We'll never do this again: Reviewing Qantas' 747 from San Francisco to Sydney
More and more Boeing 747s are disappearing from the skies. With demand falling, there is little need for an airplane that can fly 400 people, so airlines are announcing their retirement before they were originally planning to. First Dutch airline KLM and Australia's Qantas said they would not fly again the 747s grounded due to the coronavirus; this week it was the turn of Virgin Atlantic. The list of airlines still flying the most iconic of airplanes is getting shorter.
But we want to give the Jumbo Jet a fitting salute. So, Wednesday we republished our last review of a Virgin 747. Today, to remember another one of those now-gone Boeing giants, we are republishing a story that originally appeared on our site on August 27, 2017. TPG’s Global News Editor Emily McNutt flew her first, and last, Qantas 747 from San Francisco to Sydney for a review. Compounding the nostalgia factor, Emily flew from New York to San Francisco on Virgin America, an airline that is no more. Check back next weekend for another trip down memory lane with a review of the KLM 747.
This article has been edited from the original. Note that Australia and New Zealand are currently barring foreigners from entering because of the risk they may carry the COVID-19 virus.
I arrived at a domestic terminal after my Virgin America flight from New York and made my way to the international terminal. I'd landed much earlier than would have been ideal — about six hours before my flight was scheduled to board — so by the time I reached the Qantas check-in area, the counters weren't open. To kill some time, I hung out in the terminal and grabbed a bite to eat.
When the time was finally close enough to check in, the area was rather empty. In fact, when I got the the check-in area, I was the first to queue up in the economy line. There were premium cabin check-in lines too, but those were also empty.
Once a line started to form, agents made their way behind the counters to check travelers in.
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The process of checking in was seamless; the agent asked if I'd yet gotten my visa, which I had. Note that if you don't get an Australian visa in advance, you can get one while checking in with a Qantas agent.
Lounge and Boarding
After security, I headed to the Air France/KLM Lounge, which was also labeled as a Qantas Lounge. Because I'm a Oneworld Sapphire member, I was able to enter the lounge for free.
Once inside, I was surprised by how narrow it was. Thankfully, there was an entire rear area with more seating.
Prior to a long flight, I wanted to relax and have something good to eat. Unfortunately, when I first arrived, the lounge was extremely crowded, and the only seat that was available was a barstool–style chair at the window.
Seating issues aside, I was still able to eat. There were standard options in a self-serve refrigerator — some sad-looking vegetables, salad, yogurt and more.
There were also some other warm (and cold) choices out in the open. The fare was a bit better than standard domestic lounge food, but it was still nothing when compared with some international lounges I've been in. On a buffet were focaccia sandwiches, a baguette sandwich, roasted vegetables, fried rice and other selections. Self-serve alcohol was also available. I tried a white wine — which was nothing special.
About 45 minutes before boarding, I left the lounge and headed for the gate. When I arrived, our beautiful Queen of the Skies was waiting for us.
The gate itself was located on a lower level of SFO, and it was pretty secluded from the rest of the terminal. Once it was time to board, I lined up in the priority lane.
Other than a boarding process that was slightly delayed to begin with, getting on the plane was easy.
Cabin and Seat
This Qantas 747-400 had three cabins: business, premium economy and economy. In all, the business-class cabin was composed of 58 flat-bed seats arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration downstairs and a 2-2 configuration upstairs. Each of the seats had 60 inches of pitch and 21.5 inches of width.
In order to get to the economy cabin downstairs, I first had to pass through the premium economy cabin. This cabin, where the seats were upholstered in purple, held 36 seats in a 2-4-2 configuration. It looked spacious, especially the two seats on the sides. Each had 38 inches of pitch and was 19 inches wide.
Eventually, I made it back to the economy cabin, where the seats were upholstered in a golden yellow color in the front section and in a green color in the rear section. The economy cabin was composed of 270 seats in a 3-4-3 configuration.
Each of the economy seats had 31 inches of pitch and was 17.5 inches wide.
The real sweet spot of the economy cabin was at the rear of the aircraft. At row 69, the cabin changes from a 3-4-3 configuration to a 2-4-2 configuration, offering extra space to those sitting along the cabin walls, especially for the passenger sitting in the — what would be — middle seat, there's plenty of space between the armrest and the wall.
Upon boarding, each of the seats in economy was given a pillow, a plastic-wrapped blanket and a set of headphones.
The seats also featured adjustable headrests with folds, so passengers' heads are supported while trying to get some sleep.
Each of the seats in the economy cabin had its own in-flight entertainment screen built into the seat back in front. The black seat back and in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen was pretty sleek for an economy cabin — even if the seat upholstery did look a little outdated to me.
Each of the seats had a mesh storage bin under the seat back in front. I ended up using it to store a sweater, my laptop and a book so it wasn't impeding my knee room as much. Thankfully, the mesh bin — even when it was full — didn't interfere with my foot room while I was stretched out. This was a nice feature in the economy cabin, where personal storage can sometimes be hard to come by. Especially at the window seat, I didn't have to worry about bothering my seatmates in order to get up to the overhead bin to access my belongings.
I felt that my knee room would have been more impeded if I put my belongings in the seat-back compartment. Although it definitely was not a lie-flat business-class seat, I didn't feel like this was the most constraining economy seat I've ever been in.
Overall, the economy seat and cabin wasn't the worst I've ever had, which was welcome for a long-haul flight like this. Although I wish I had been able to snag one of the two-seat rows toward the rear of the cabin, I was a fan of the comfortable and adjustable headrests and the mesh bin by my feet. Economy seats are as bare-bones as they get, but I was a bit surprised by how comfortable this was.
Food and Beverage
There's no hiding the fact that the meal service on this flight was no business-class Emirates experience. That said, there were some highlights — and lowlights — of meal service.
For my main course, I opted for the penne pasta with creamy tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. The sauce was a little too seasoned, but overall, it wasn't bad for an in-flight meal. To go along with my dinner, I also opted for a white Australian wine, which was refreshing and well-suited to pair with pasta. Dinner was served with bread and dessert: white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake. The "raspberry" in the cheesecake was a thin, gelatinous layer on the top of the cheesecake, which really turned me off. The cheesecake itself, however, was rather tasty.
Other options for dinner included a teriyaki chicken salad with Asian coleslaw and toasted sesame dressing or Hungarian beef goulash with roast potatoes and mixed vegetables.
About halfway through the flight, while the cabin lights were still dimmed, flight attendants came around with boxed pizza — no, not the kind of box you're probably thinking of. Instead, they were small cardboard boxes with a thin slice of flatbread inside. The "pizza" was topped with tomato and peppers with feta and basil, but instead of tasting like any of those ingredients, it was very chemical-tasting. I didn't finish mine.
It appeared that flight attendants didn't bother disturbing any sleeping passengers. Instead, they were only offered a "pizza" if they were awake. I wish I'd been asleep to avoid it altogether.
The meal service rebounded, as we approached arrival into SYD, with breakfast. About two hours before landing, FAs came around with an offering of scrambled eggs with bacon, sausage, mushrooms, hash browns and roasted tomatoes, or a seasonal fruit platter. I opted for the latter; the fruit was fresh and I'm glad I made the right choice.
Both breakfast options were served with an orange and cranberry muffin and yogurt with blueberries. The muffin was good, but the blueberries in the yogurt were a little sour and soggy.
While the food was not premium-class level, for economy on a super-long-haul flight it was not as bad as one might expect. And when the meal service dipped in quality, it was quickly redeemed by a solid breakfast.
In-Flight Entertainment and Service
On such a long flight — nearly 14 hours — in-flight entertainment plays a critical role in how enjoyable the flight can be. Thankfully, the in-flight entertainment screens were not only decently sized, but they also had a fair share of options that kept me occupied.
I watched two movies and several TV episodes — the system had a good amount of options, both American and international. When I slept, which I did a lot of on the flight, I either kept the monitor off or switched it to the flight-tracking channel.
Unfortunately, there was no amenity kit in economy — even on such a long flight. As far as extras did go, you essentially got what was on your seat when boarding: a pillow, a blanket and a set of headphones. Additionally, there was no Wi-Fi on board. But while it would have been nice to stay connected, it was pretty relaxing to be unreachable until touching down in Sydney.
I'm a believer that service can make or break a flight. Unfortunately, on this flight, the cabin crew wasn't too friendly — but they weren't as unfriendly as I've experienced with domestic carriers in the past. Service was fast and efficient during meals, but it could have been much more genial and accommodating — a simple smile or acknowledgement of a passenger are steps in the right direction.
For as daunting an undertaking as this flight from the West Coast to Sydney seemed, for a price tag of just $361 round-trip, it was very much worth it. Yes, the trip would have been much nicer and more comfortable had I been sitting in a premium cabin, but it wasn't uncomfortable. The seats were more than adequately cushioned, and I was able to store some of my personal items in the mesh container below the seat in front of me.
While the food wasn't the best, it certainly wasn't the worst and the in-flight entertainment options helped to keep me occupied for the nearly 14-hour flight. If given another opportunity to purchase another sub-$400 ticket round-trip between the US and Australia with Qantas, I'd definitely jump at it. This Qantas 747 aircraft was perfectly comfortable for an economy product, and I'd consider flying it again in the future.
All photos by the author.