Australia is a large and dispersed country, with over 22 million people spread throughout its lands. It takes around 3 hours to fly from the East Coast to the West Coast, and 3 hours to fly from the South to the north. To cover such an enormous landmass, Australia is served by 4 major domestic airlines to help move tens of thousands of travellers around the country.
Australia's largest domestic airline, Qantas is a full service airline that has the largest domestic flight network and the largest numbers of flights per day. Being a full service airline, business class (equivalent to first class on American domestic flights) is offered on all major routes as well as lounge facilities for business class travellers, Qantas frequent flyers and Qantas club members at all major and many minor airports.
All Qantas tickets include a minimum of 23kg (50lb) of complementary checked baggage as well as carry on baggage up to a maximum of 7kg bag, though they are usually very lenient on carry on baggage if you bring on more if the plane isn't overflowing with passengers. Business class passengers and Qantas club members receive additional baggage allowances.
Being the largest international airline that services Australia, Qantas's network is integrated to allow largely seamless checking of bags from Qantas international flights onto onwards domestic forward connections.
Being a full service airline, all passengers will receive complimentary food and drink during their flights. Items offered will be dependent on the time of day and duration of the flight but as a general rule, flights over 1 hour long will receive a hot breakfast and tea and coffee service in the morning to 9am, a hot dinner after 5 pm or a cold lunch from 11am to 2pm. Outside of these hours, the inflight meal will be of a lighter afternoon tea type of food such as a muffin. Drinks will consist of tea, coffee, juices, water and small cans of softdrink. Beer, wine and spirits are available for purchase with beer and wine offered complimentary on some afternoon and evening flights. Alcoholic drinks are complimentary in business class. For flights shorter than 1 hour, a light snack is offered to all passengers.
On average, Qantas has the oldest airline fleet in Australia, consisting largely of Boeing 737 and 767 for most major routes, with later Airbus 330 being added to the fleet. Qantas domestic seats generally offer a little extra leg room then their competitors.
Over recent years with low cost airlines having entered the domestic market, Qantas has had to become competitive on price. Discount economy tickets will largely be either similar or slightly higher in price to its major competitors, but the ticketed price will already include up to 23kg of baggage allowance, which is an additional cost with other airlines. Qantas has moved heavily into online checkin, airport self checkin and bag drop options in recent years and for economy passengers, these are the only check in options now at many airports. Their biggest cash cow is business class travel, as Qantas is effectively the only option for business class travel which means that it is generally expensive but remains very popular with corporate, business and government travellers.
With the largest network and the most flights on all major routes, it is most likely that if you have a specific time that you need to travel, Qantas will best suit your needs. Just be careful with the lowest price discount tickets as it can be very expensive to change flights and times if the need arises.
Founded in 2000 by Richard Branson as a low cost, discount alternative to the two major airlines at the time, Qantas and Ansett, Virgin Blue quickly grew from flying a single route to become Australia's second largest domestic carrier after the sudden failure of Ansett immediately after the September 11 disaster in 2001. Virgin has evolved to fill the middle ground between a proper full service and discount airline, offering some of the full service features while focussing on keeping prices low.
Richard Branson tried to install a sense of fun and humor into his airline brand, which has continued forward to today. The staff and cabin crew, on average, are the best and friendliest of any of the Australian airlines, making flying with Virgin Blue a pleasure.
The airline services all major Australian cities, but does not offer as many flights on these routes as its major competitor, Qantas. It can be frustratingly difficult to find flights at the times you are looking for as some major routes will only have two flights a day, one in the morning and one in the evening, leaving no options but to find a flight on another provider.
Virgin Blue has installed lounges in all major airports. Unlike Qantas, single access passes are available for around $30Aud, allowing full access to all services and amenities in the lounge. Annual memberships can also be purchased as well as complimentary access if flying corporate plus or premium economy. The airline does not offer a proper business class, instead making do with a premium economy class which offers additional leg room, larger seats and greater baggage allowances, but does not have a separate cabin or more comprehensive food options.
Unless flying on the 2 most expensive ticketing options, checked baggage incurs an additional cost. On most flight sectors, it will cost $10 extra for one checked bag up to 23kg (50lb) if purchased online before the flight. Additional surcharges could be added if trying to add additional baggage at the airport.
Virgin Blue sticks to its low cost routes by forcing the majority of passengers to use either online or self check in facilities and by offering no complimentary food or drinks during the flight. A limited menu of food and alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks are available for purchase. For additional expense, Virgin Blue does offer live cable TV streaming of select channels on many of its flights.
Historically, a major weakness of the airline has been its lack of international connections, forcing passengers to move bags and terminals to transfer between domestic and international flights. Now with Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates having reciprocal arrangements, bags can be on-checked to onward destinations when flying with these airlines.
Virgin Blue is an excellent airline to fly with, offering low cost fares while still maintaining features of a full service airline. Its major limiting factor is it can be difficult finding flights for the times you need them most due to the limited number of daily services offered on most major routes.
Jetstar is a wholly owned subsidiary of Qantas, set up to be a low cost, low frills alternative to its full service parent. It has a much smaller flight network then either Qantas or Virgin Blue, largely focusing on the main trunk routes such as Sydney to Melbourne and linking major capital cities to holiday destinations.
Having only commenced operations in 2003, Jetstar's fleet is modern, largely consisting of Airbus 320-200. The configuration that Jetstar has chosen for these planes has resulted in less leg room for all passengers in comparison to both Qantas and Virgin Blue. Jetstar does offer a limited business class, but it is of not to the same quality as Qantas, so that it does not cannibalise sales from its parent.
Jetstar does not maintain its own fleet of lounges. Passengers can access the Qantas lounge if they are flying with Jetstar if they are flying business class, or they meet the standard Qantas entry requirements of being a gold or platinum Qantas frequent flyer or a member of the Qantas Club.
Like Virgin Blue, Jetstar does not offer complimentary food or drinks on its flights, though snacks and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are available for purchase. Jetstar handle checked baggage costs a little different then Virgin, offering in effect a $10 discount if the passenger nominates that they won't be checking any luggage. Baggage weight limit is up to 23kg (50lb).
Even though they are fully owned by Qantas, there is no onwards checking of bags to or from a domestic Jetstar flight to a Qantas international flight. Jetstar does offer limited overseas flights under their own brand, mostly to New Zealand and south east Asia, where onwards checking of baggage to and from domestic and international is catered for.
One other major disadvantage of Jetstar is that some cities are serviced at secondary airports, which aren't as high quality as that cities major airport and means that to swap to another airline for onward flights means catching a bus or a taxi across the city.
Jetstar is largely aimed at the holiday and family travel market, offering efficient and low price prices to their selected destination without any additional fills. Jetstar is a good alternative to the two major airlines if they have flights on the route that you want at the time that you are looking to depart.
Tiger Airways commenced flights in Australia in 2007 positioning itself as an ultra-low cost provider in the Australian domestic market. It has the smallest network and the least amount of flights of any of the major operators in the country.
Conforming to its ultra-low cost model, Tiger offers the least amount of leg room out of any major domestic carrier. Check in and baggage counters close up to an hour before flight departure due to the cabin staff also working the baggage counter for the same flight. Tiger has consistently been rated the worst airline in Australia by customers in surveys, and its official on time record has consistently been below 75%.
Tiger charges additional fees to check in at the airport and for all checked baggage. Unlike Virgin and Jetstar who charge $10Aud for up to 23kg (50lb) of checked baggage, Tiger charges $25 for up to 15kg (33lb) of baggage, $30Aud for 20kg (44lb) of baggage and $50Aud for up to 25kg (55lb) of checked baggage. The airline does not offer any lounge facilities and offers no complimentary food or drinks during flights, though snacks and drinks are available for purchase.
Tiger does consistently offer very low fares but once additional fees are calculated, it can be more expensive then flying with its bigger rivals. With a small network and limited flights daily on each route, Tiger Airways may not be a viable option for many travellers.
If you enjoyed my review of Australian Domestic Airlines, have a read of my review of Qantas Business Class from Sydney to New York via Los Angeles