SPECIAL REPORT | Business travellers jetting to Perth with both Qantas and Virgin Australia are teased with the promise of spacious lie-flat business class beds on each airline's Airbus A330 fleet.
But frequent flyers have noted a steady increase in the number of those east-west flights operated by each airline's smaller Boeing 737 jets, which offers a vastly less comfortable experience on those 4-5 hour trips.
There should be no surprise there. The WA resources market has softened, taking the edge off a 'capacity war' which saw Qantas and Virgin Australia battle for transcontinental high flyers, as both airlines adjust their aircraft schedule to suit.
Virgin Australia is also redirecting some of its A330 fleet towards Asia, although the challenger now promises to launch a new Boeing 737 business class seat later this year.
But how much of the talk about swapping Airbus A330s for Boeing 737s is anecdotal, and how much can be measured and proven?
Australian Business Traveller, using data provided by FlightAware, has crunched the numbers on over 14,000 one-way flights between Perth and Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – measured every three months between August 2015 and May 2017 – and shown how the mix of Airbus A330 and Boeing 737 flights has changed over time, by airline and by route.
Cancelled, diverted, cargo-only and ‘positioning’ flights (where no passengers are on board) have been excluded from our calculations, while in the case of aircraft swaps between A330s and Boeing 737s, we’ve counted only the aircraft type that flew – not the aircraft type that was scheduled but didn’t fly.
As expected, most travellers setting foot on an east-west flight today are far more likely to be on a Boeing 737 than an Airbus A330 compared to the past few years.
Here’s what we found.
Qantas: Airbus A330s on Sydney-Perth-Sydney flights
Between Sydney and Perth (including flights in both directions), the number of Qantas A330 flights has slowly decreased over time – reduced from 354 services in August 2015 to 270 in May 2017 – despite the overall number of flights (across both aircraft types) winding back only marginally from 418 to 400 in the same months.
August 2015 also saw the lowest number of Boeing 737 flights with a 15% chance of one arriving at your cross-country boarding gate, while in May 2017, almost one third of Sydney-Perth and Perth-Sydney flights found a Boeing 737 assigned to the job.
Qantas: Airbus A330s on Melbourne-Perth-Melbourne flights
At least three quarters of all flights between Melbourne and Perth were aboard Airbus A330s over the time periods we measured, except in August 2015 and again in May 2017 when approximately one in every three flights took wing using a Boeing 737.
That’s despite the total number of flights in May 2017 being almost unchanged from 12 months prior – 427 flights across both aircraft types against 424 total flights in May 2016 – and although travellers had a slightly better chance of scoring an A330 in February 2017 (79%) compared to the same month in 2016 (75%), the total number of flights on both jets had decreased.
Qantas: Airbus A330s on Brisbane-Perth-Brisbane flights
Between Brisbane and Perth, Qantas Boeing 737s now outnumber A330s on the cross-country trek, with 128 Boeing 737 flights in May 2017 versus 113 Airbus A330 runs during the same month.
In February 2017, the gap was even wider with 138 Boeing 737 flights against 104 Airbus A330s – finding only 43% of flights with the more favourable plane and Qantas' Business Suites – yet in all months prior, your chances of catching an A330 were much higher between the same cities, ranging from 58% to 65%, and the overall number of flights each month not having materially changed compared to the year before.
AusBT review: Qantas Airbus A330 Business Suite business class
Virgin Australia: Airbus A330s on Sydney-Perth-Sydney flights
Virgin Australia’s year-on-year flight totals were also relatively unchanged between Sydney and Perth, but despite the number of Boeing 737 flights significantly decreasing from February 2016 (69 flights) to February 2017 (23 flights), that surged to 70 Boeing 737 flights in May 2017:
That’s still an improvement on the earliest-recorded figures in August 2015 – where A330s handled 151 flights and Boeing 737s ran 84 – and the total number of A330 flights measured in the ‘August 2016 to May 2017’ period (754 flights) was indeed greater overall than between August 2015 and May 2016 (685 flights).
Virgin Australia: Airbus A330s on Melbourne-Perth-Melbourne flights
Following boosts in August and November 2016, Virgin Australia’s Airbus A330 flights between Melbourne and Perth have more recently been pared back to the same numbers as in February and May 2016:
Boeing 737 flights were also relatively unchanged between November 2015 and February 2017, but hit a high in May 2017, serving on 120 flights against 175 Airbus A330 legs.
However, compared to the same month in 2016, this uptick reflects an increase in the total number of flights between Melbourne and Perth year-on-year (295 in May 2017 versus 263 in May 2016), rather than a ‘reduction’ in Airbus A330 flights, with the widebody jet handling 175 sectors in May 2017, versus 173 flights in May 2016.
Virgin Australia: Airbus A330s on Brisbane-Perth-Brisbane flights
Queensland flyers were the least likely to step aboard a Virgin Australia Airbus A330, with the overwhelming majority of flights between Brisbane and Perth using Boeing 737s.
Airbus A330 flights peaked in November 2016 at 56 of 215 total monthly flights – but that dropped to 28 of 200 flights in February 2017 and to 14 of 218 flights in May 2017: still an improvement compared to just five A330s in May 2016 against 223 total flights, but still gives Brisbane passengers very little chance to fly in The Business.
Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Airbus A330s on Perth flights
Crunching the numbers across all 14,637 Qantas and Virgin Australia transcontinental flights measured in this report, we can also see how the overall percentage of Airbus A330 flights has changed over time for both airlines.
For instance, only Qantas passengers between Melbourne and Perth and Virgin Australia flyers between Sydney and Perth had a higher chance of scoring an Airbus A330 in May 2017 compared to August 2015, with the odds having decreased in all other cases.
We can also see that between November 2016 – when most routes had the highest levels of A330 flights – and May 2017, the percentage of those A330 legs decreased across both airlines and all three city pairs.
Hardest-hit were Brisbane flyers with both airlines reducing Airbus A330 flights by approximately 20 percentage points, and although Virgin Australia’s Sydney-Perth-Sydney flights were still the most likely to be served by an Airbus A330, those chances also declined by 17 percentage points over the same period.