Qantas is currently upgrading a number of Boeing 717-200 aircraft belonging to its QantasLink regional arm with a new business class cabin and inflight service to match.
The revamped Boeing 717s already feature on selected flights between Canberra and Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
As of April the same aircraft will also appear on all Hobart flights, replacing the larger Boeing 737s as Qantas hands its Hobart services over to QantasLink.
So just how does the QantasLink Boeing 717 and its new business class service stack up? Read on!
As with mainline Qantas flights, QantasLink passengers can either check-in online or by using the Faster, Smarter Check-in system at the airport.
Travellers with a business class ticket can also use the premium service desks to deposit checked bags, or can obtain a boarding pass in the lounge if travelling with only carry-on luggage.
Irrespective of frequent flyer status or Qantas Club membership, all business class passengers receive the same complimentary baggage allowance of two checked bags, with each piece weighing a maximum of 32kg.
Business class passengers receive screening priority at the security checkpoint – accessible via a dedicated signed queue on the left-hand side.
Business class passengers can access Qantas' domestic business lounges prior to departure, along with one guest who needn't be travelling.
If you're like me and identify as a self-confessed 'coffee snob', a pit stop in the lounge is must – you'll only find the usual plunger coffee on board, though that's to be expected of a short domestic flight.
I must say, I take my hat off to the baristas in the Brisbane lounge... despite powering through a never-ending line of coffee orders, they still remembered my 'usual' when I approached again twenty minutes later.
On both occasions, the beverages were expertly poured – with a perfect 1cm of froth at the top, and a rosetta (latte art) to boot!
The lounge also offers a range of hot and cold buffet options, including an old favourite – pancakes with maple syrup.
Business class passengers, Platinum Frequent Flyers and oneworld Emerald members are eligible to use the fast track 'premium boarding' lane, along with their accompanying party.
I arrived to find a reasonably long queue branching back from the gate, though I couldn't spot the premium boarding lane from the back – overhead signage would be very beneficial here.
Fortunately, I'd departed from this particular gate before and knew where to find it, so I made my way down... though there was nobody else in the premium queue, there was only one member of staff scanning boarding passes – located on the 'general' side.
Instead of inviting me across, the crew member ignored me and continued to scan boarding passes from the general queue – until one of the passengers invited me to board ahead of them. I don't think this is how priority boarding is supposed to work.
Alas, the premium boarding lane was still faster than the general queue, though could use with a little tweaking.
The crew had closed all of the overhead lockers in the business class cabin before boarding commenced, which helped to keep the space available for passengers travelling at the pointy end.
As such, I had no trouble finding space for my rollaboard, though as my bag is the maximum 'legal' size for most airlines (105cms), it could only fit in sideways on my side – though could slide straight into the larger lockers on the right-hand side.
Once seated, I was greeted by QantasLink flight attendent Ambar with an offer of chilled water or an apple, pear and strawberry juice. I chose the latter, and it was deliciously refreshing.
Like the 737-400, there's no curtain between the business and economy cabins, though there is a floor-to-ceiling bulkhead between rows 3 and 4, which doubles as a closet.
QF1545 left the gate moments behind schedule, and reached Canberra just seven minutes late – in the aviation industry, the flight would be considered 'on-time' for both departure and arrival.
QantasLink's new Boeing 717 business class offers travellers a much improved ride over the comparable Boeing 737-400 seating.
The leather seats are rather comfortable, while an adjustable headrest will surely come in handy if you've planned to take a power nap between cities.
Absent is a leg rest and adjustable lumbar support functionality, though they aren't really a necessity on flights of this length.
Unlike many bulkhead seats, I actually found the legroom in 1A to be very spacious – even at 6ft tall, my feet could not comfortably reach the bulkhead wall when they were resting on the floor.
Take note of seats 1D and 1F though – legroom is reduced by about an inch, as the bulkhead on that side is physically closer to the seat.
I also took the opportunity to sit in other rows, where at 39" pitch, the forward legroom was ample – even when trying to stretch out.
Each passenger in business class has access to a 110V 60Hz power source, capped at 75 watts:
If it's not working, look for a green light at the top – the crew forgot to switch the power on here, although a simple request fixed that.
While USB power is found on the newer 737 fleet, you won't yet find it on the 717s. However, a Qantas spokeswoman has revealed to Australian Business Traveller that personal high-power USB ports will be retrofitted over the coming months.
Naturally, row 1 provides the best chance to work uninterrupted, as there's nobody in front to recline their seat.
However, even if you're in rows 2 or 3, a fully reclined seat in front won't stop you from dining, using your laptop or enjoying the in-flight entertainment, as our model demonstrates:
The tray table is also quite sturdy – it's a single tray (not the type that folds out and then flips open), so it's perfect for writing on or for placing a laptop.
Although the flight is only marketed as a 'refreshment' service, the meal options are still quite filling.
On the side was a warmed granola muffin and Greek-style yoghurt with plum compote, both of which were quite tasty and refreshing.
Two options were given for the main – a cold smoked ocean trout with zucchini & haloumi fritters, slow roasted tomatoes and rocket, or a grilled mushroom and Gruyère toasted sandwich.
I'd already eaten a little breakfast in the lounge, so I went with the trout... as you can see up close, the presentation was excellent:
Seasoned with cracked pepper, the dish was fantastic and certainly exceeded my expectations on a QantasLink aircraft.
As with many Qantas mainline breakfast services, sparkling wine by the piccolo is available – on this flight, it was the Grant Burge Pinot Noir Chardonnay (NV), quite a drinkable Aussie drop!
Entertainment & Service
Business class passengers are given iPads to keep themselves entertained, equipped with the familiar Q Streaming functionality and able to be mounted on the bulkhead – making things much easier at chow time.
Unfortunately though, if you've brought your own headphones with you, you may have trouble actually using them as the bulkhead is quite far from the seat – pictured below is a standard Apple set connected to the Qantas iPad...
... as you can see, the cable is taut (and quite uncomfortable to use in this way).
While the Qantas-supplied headphones have a cable long enough to suit a fully reclined passenger in the first row, the sound output is of extremely poor quality... the clarity of the audio (particularly spoken word) just isn't there, and the bass frequencies are practically non-existent... even on maximum volume, it's near-impossible to understand the dialogue!
I could see the passenger in seat 1F experiencing the same problems – he gave up after a few minutes, and just returned to his reading. It's a shame to see such a nifty idea go to waste!
My recommendation here is to bring your own headphones, and if that happens to be a traditional Apple set, pack a small extension cord too... you'll thank me!
If you forget, you can always place the iPad on your tray table before and after the meal service.
(Headphone cable length wasn't an issue in rows 2 or 3, as the iPad is closer to your seat.)
The cabin was barely half full, which meant that the business class crew to passenger ratio was 2:5 – though one of the crew members remained in the galley to assist with the catering and general management duties.
After orchestrating an impeccable meal service, Ambar returned to the cabin to refresh drinks, and offered first-time Canberra travellers tips on getting around town (along with the 'must see' sights)... more so, she seemed to genuinely like her job, and appeared happy to be at work.
She also seemed to have memorised the passenger list, as I observed her greeting all business passengers by name (even when she was without a tray or trolley).
As there is no curtain or divider between business and economy, the crew seemed to expect the odd border crossing, though promptly directed economy passengers to the rear lavatory if and when they started to walk forward – keeping the forward lavatory free for business passengers to use as required.
Finally, upon arrival into Canberra, a crew member walked swiftly to act as a virtual curtain between business and economy, allowing business passengers to deplane at their leisure and in privacy.
Despite the QantasLink branding, the quality of service and the friendly yet professional crew made this feel as though I was on a regular Qantas flight.
Putting aside the relatively minor issues surrounding the below-par premium boarding experience, the overall experience was excellent.
Chris Chamberlin was a guest of Qantas Airways and QantasLink.