Virgin Blue versus Qantas to Canberra

Back down to Canberra again for the day for a meeting that couldn’t be done over a teleconference. How to make it interesting? Use it as a chance to compare Australia’s two largest domestic airline services.

My previous trips had all been on Qantas and QantasLink aircraft, a mixture of Boeing 737-400 jets and Dash 8 Q400 turboprops. Virgin Blue have also started flying the Sydney-Canberra route using their new Embraer E-170 jets. I had only flown on Virgin twice before, up to Rockhampton and back, and I wanted to see what they were like. The fact that they had the cheapest fares was another bonus, nothing like saving the organisation money!

I picked Qantas on the way back because of their times were more convenient. This also gave me an opportunity to directly compare the services.

Both Qantas and Virgin offer online check-in from 24 hours before the flight, which is fantastic a) because I can select the seats for myself and b) because I don’t have to reach the airport so early. Despite this, I still woke early to catch the train to the airport. It was cold outside and I could see frost alongside the track.

Sydney Airport’s Terminal 2 is much improved from the last time we used it, with a decent range of eateries and shops. I didn’t linger long, instead going to my flight’s gate (39), so I could take photos. It had a good view of aircraft movements across the runways, great for getting into the mood for flying.

I boarded our little “Jungle Jet” from Brazil. I had never flown in an E-170 before, though I did sit in an even smaller E-145 in China. This jet wasn’t too small, with 2×2 seating and more cabin space than Qantas’ Q400 turboprops. The leather upholstered seats were certainly wider and more comfortable, thought they felt a little flimsy. I was hoping that the aircraft would also give a smoother ride.

The total flight time is scheduled as 55 minutes, but half an hour of that is spent just taxiing out to the runway. We took off from the more northerly of the two parallel runways, something I’m not used to. We flew north and up into the cloud bank.

Uh oh, I thought. I hate flying in clouds. It’s too bumpy. Indeed, the E-170 seemed to feel the niggles more than the other jets, despite me being seated just forward of the wing.

Our flight path curved south over the ocean and eventually we were flying parallel to the coast, then south-westwards across the coastal sandstone Illawara escarpment. Below us were reservoirs of water and green forest valleys filled with fog.

As we got closer to Canberra high grey cloud covered the skies above us, lending the now-yellowing landscape below us and almost painted appearance. The aircraft barely had time in cruise before we began our descent into Canberra Airport, the plane shaking as we passed over the hills.

As we disembarked I asked one of the female flight attendants about her male compatriot on the flight. Yes, he was Dislocated Arm David of Jetstar’s Going Places documentary. Formerly a Jetstar international flight attendant he now works for Virgin Blue, yet his face still features on Jetstar’s television advertising!

On our descent we were informed that the temperature outside was 0 degrees Celcius. Fortunately I got to the taxi rank before the huge Monday queues appeared.

By the time I reached the headquarters the sky was starting to clear up. But I had read that showers and storms were predicted and watched in fear as rain clouds appeared and the wind gusted outside our meeting room windows. Not another rough storm like on my last trip!

By the time evening arrived and I was back at the airport the skies had mostly cleared. I had a while to wait, so I amused myself by reading the morning’s paper and taking the odd photo out of the windows, watching the aircraft movements in the golden evening light.

Eventually our flight was called and I boarded the Qantas 737-400. From the brand new E-170 to one of the oldest aircraft in the Qantas fleet. I was disappointed to see that my seat, with its new honeycomb upholstery, was just behind the wing and hoped that it would be a smooth flight.

Another long taxi out to the runway and we were off into the darkness. There really wasn’t much to see out of the window, so I just relaxed and tried to enjoy the flight. The very professionally attired Qantas staff began delivering their snacks while the aircraft was still angled upwards. I had a tandoori chicken roll and lemonade, while the passengers besides me just partook of small bottles of wine.

I noticed that The Hollowmen, a comedy/drama about a media/policy team in the Prime Minister’s office was showing on the cabin screens and wondered if that was appropriate for passengers from Canberra. I enjoy the series but for many it’s apparently too close for comfort.

The cabin crew quickly collected all the rubbish from the meals and we began our descent towards Sydney. Suddenly the flight became really rough and we entered the cloud layer. I think that we had caught up with the weather system that had earlier passed through Canberra. The captain ordered everyone back to their seats as we suddenly rose and dropped in the disturbed air. I couldn’t wait to see the lights of the city again. I have to say though that the ride felt firmer than in the E-170.

After what felt a lot longer than it probably was, we descended from the north west of the city, across the Parramatta river. The lights of city streets, houses and sports stadium appeared bright beneath us. Cities are very attractive at night, looking down upon them from above. The two passengers beside me couldn’t wait to land, having been transferred from an earlier QantasLink turboprop flight that suffered a computer malfunction and couldn’t get off the ground.

We did make it with only a few more shakes on the descent. A couple more photos and I was off to catch the train home.

How do the two airlines and aircraft compare? Qantas still felt more professional and classier than Virgin Blue and I think I preferred the ride on the Boeing 737-400. However, there wasn’t anything actually wrong with the Virgin Blue flight and it was $24 cheaper. All-in-all it doesn’t make that much of a difference on such a short leg, but those little touches make flying Qantas just that bit more fun.

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