinum One status (or the equivalent Oneworld Emerald status, such as Cathay Pacific Marco Polo Diamond) or belong to the elite invitation-only Chairman’s Lounge.
Those shiny cards open the doors at Qantas’ first class lounge, where you can enjoy a seasonal à la carte menu at the dining room…
... and tackle some last-minute work in one of the private office suites...
… before or after booking a treatment at the spa (I suggest the hydrating facial), which is open from 6pm to 10pm to cater for evening flights, and has a view that must be seen to be believed.
Qantas’ Melbourne-San Francisco flight currently runs four days a week (Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday).
The outbound QF49 depart Melbourne at 9.40pm (this will toggle to 10.40pm in summer), although a solid tailwind saw our flight reach San Francisco at 6.15pm, some 45 minutes ahead of the scheduled 7pm touchdown.
The QF50 return leg leaves San Francisco at 10pm and arrives into Melbourne at 6.30am (7.30am in summer).
It’s a smooth 13 hour ride, thanks in large part to the Boeing 787, with the aircraft’s advanced technology – lower effective cabin altitude, higher humidity levels and cleaner air circulating – helping to mitigate the effects of jetlag so you’ll feel less zombie and more human at the end of the journey.
So how do you handle sleeping on the overnight flight from Melbourne and then reaching San Francisco in time for more sleep? I found this far easier than a morning arrival.
Sleep for as long as you need on the Melbourne-San Francisco flight: it probably won’t be more than six hours, so there’s plenty of time to enjoy a light meal, a movie, some reading or work.
Then check into your San Francisco hotel (no need to book the room from the night before or cross your fingers for early check-in, as is the case with the Sydney-San Francisco flight) – head out for a light meal and drink at a late-night haunt, or grab a club sandwich from room service – there’s still plenty of time to sleep fitfully until breakfast (sleeping pill optional but recommended) and voila, you’re in sync with SF time.
We’ve covered Qantas’ Boeing 787 business class seat – or Business Suite, to give its proper name – in plenty of detail, especially in our report of the delivery flight of the first red-tailed Dreamliner from Seattle to Sydney in October 2017.
For newcomers to the Qantas Business Suite, here’s a snap summary.
Qantas’ Boeing 787 Business Suite is a refinement of the airline’s original Airbus A330 Business Suite (and it’ll also be appearing on the Qantas Airbus A380 superjumbos from March 2019).
The 42 business class seats follow a 1-2-1 layout which affords direct aisles access for every passenger, with a screen at the padded middle seats sliding up for privacy or down for seatmate sociability.
Each seat gets a side shelf where you can keep books and magazines, laptops, tablets and smartphones, amenity kits and other travel gear close at hand.
The seats are well-appointed and sport a premium finish in colour and material, with a wrap-around shell offering a degree of individual privacy.
When it comes to work, the Qantas’ Business Suite is almost a perfect office above the clouds.
The tray table is large enough to accomodate even a 17-inch pro-grade laptop and there’s absolutely no wobble or annoying ‘bounce’ even during my ham-fisted hammering of the keyboard, while the shelf next to each seat is wide enough to spread out any work-related documents or even for a cuppa or some snacks while your laptop is front and centre.
AC and USB power sockets are found on the shelf next to the seat.
Their location is equally handy for keeping your laptop juiced up while your work, as for recharging devices while they sit snugly out of your way.
All that’s missing is fast WiFi, and Qantas says this will be coming in 2021.
As you’d expect from any modern business class seat, a fully-flat bed is just one button-press away.
If you’re ready to count some sheep, stabbing the Do Not Disturb button lets the crew know to prioritise your slumber over almost everything else bar in-flight safety.
The seat’s ample width is matched to a 2-metre long bed with a padded mattress and (not shown here) a medium-weight blanket.
My body tends to run warm, so when sleeping on flights I usually skip the blanket and sometimes even a mattress topper, but both of these breathe well and don’t retain much heat, so the net effect is of being cosy without stifling.
Sleeping on my side or back proved very comfortable and the footwell was sufficiently spacious for my size 8½ plods.
Business class passengers receive a pair of lightweight pyjamas and a colourful amenity kit containing Aspar skincare products and a sleep mask, along with the usual items such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, socks and earplugs.
The unique timing of QF49 also means that travellers see a very different menu compared to the usual flights to San Francisco or Los Angeles, with both of the business class meals leaning towards the lighter end of the scale.
With a departure time around 10pm, most business class passengers will have had dinner in the lounge and be eager to sleep shortly after take-off, so the first meal is more of a supper.
Likewise, the 7pm arrival into San Francisco sees travellers eating their second meal around 5pm SF-time – even though they may have woken up not long before – so the menu is a pick-and-mix hybrid of a cafe-style brunch and a light early dinner.
Supper is served within 45 minutes of take-off from Melbourne, although two dishes marked as a ‘sleep sooner’ option can make their way from the galley to your seat inside of 30 minutes.
The first of these is a modest snack-like cheese platter, although I can’t see why anybody who’s had a decent dinner in the lounge would feel the need to order this as an express meal – surely you’d just board the plane and head straight to sleep.
The second ‘sleep sooner’ option on my flight was a warming green pea and mint soup with a snow pea salad on the side.
The four more conventional main meals were
- strozzapreti pasta with tomato and eggplant sugo, roast capsicum, basil and pecorino
- a ciabatta sandwich of chicken, avocado, rocket and chipotle mayonnaise
- seared barramundi with box choy, steamed rice, lap cheong, sesame, shrimp and ginger sauce
- seared beef fillet with shredded fennel and radish salad, grilled asparagus and salmoriglio
These are all served with a green leaf salad with vinaigrette.
I opt for the barramundi – fish is often my first choice on flights out of Australia, especially on any airline which takes pride in its menu and produce.
The rice is steamed to perfection – light, fluffy and with each grain separate from the rest, with no sign of those gluggy stuck-together chunks – while the barra is pull-apart tender and full of flavour.
I skip dessert, but had I indulged there was a choice between chocolate malted tart with creme fraiche (and this looked very temping), ice cream and a plate of seasonal fruit.
With a 13 hour flying time from Melbourne to San Francisco there’s a good chance you will wake partway during the journey, so Qantas also offers a range of mid-flight snacks.
The galley kitchen can prepare
- pumpkin empanadas with tomato relish
- stir-fried eggplant with roasted capsicum, sautéed mushrooms and egg fried rice
Those dishes are complemented by a well-stocked snack bar of chips and dips, biscuits, chocolate, fruit and some pastries (on our flight this is a rhubarb and frangipane Danish).
The menu for the light dinner served prior to arrival at San Francisco is presented as a breakfast-style card which I complete and hand to the crew shortly after take-off.
The selection begins with a croissant or toast to go with your coffee or tea, but extends to
- mushroom and pecorino quiche with tomato relish and mesclun salad
- hot-smoked salmon with blanched kale, soy mushrooms, brown rice, nori and sesame yoghurt dressing
- grilled chermoula chicken with roasted sweet potato, cauliflower tabouleh and pomegranate dressing
- sweet potato, ginger and turmeric soup with crispy onion and pepitas
This is served as a single tray which lands at my seat 2½ hours before we reach San Francisco.
I select the hot-smoked salmon and the deliciously warming soup, which are accompanied by a serve of cold-pressed Botanica ‘green juice’ of kale, silverbeet, celery, apple, cucumber and lemon.
I realise this all sounds uber-healthy, and that’s the whole idea. Flying puts your metabolism through a wringer and makes your body clock as accurate as a fake $10 watch from some dodgy Asian street market.
I’ve learned that eating mindfully before and during a flight makes a substantial difference to how I feel at the other end of the trip.
Airlines are now paying more attention to this ‘healthy flying’ philosophy and tailoring their inflight dining to match, using food science to identify and incorporate ingredients which can soothe you into sleep at the start of the trip and pep you up closer to arrival.
This is coming in to sharp focus with the advent of ultra-long non-stop flights such as Qantas’ Perth-London Boeing 787 service (17 hours) and Singapore Airlines’ Singapore-New York Airbus A350 trek (19 hours).
In the case of Qantas’ Melbourne-San Francisco flight, the menu has been shaped by initial work done for the Perth-London Dreamliner flights.
For the pre-arrival meals, for example, there’s a measured mix of protein and carbs, via healthy grains and legumes, with the aim of being easier for your stomach to process, to kick-start your metabolism without weighting you down with traditionally heavy dishes.
This doesn’t mean you will be force-fed kale and quinoa, as there are always a few ‘comfort food’ items on the menu. And it doesn’t mean that I’ve forgone more indulgent pleasures – the most dangerous place in the world is to stand between me and a really good bacon and egg roll dressed with BBQ sauce!
However, the more you travel for work, the more strongly I’d suggest looking at healthier inflight meal options (and asking the crew for their advice).
Entertainment & Service
Each business class seat’s 16 inch HD video screen is your portal to an extensive library of movies, boxed set TV shows, albums and playlists.
The screen pivots down so that you can still enjoy a show while stretched out in the lie-flat bed.
The screen is matched to a pair of noise-cancelling headphones…
… although the more of a frequent flyer you are, the more likely you’ll be packing your own pair of superior noise-cancelling cans.
My personal Bose headphones don’t get much of a workout on this flight, at least not for watching movies or TV shows, although by habit I slip them on when writing or reading to create my own little cocoon of solitude.
Business class service throughout this flight is impeccable, with an attentive and enthusiastic cabin crew excited about the aircraft and the route.
Qantas’ new Boeing 787 Melbourne-San Francisco service is a winner. Take a great business class seat on a great aircraft, add great meals and service, throw in a twist with regards to the timing, and it’s a combination that’s almost impossible to fault (except for the sub-par Melbourne business class lounge).
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Sydney-based business travellers bound for San Francisco should consider flying to Melbourne to catch QF49 rather than catch the direct flight, especially if they have Platinum frequent flyer status:
- you can put in a decent working day, fly Sydney to Melbourne and still have plenty of time to spare
- Qantas’ Melbourne first class lounge is wonderfully quiet in the evenings, and there’s little trouble getting a spa appointment
- the Boeing 787’s business class and overall flying experience (when it comes to abating jet lag) are infinitely better than those of Sydney’s rattly old Boeing 747
- your San Francisco hotel room will be ready on arrival
- it’s easier to get to sleep after a 7pm arrival than it is to stay awake all day after a 9am arrival
David Flynn travelled as a guest of Qantas