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On his recent trip to Australia, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen got the chance to fly Qantas’ new business class from Sydney to Perth. Here’s his review of the experience.
There are more airline options than ever to get to Australia from the US, including the recent announcement of American Airlines’ new service from LAX-Sydney slated to begin in December — but unfortunately, most of the business-class seats on these routes are pretty unexciting. Virgin Australia and Qantas have relatively old-fashioned (but still fully horizontal) lie-flat seats. Air New Zealand’s Business Premier cabin is quite stylish, but laid out in what now seems like an obsolete herringbone pattern, as is Delta One aboard the 777-200LRs it flies from LAX-SYD. United’s 787-9s on the LAX-Melbourne route have the airline’s standard lie-flat business-class seats. Nice … but not inspiring.
I recently redeemed American Airlines miles for an award ticket in business class on Qantas from Los Angeles to Perth via Sydney; I was most excited about the Sydney-Perth leg, as it offered the possibility to try out Qantas’ new business-class cabin aboard the airline’s A330.
Last December, Qantas began rolling out its new B/E Aerospace Super Diamond business-class seats aboard its A330 aircraft (both the 200s it uses domestically and the 300s it flies internationally), at a rate of about one aircraft per month, aiming to get ahead of Virgin Australia’s refit of its A330s and 777-300ERs. Virgin’s new seats will resemble a sleek, black and brushed-metal version of American and Cathay’s reverse-herringbone seats, and we should start seeing them on domestic routes (including Sydney-Perth) later this year; Virgin then plans to begin rolling out its refitted 777-300ERs by the end of 2015.
As for Qantas’ seats, there are slight differences between the two A330 versions (e.g., a few inches more recline when upright), but for the purposes of this review, I’ll be discussing my experience aboard a domestic A330-200.
Booking My Ticket and How To Use Miles
I wanted to get to Perth because I planned to head about 790 miles north from there to Exmouth, Western Australia to swim with the whale sharks (the season is roughly from April-September). I found a business-class award from Los Angeles to Sydney and one available connecting flight from Sydney to Perth, so I quickly booked before that precious award space disappeared.
The price came to 62,500 miles + $43 in taxes and fees. However, because I have the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard, I got a 10% cardholder mileage refund, so the total mileage requirement was just 56,250 … a relative steal for about 20 hours of flying in business class!
That’s the best option out there in terms of miles and taxes/fees, but if you don’t have American miles, you still have some choices, especially if you’re already in Australia and just want to fly from Sydney-Perth, or on one of the other routes the airline flies this craft.
You could use British Airways Avios, but since the April devaluation, the price from Los Angeles-Perth via Sydney in business class would be an astronomical 187,500 Avios each way! Sydney-Perth alone each way would be a more reasonable 37,500 Avios. (Note that American would charge you just 17,500 miles.) If you’re not stocked up on Avios, you could opt to transfer points into your British Airways account from either Chase Ultimate Rewards (if you have the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus); Amex Membership Rewards (before the October devaluation of this transfer ratio); or Starwood Preferred Guest.
Qantas’ Frequent Flyer program is also one of the new 1:1 transfer partners of Citi ThankYou Rewards if you have the Citi ThankYou Premier or Prestige cards. However, it’s not really a great option, since a business-class award from Sydney-Perth would require 36,000 Qantas points each way. You could also consider just buying a ticket and using Qantas miles to upgrade. The flight clocks in at 2,041 miles. Having a look at the Qantas Classic Reward Upgrade table below…
You would need 20,000 miles each way to upgrade from a discount economy ticket to business class, or 10,000 miles each way from a full-fare economy ticket.
Finding the Right Flight
Now for the next part of my strategy. Qantas currently operates two flights in each direction from Sydney to Perth daily using its latest A330-200s with the new lie-flat business-class seats aboard. The challenge was trying to find award availability on one of those flights.
The award ticket I booked had me arriving into Sydney at about 6am and departing to Perth at about 10am. Unfortunately, that flight was aboard one of the old A330s with recliner-style seats. However, the 8:10am flight from Sydney to Perth (QF 575) does operate on the new A330. It’s a bit hard to tell which flights are which, but there are two easy ways I found to do it. The first is to make a dummy booking on Orbitz and look at the seat selection. The second is just to check Routehappy.com, which lists the flights that have lie-flat seats on this route.
Qantas also flies its new A330s on routes from Sydney to Melbourne, Brisbane, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Honolulu and Shanghai; Singapore from Melbourne; and Brisbane to Perth, Hong Kong and Singapore. But not all these flights operate every day, so you have to do a little sleuthing to make sure your flight will feature the new business class.
In the weeks before my trip, I kept checking both AA.com and ExpertFlyer day by day to see if an award seat opened up on the earlier 8:10am flight from Sydney to Perth. But even the day before, nothing was showing — it looked like I might be out of luck. When I got to the airport in LA for my first flight to Sydney, I asked the agent at the check-in desk about switching to the earlier flight, but after conferring with her supervisor, she told me that because it was an American Airlines award ticket, I would have to call AA to try to change it. I decided not to, since AA.com didn’t show any award availability and I figured it would be a wild goose chase.
But I still had one more trick up my sleeve. My flight arrived into Sydney right on time at 6am, and I zipped through customs and immigration via the SmartGate thanks to my Global Entry membership. I was the first person at the transfer desk to recheck my suitcase, so I asked the agent there to see if it might be possible to switch me to the 8:10am flight so I wouldn’t have to wait around for four hours. (It was just coming up on 6:45am, more than enough time to transfer to the domestic terminal and even stop by the lounge before the earlier flight.) She looked at the flight for me and promptly gave me a new boarding pass for my new flight. Score! And as we always say at The Points Guy, it never hurts to ask.
I asked for one of the seats along the side of the plane so I wouldn’t have to sit next to anyone, but she said they were all booked. Instead, she gave me a seat in the middle two-seat section, but said that the flight wasn’t full and there was no one sitting next to me, so I still counted that as a win.
Flying domestic business entitled me to access the Qantas lounge, so I rushed over there for a snack and a flat white. (Next year, Qantas plans to open a new business-class lounge in Perth for business-class passengers.) After my coffee, I proceeded to my gate where boarding was set to commence.
Unfortunately, there was a problem and boarding started about 20 minutes late. Later, on the plane, the captain explained that the auxiliary engine they use to start up the main engines and other systems (but not actually to fly) had been malfunctioning and they had had to get a jump start then try to cool off the cabin before boarding. Once that was done, though, everything proceeded like clockwork.
The new A330 business class is comprised of 28 seats in seven staggered rows split into two cabins. The forward cabin, just behind the cockpit and galley, has five rows on the sides and six in the middle (for a total of 22), while the back cabin is smaller and has one row on each side of the plane and two in the middle (for a total of six seats).
The layout is 1 x 2 x 1 and slightly staggered, so that the eye-lines don’t quite match up across the cabin from the side seats to the middle seats. Like Delta’s 767-400 business class, the seats themselves are also slightly staggered; those along the sides have wider armrests which alternate from the window in one row to the aisle in the next. Those armrests are actually the foot wells for the seat behind when it reclines into a bed.
Each seat is 23-25 inches wide (depending whether your wide armrest is on the aisle or not) and reclines to a fully lie-flat bed of 79 inches. The main seat reclines into a mattress and extends to include the foot well beneath the ottoman portion of the seat.
Designed by Marc Newson and built by Thompson Aero Seating, the seats themselves are pretty swanky, with stitched black-leather upholstery, neutral blond-wood paneling and, as I mentioned, enormous armrests on one side. On overnight long-haul flights, each seat is laid with eye-catching purple duvets, full-size pillows and a set of pajamas.
In the middle two-seat sections, one seat will have a narrow armrest on the aisle (which actually retracts, adding a few extra inches of width to the seat) and a big one with cubby storage space (that fit my laptop and cord) between the lower section of the seats. There’s also another cubby next to the armrest that was big enough for a small tablet or phone and a few other effects. Then the other seat has another big armrest on its aisle.
The seat itself, which can be reclined up to 21 degrees before takeoff (the international version gets up to 25 degrees), is controlled by a panel on the side of the armrest and can be manipulated into any number of positions; this panel also includes a “do not disturb” button for when you just want to snooze.
There’s a universal adapter and USB port beside the backrest, a hook holding a pair of Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones and another narrow slot that could hold some magazines or papers. Soft LED lighting underneath the control consoles makes for a nice ambiance, and there’s also a reading light next to the headrest of the seat.
If you plug a personal device such as your iPhone or iPad into the USB port, you can access your digital content via the in-flight entertainment system, or if you prefer, you can stream the plane’s entertainment options to your own device via Qantas’ Q Stream Wi-Fi service.
The 16-inch in-flight entertainment screens are mounted on the back of the preceding seat. You control the entertainment selections either by touching the screen directly, or with the handheld stowed alongside your seat; note that the remote compartment lid actually has a little mirror for touching up your makeup, etc. I found the entertainment choices pretty extensive, including quite a few new-release films, as well as TV shows from around the world. The screens also tilt a little bit, making them easier to watch when you’re reclined or in lie-flat mode — a rarity even in other great lie-flat business-class cabins. I also learned that the screens have an ambient-light detector so that when the cabin lights brighten or dim, the screen brightness should adjust accordingly.
If you’re traveling alone, these new seats are fantastic. Thanks to the fixed paneling and staggered sight lines, you can spend the flight not looking at anyone else. However, if you’re traveling with a companion, the panels in the middle sections can be a bit of an impediment since you have to lean all the way forward or even stand up to talk to the person next to you.
You’ll have more privacy if you can get a seat that has the thick aisle-side armrest because it insulates you from noise and movement on the aisle. However, it also makes getting into and out of the seat a little bit harder since the space between the armrest and the back of the seat in front of you is under one foot. If you have mobility issues, you might want to take that into consideration.
Be aware that there’s just one lavatory for the entire business-class cabin, which can occasionally result in a traffic jam. To use one of three lavs back in economy, you’ll have to trek past 16 forward economy cabin rows. Also note that the last row of business class should be avoided; it’s separated from the economy cabin only by a thin divider, where bassinets tend to be set up for families traveling with infants.
Upon boarding, I noticed that there were three seats along the side of the plane in the main cabin that went empty the whole flight. Meanwhile, in the aft cabin, I was the only person seated in any of the four middle seats … for a while.
About 15 minutes into the flight, a flight attendant brought a man back from the main cabin and seated him next to me because his entertainment system wasn’t working. I don’t know why she didn’t seat him in the row behind me since that was empty, but as soon as he started guffawing at whatever he happened to be watching — and kept doing so for about 10 minutes — I got up and moved back a row so that I could have it all to myself, concentrate on working for a while and then get in a quiet nap.
Meal service started about 20 minutes into the flight with a selection of juices and smoothies. Then it continued to unfold over the next 90 minutes, which seemed way too long for a flight of that length — especially for a breakfast. Part of the delay was due to the galley’s small size and its location beside the lone lavatory, but the fact that there’s no cart service didn’t help, either; the flight attendants serve each passenger individually, bringing linens, tableware and dishes to them one by one. My location in the very back of the cabin ensured that I was among the last passengers served.
That said, the seat’s spacious table was great as both a desk and a serving space. It was ergonomically shaped (sort of like a kidney bean) and swung easily back and forth when I wanted to get up, and the arched line on the inside edge gave me a little extra room.
I started my breakfast with a pineapple-and-ginger juice infusion, then I elected to have the Greek-style yogurt with raspberry and pomegranate compote served with a slice of banana bread (the other option was zucchini and parmesan truffle). Among the mains was a seasonal fruit plate, Brookfarm macadamia-nut-toasted muesli with apricots, and a roast beef sandwich with slow-roasted tomatoes and aioli on rosemary sourdough.
I was feeling pretty hungry, so I ordered the most substantial option: an omelette with pan-fried pork sausage, field mushrooms, aged cheddar and herb relish. It was pretty decent for an airline omelette, but quite heavy, and I only managed to eat about half of it.
After breakfast, it was time for my long-awaited nap. On the international flights, there’s a mattress cover — but not on the domestic ones. So I just reclined the seat fully, spread out the purple duvet and placed my pillow at the head of the seat, then popped on my earplugs and the eye mask I’d gotten on my international flight and shimmied into the seat. International flights on these craft provide amenity kits — Kate Spade for ladies and Jack Spade for gents — but there are none provided on Qantas’ domestic routes.
I’m 5’8” and had heaps (as my Aussie friends would say) of room, managing to sleep on my stomach and both of my sides over the two hours or so that I dozed. I think if you’re over 6’4” you might be crowded, but the seat is still pretty spacious.
When I woke up, we had about 30 minutes until landing, and were about to commence our descent. That was still enough time to ask the flight attendants for a coffee as I went to the restroom, and by the time I was back at my seat, they’d poured it and left me some sugar and milk as well as a Sablé cookie to enjoy.
Despite a few shortcomings and hiccups — like the single lavatory and prolonged meal service — this was an utterly delightful flight to be on, and a great business-class product that puts most US carriers to shame.
It beats American and United’s transcontinental business class hands down. While those are also lie-flat, they’re in a 2 x 2 configuration. Qantas’ new business class most resembles Delta’s transcontinental service, but the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond business-class seats are much better designed, and much more private.
I’d love to try Virgin Australia’s new transcontinental and international A330 business class when it debuts, but for first-to-market advantage and the foresight to put in a premier premium cabin, Qantas gets my kudos for now. As I did with my own plans, I’d recommend you go out of your way to experience it compared to the other products currently on the market.
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