Awesome Aussie: A review of Qantas first class on the A380, Melbourne to LAX
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[tpg_rating ticket-class="first" tpg-rating-score="83" ground-experience="18" cabin-seat="16" amens-ife="8" food-bev="23" service="18" pros="Excellent ground experience in Melbourne, great onboard service, comfortable bedding and an outstanding value with points." cons="Drawn-out meal service, somewhat dated hard product and IFE system." /]
In the points-and-miles world, certain flight redemptions are unicorns. In other words, they're not easily booked with points and miles, and a cash ticket is simply out of the question. One such unicorn is Qantas first class on board its Airbus A380s. There are relatively few seats available in first between the U.S. and Australia, and Qantas doesn't make seats available very often through partner programs, like Alaska's MileagePlan.
However, for a couple of hours one day earlier this year, there were a few awards seats open in the coveted first-class cabin on the Melbourne (MEL)-to-Los Angeles (LAX) route. I knew that availability would be fleeting, so I wasted no time in booking myself a seat on what would become one of my favorite (or should I say "favourite") flights of the year.
If you're able to book a seat in Qantas first class through Alaska MileagePlan, you're really getting an outstanding value. We used 70,000 miles and spent about $20 in taxes and fees to book the one-way flight from Melbourne to L.A. According to TPG's current valuations, those 70,000 Alaska miles were worth $1,260. Cash prices for a one-way ticket on that route hover around $6,500, while you won't spend any less than $10,000 for a round-trip, so we got this flight for a relative bargain.
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[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="20" tail="VH-OQE" age="10" departure="09" departure-2="19" duration="14" duration-2="19" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Beside the flight itself, I was very excited to get the Qantas first ground experience in Melbourne, which began before I even got to the airport. I was contacted the evening before my flight by a Qantas host dedicated to arranging the ground experience for first-class customers. She explained that since I was departing from Melbourne, I'd have access to a complimentary 20-minute massage before my flight.
I'd read about various in-lounge spa experiences in airports around the world, but to this point had never gotten to experience one for myself. Needless to say, I was eager to wake up the next morning and get the whole thing underway. My flight was scheduled to depart at 9:15 a.m., but I barely slept the night before (thanks jet lag and AvGeek excitement), so I got to Melbourne airport about three and a half hours before to partake in all the festivities.
Qantas maintains a separate first-class check-in area at Terminal 2. It's a small space, but with relatively few passengers flying first-class, that's no problem. There were two desks and a few chairs in the corners of the room, but there were bigger and better things waiting beyond this preliminary check-in area, so I went right to the desk and was met by an agent who began the check-in process.
Another agent took my bag and put it on a luggage cart like you'd find in a hotel and wheeled it quietly away. Moments later, I was given my boarding pass and was told where to find the first-class lounge I was invited to.
I breezed through security and the duty free area and made my way into the terminal to take a look around before finally heading to the lounge.
The Qantas first-class lounge at Melbourne is in Terminal 2 near Gate 9. I found the entrance simple but classy, with white marble and dark, dark floors surrounding a frosted glass sliding door.
After entering, I found the check-in desks, which were faced by a greenery-covered wall.
When I checked in, an agent came up to me to explain that my selected seat, 2K, was no longer an option for me, as the inflight entertainment was inoperable. At first, I was filled with dread, as I automatically assumed no window seats would be available. However, the agent told me that there was another window seat, 5A, still open. Even though I would have preferred my original seat, it really didn't make much of a difference, and I appreciated the way it was communicated to me before I boarded the plane.
A new boarding pass was printed swiftly for me, and the agent made sure I had an appointment for my massage, which I responded to with an enthusiastic grin. She also told me that she'd be personally escorting me to the gate a few minutes before boarding was scheduled to start because my boarding pass had been marked "SSSS." Typically, I'd grumble to myself (or sometimes to everyone in earshot) if I had this on my boarding pass, but it ended up working in my favor, as I ultimately got to board the aircraft before just about everyone else.
When I arrived at the lounge early in the morning, I was one of the only passengers there, so one of the check-in agents offered to give me a tour of the space. After the tour, I headed straight to the spa.
Yup, I said it. The spa. I hadn't had a massage since about a year before, so I was looking forward to this.
Before going into the treatment room, I was introduced to my masseuse and asked to fill out preliminary health forms. Once we were all ready, I was brought into the treatment room. This wasn't a dinky chair massage. This was the real thing, soothing nature sounds and all. Other spas don't have these views, either!
I asked for a back, shoulders and neck massage, and it was phenomenal. I am not the best judge of massages -- I rarely get them -- but this was great. I felt thoroughly relaxed and wondered why I don't get massages before every flight.
After my pampering, I was peckish, so I made my way to the sit-down dining area. As I passed through the lounge, I noticed that it had filled up quite a bit since I'd gone into my massage. It wasn't crowded, by any means, but it wasn't deserted either.
Practically all the best seats in the house (those with tarmac views, of course) were taken, and the dining room had filled up, as well.
I was shown to a seat at a table that did not have tarmac views, and a waitress came over promptly to take my order.
I asked for a glass of Champagne (yes, it was early, but no, it was not out of line!), a still water and asked what I should eat.
The waitress recommended the sweet corn fritters, which came with bacon, avocado, crème fraiche and tomato jam.
The food was delivered in just a few minutes, and I did not regret my food decision. It was a delicious way to bid adieu to Australia. I did not, however, order the salt-and-pepper squid, because it wasn't yet 11 a.m. There's always next time.
After my breakfast, I did a little more exploring around the lounge. I checked out the showers, which were nicely appointed but otherwise standard in terms of size and offerings. I didn't take a shower, since I'd just done so a couple of hours earlier in my hotel.
Once I was ready to leave the lounge and head to the plane for boarding, I notified the agent who had helped me earlier. We went down a level and then down another one to reach the boarding area, which was filling up with passengers.
I still had to take off my shoes again and go through all of the secondary screening, but since I was the only one doing it, it took barely three minutes. At that point, the agent who had been helping me said goodbye, and I was ready to board the whale for my third-ever A380 flight.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="16" tpg-rating-max="20" configuration="1" configuration-2="1" configuration-3="1" width="23" bed="79" tray="27" tray-2="21" lavs="2" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Qantas' first-class cabin on the A380 is in the most forward part of the lower deck.
There were 14 seats in the cabin, which certainly felt less exclusive and spacious than other first-class cabins that I'd flown in, but thanks to the A380's size, and lack of overhead bins in the center of the cabin, it didn't feel tight.
This wasn't the most beautiful cabin I'd stepped in, but I did like the soothing color scheme and the airiness that the cabin of the A380 created.
The airline is in the process of refitting its A380s, which will bring big changes to business class but not much to first. The IFE screen will get larger, the finishes will be tweaked and the soft product revised. Basically, though, it will be the same product.
I made my way to my new seat, 5A, which was just in front of the galley.
I knew going into the flight that these seats wouldn't the the most cutting-edge or state of the art, and they certainly weren't as private as, say, an Emirates first-class suite on its A380s, but I really didn't have any complaints about my home for 14 hours.
In the fully upright position, the seat faced straight ahead into the "wall" of the seat in front. A small tray pulled down from this wall, and it's where flight attendants served the first couple rounds of drinks and snacks. There was also an air vent located in this wall, which I always appreciate.
Also in the seatback were the power outlets, both AC and USB. To the left of the seat were the main controls for the suite. This (previous-generation) touchscreen controlled everything from the seat's position to the lighting in the suite to the window blinds.
There was also a dedicated cup holder and a few storage areas to the left of the seat, though none of them were particularly practical for any one thing, and I ended up just leaving my stuff scattered on the two shelves throughout the flight.
The seat swiveled into position to face the IFE screen, and it's from this position that it folded into its lie-flat position. In both the upright and lie-flat positions, I found there to be more than enough width, and I was able to sprawl out and get comfortable with no problem.
In bed mode, I was supremely comfortable. The bedding probably helped there (more on that later), but it felt so wide and spacious. I think it helped that the bed reclined at an angle, not straight like an Emirates or a Korean Air would. This pulled my body away from the side walls a bit, thus giving a bit of space. With enclosed suites, you are certainly private -- which I love -- but sometimes they can feel a little tight.
There was accent lighting under the leather crown above the seat, which felt decidedly modern for a 10-year-old product. There were also individual air nozzles at each seat, a blessing on a long flight like this one.
Because of my jet lag and the timing of this flight, I didn't really sleep at all throughout the journey. (The next day was fun, though.) So every so often I'd go for a little walk through the cabin and up the stairs for two reasons: One, it's just really fun to ascend and descend a staircase on an airplane, and, two, I wanted to check out the lounge space Qantas had set up for business- and first-class passengers.
However, each time I went up there, a family was occupying the space. I didn't want to invade their space to take review photos, since they had two young children with them, but trust me when I say you're not missing much. There was a small little snack set up on one side and a few red leather benches on the other. It really was rather sad. On the retrofitted A380s, this will likely be a destination for hanging out during the flight, but it's not great on the 380s that haven't been retrofitted.
There were two lavatories for first-class passengers at the front of the cabin, and while there was a window, there wasn't much else that was remarkable. They were stocked with Aspar hand wash and lotion, though.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="15" movies="265" tv-shows="135" live-tv="No" tailcam="Yes" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Waiting for me on my seat when I arrived were the pillow, duvet, amenity kit, pajamas, slippers and a pair of over-ear headphones that were stored in one of the compartments adjacent to the seat.
The airline-provided headphones were not great, to say the least. These would have barely cut it in business class, never mind first.
I found Qantas' first-class bedding to be excellent. Flight attendants noticed that I was stirring from my seat a little bit after the first meal service was over and asked if I wanted my bed made up. I said yes, please, made my way to the lavatory to change into the pajamas, and voila, the bed was made up better than I can do at home.
The mattress pad made a real difference, and even though I hardly slept on this flight, it did make the journey a lot more comfortable.
The amenity kit itself was smart-looking in various shades of blue fabric and contained: a dental kit; a set of lotions, including hand-and-body cream, face moisturizer, lip moisturizer; hydrating facial mist; a set of earplugs; deodorant; socks; and one of the best eye masks I've ever tried.
The pajamas and slippers were both by Martin Grant and matched the amenity kit in navy blue.
The IFE system itself was clunky. There were menus upon menus, and it just felt like it took a long time to get anywhere with it. The movie and TV selection was plentiful, though, and I easily found content to keep me entertained for most of the flight.
One of the most fun things about this aircraft was the tailcams it was equipped with. It was an AvGeek's dream to watch the world's largest commercial jetliner take off, cruise at altitude and touch down again from that perspective.
There was no Wi-Fi on board, which felt like a major omission. A lot of Qantas' international flights are long, and not being able to be connected at all during those 14 hours was frankly painful. Sometimes it is nice to disconnect on flights, but with plenty of work to do, I was disappointed I really couldn't get any of it finished.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs" dine-on-demand="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
After I boarded and got settled in my seat, the flight attendant came to introduce herself and offer me a glass of Champagne or a soft drink. I couldn't refuse a glass of bubbly, so moments later she came to pour me some Taittinger Blanc de Blancs, which sells for around $150 a bottle retail. I was impressed I was served the really fancy stuff on the ground!
We experienced quite a bit of turbulence on our climb, so the second round of drinks wasn't served until just before 10 a.m. Melbourne time, about 40 minutes after takeoff. For this round, I went with a sauvignon blanc from the Yarra Valley, which I found light and delicious.
Qantas has worked with Australian chef Neil Perry, the co-owner and executive chef at several Australian hotspots including his flagship, Rockpool Bar & Grill, in downtown Sydney.
The flight attendant came to my seat when it was time to place orders for the rest of the meal and explained how the lunch service worked. I could choose from any of the six starters, five main courses and four desserts, plus a cheese course and additional snacks.
She could tell I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of options, so she suggested I turn the page and take a look at the tasting menu, which narrowed the choices considerably and presumably made my life easier. I was already having a day of other people doing things for me, so why should I stop there?
Fifteen minutes after the second round of drinks was served, the canapés came out. Though there was no dedicated caviar course, the tartlet with Pepe Saya crème fraîche had a healthy portion of caviar and made me feel like I was flying first class. It was served with an Ortiz anchovy on top of cherry tomatoes and crostini.
After the canapès were cleared, my tray was set for the main event. First came all the accoutrements for a hearty bread course: butter, coarse sea salt, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I had a choice of three varieties of bread: single-origin sourdough, tomato-and-onion flatbread and caramelized garlic loaf. I was told I could take as many as I liked, and it smelled so good that I wanted to grab about 10, but I just took one garlic, as I'd just spent the last five days eating entirely too much.
Next up was the starter course, which was either a spinach-and-and broccoli soup with crème fraîche and coriander or seared tuna with Moroccan eggplant and cumin mayonnaise. I chose the soup, which was delightfully peppery but not too thick or creamy.
For the main course, I had a choice between the signature snapper poached in garam masala with fine egg noodles and snow peas or the Rockpool Bar & Grill-style Cape Grim beef filet with mac and cheese, sugar snap peas and a choice of barbecue sauce, red gum smoked salt or either seeded or hot English mustard.
They had me at mac and cheese. I know I was being all health conscious about five minutes earlier, but I just couldn't resist it. Oh, and the beef was pretty tasty, too. Overcooked, yes, but it wasn't dried out, and I expect overcooked beef on planes. The sugar snap peas were perfectly cooked too -- not at all mushy. This course was served with a side salad, which could have been bigger.
I asked if I could forgo the cheese course at that time -- I wanted to have it later, when I would be watching movies and inevitably want to nibble on something savory.
Skipping to dessert, I could choose between Koko Black handmade chocolates or a coconut-and-lime pudding with orange curd. I selected the pudding, as it sounded really refreshing. And it was. It was sweet but not overly so, and the portion size was perfect.
After the first meal, I took a very brief nap and soon was awake -- and hungry -- again.
I selected a movie to watch and then pressed the call button to ask for the cheese plate that I'd skipped at lunch. I loved that it was a full plate, too. Not just a small smattering on a tiny plate.
Throughout the flight I wandered into the galley, where FAs had set up a station with a few snacks, fruits, cookies and water, though it was not a full bar setup by any means.
Breakfast was served about 90 minutes before we landed. It was just as an extravagant affair as lunch had been, with a choice of fruits, cereals and yogurts; an assortment of pastries; three different main courses served with my choice of breakfast meats; and five different juices, two of them specialty.
Given the extremely early arrival into L.A. (about 6 a.m. local time), I didn't want to eat too much, and I was actually still quite satisfied from my lunch and subsequent cheese. I just asked if I could have a bowl of the Bircher muesli with apple, almonds and hazelnuts along with a bowl of yogurt and the Botanica Neil Perry signature cold-pressed juice with carrot, mango, pineapple, ginger and apple.
This was the first time I'd had a juice such as this on an airplane, and it was a real standout. It revitalized me after a long flight and didn't leave me feeling weighed down, like so many other airplane meals do.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="20" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="Yes" turndown-service="Yes" /]
I really felt taken care of on this flight. From the moment I stepped into the airport until I deplaned in L.A., I thought that everyone involved on Qantas' end did a remarkable job. I was called by name at every interaction, I was basically given a VIP escort from the lounge to the plane, and once on board, things like turndown service happened seemingly magically while I wasn't looking.
The only thing I could fault the crew for was that the initial meal service took quite a long time. We took off at 9:19 a.m., but the first meal wasn't done until 12:15 p.m., just about three whole hours later. Granted, there was about 20 minutes of turbulence, and, well, what else was I going to do? But while you're on the flight, where time seems to move slower anyway, three hours for a meal feels like an awfully long time.
Overall, though, I thought the crew was excellent, and I had a really memorable service experience from start to finish.
Even though it's 10 years old at this point, Qantas offers a solid first-class product on its A380s. It's not the flashiest product out there -- in fact, there's precisely zero bling -- but that's OK. Where Qantas shines is in the softer side of the product, with a ground experience that can rival the best in the business and a service culture that you can feel from start to finish.
I would not hesitate to fly this product again, and though I haven't flown with Qantas in business class, having experienced first, I am prepared to say that it's worth the splurge. And if you can find it for 70,000 Alaska miles, it's a deal you cannot refuse.
All photos by the author.
Updated on 11/3/21.
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