2012 has been a very good year for business travellers. On the domestic front we’ve seen business travel once again become a two-horse race, for the first time in over a decade, since the collapse of Ansett in late 2001.
This not only sent average business class prices down but boosted competition in aircraft, seats and service, both in the air and on the ground.
Yet pleasingly, instead of an outright price war – a conflict in which travellers would likely come off second-best – we’re getting a battle fought on the more sustainable basis of value for money.
Airline have also been lifting the bar on technology: faster in-lounge Internet (thanks, Qantas and Optus), new smartphone apps and Passport support and the rollout of inflight wifi streaming of entertainment.
On the international front this extended to inflight Internet from Emirates and Singapore Airlines, although Qantas wound down its A380 wifi trials to focus (quite sensibly so, in our opinion) on areas of more benefit to passengers such as its international business class sleep service.
Airlines also kept pushing ahead with the quality of their seats and cabins, and again business class has been the winner as new seat types have been rolled out and new aircraft such as the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 made their way into more fleets.
We’ve seen plenty of movement in alliances, too, both on a per-airline basis – the biggest of course being the pending Qantas-Emirates hookup – along with new members for the traditional Big Three airline alliances.
So as we close out the year and gear up for what promises to be an even more exciting 2013, here’s our pick of the best in 2012 for Australian business travellers.
Best Domestic Business Class: Virgin Australia
If 2012 would be remembered for delivering any single win for the business traveller, it was return of competition as the reinvented and reinvigorated Virgin Australia launched business class across its domestic fleet.
Qantas’ domestic business class product varies widely and wildly between aircraft, and even on brand new jets it’s a mixed bag. The Red Roo’s factory-fresh Boeing 737-800s are excellent. The latest Airbus A330s, not so much.
By comparison, Virgin Australia’s business class across its Boeing 737, Airbus A330 and Embraer E190 jets ticks all the boxes for quality, consistency, comfort, service and value.
Best International Business Class: Cathay Pacific
Putting the high walled cubicle-inspired Olympus seats largely behind it, Cathay's 2011 launch of the new Cirrus business class seats – the second generation of its fully flat design – would be our first choice for any flight out of Australia and, via Hong Kong, onwards to the rest of the world.
The stylish design includes high-quality finishes and plenty of small thoughtful touches, including plenty of personal storage space – something the modern traveller seems to need more and more these days.
We also applaud the feeling of privacy balanced against direct aisle access for every passenger due to the 1-2-1 layout.
From January 2013 Cathay Pacific will offer these new seats on all flights out of Australia, giving Hong Kong-bound travellers a chance to see why we rate these seats so highly.
Best International Premium Economy: Qantas
An increasing number of business travellers are flying premium economy instead of business, due to the financial pinch, and on its own this in-between category can represent top value for money.
Note the qualifier: not all premium economy seats and cabins are created equally.
On flight out of Australia it comes down to BA, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic. We have to rank BA and Virgin at the back of the pack because Qantas and Cathay are so far in front.
Indeed, it's a tight race between Qantas and Cathay Pacific, but the Red Roo edges ahead on the comfort of its sculptured Marc Newson-designed premium economy seat, especially as every seat has a swing-up legrest (which is present in only the first row of Cathay’s premium economy cabin).
Best International First Class Seats: Qantas, BA
While many international business travellers have to make do with premium economy and in some cases even economy, at the other end of the spectrum lies the land of privilege and first class travel.
The size of this market may be relatively small but the competition is fierce, so much so that we've divided the first class awards into two categories: seats and suites.
After some degree of back and forth it came out as a photo finish between Qantas and BA in the ‘first class seats’ category, with the two airlines on par for sumptuous furnishings, service and overall ambience combined with the basics of personal space and meals.
Best International First Class Suites: Singapore Airlines, Emirates
This one was another tie. Singapore Airlines has pretty much defined the ‘suites’ experience, and it’s rare to hear anything but fervent praise for these plush private cabins – so much so that we're eager to see how SQ tops them with the forthcoming 2013 redesign!
And while many feel that Emirates goes overboard on the bling factor in its A380 suites, the opportunity to take a shower at 30,000 feet tends to trump decor excess.
Best Transcontinental Service: Virgin Australia
The coast-to-coast contest could be more evenly matched next year if Qantas makes good on its promise to upgrade the current Airbus A330 ‘business class’ seats to something worthy of the name.
In the meantime, Virgin Australia wins the transcontinental turf war with the international-grade seats and service on its latest A330s.
Once you settle into one of these seats and enjoy the inflight meals and entertainment, it’s hard to believe you're not packing your passport and headed overseas.
Best Trans-Tasman Service: Emirates
Australia’s busiest international routes are those which bounce across the pond to New Zealand.
Yet neither Qantas, Virgin Australia or Air New Zealand offer much in the way of actual business class – beginning with wide, comfortable seats offering plenty of legroom.
We believe that trans-Tasman business travellers deserve better. Which is why we applaud Emirates’ decision to run its Airbus A380s daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland, after completing their daily southbound leg from Dubai.
It's a move which gives frequent flyers a true business class experience across the Tasman.
Best Australian Lounges: Qantas
Many Australian business travellers spend as much time at airport lounges as they do in the air, so a good lounge is a highly-prized haven, and Qantas' lounge network is comfortably out in front.
Qantas' domestic dominance would count for little if the airline wasn’t investing in its lounges, to the point where some – notably the Qantas First Lounge at Sydney Interntional Airport – are not just world-class but world-beaters.
But that’s just part of a canny triple play which includes the mainstream Qantas Club and the Qantas Business Lounge for business travellers and Platinum frequent flyers.
Best International Lounges: Cathay Pacific
It’s a given that an airline’s most impressive lounge is at its home port. In the case of Cathay Pacific, this sees Hong Kong International Airport blessed with several excellent lounges, but it doesn't end there.
Cathay’s rolling upgrade of all worldwide lounges – most recently at London Heathrow, San Francisco and Paris – with the same high standards and contemporary style already seen in HK’s The Wing and The Cabin.
Of course, frequent flyers can't wait to see the flagship Wing First Class emerge from its make-over cocoon in early February 2013, but the stylish Wing Business Class with its noodle bar and loft cafe is already one of the world's best business lounges.
Best Frequent Flyer Program: Virgin Australia
Simply put, while Qantas boasts more members Virgin offers more benefits – especially ones geared towards the business traveller.
That includes free Gold and Platinum-level membership of hotel and car hire loyalty programs (perks which in hotel-land deliver free upgrades, free Internet and late checkout), flight upgrade certificates, a membership status pause for new parents, family pooling of points and guaranteed reward seats for family holidays.
There are also some unique ways to earn points, from buying music and apps on iTunes to shopping online at Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Topshop.
Best Airline Alliance: oneworld
Of the three global airline alliances, oneworld already has a head start due to Qantas being a cornerstone member.
It’s true that Star Alliance and SkyTeam have more member airlines under their wing.
But oneworld partner airlines can take you almost everywhere a business traveller needs to go – a selection now bolstered through the inclusion of airberlin, with Malaysia Airlines and Qatar to follow – and it’s easy to rack up oneworld frequent flyer points and status through Qantas, even when you’re shuttling around the country on domestic flights.
And that status counts for plenty, with the Platinum-level oneworld Emerald tier opening the doors at some stunning first class lounges even if you’re flying economy.
Several of these categories were close calls and as you'll see, some were a tie – so we're keen to hear your take on the best in each of these categories – share your thoughts with a comment below.