Air travel trends in Australia: New planes, seats, routes, alliances and stopovers

Every day, it seems, a Middle Eastern airline adds a new European or Asian city to its roster of destinations while yet another Chinese airline adds another flight to an obscure Chinese city. And airlines, generally, seem to be deploying new-fangled, high-tech aircraft. The past decade or so may have seen a contraction of European airlines entering Australian airspace in favour of their code-share and alliance arrangements even though the likes of Air France still ticket Australian destinations.

But the legs south of hubs such as Dubai and Singapore are flown by Qantas, Etihad, Emirates and others with nearly 10 million overseas trips taken in the past financial year by Australia, a more than 100 per cent increase on a decade ago. And now fighting for slots at our busy east coast airports, Sydney in particular, are the Chinese carriers servicing the demands of the booming Chinese tourist market which contributed nearly $9 billion to the Australian economy.

The Americans have also upped their trans-Pacific offerings. On top of these airlines, there are many smaller national airlines flying to and from Asia and the South Pacific. New aircraft, new routes and a whole lot of airline-speak – there is much ado about flying Australia's skies and beyond, and much more than ever for the airline passenger to know.

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An airline with the best food, service and seats in the world? Traveller.com.au's writers name what their dream plane would feature.

For aviation geeks, it's an exciting time. But for the rest of us, who just want to get from A to B in a manner that suits our priorities, be they convenience, economics or comfort, what does it all mean and how much do we really need to know?

In preparing this special bluffer's guide to the modern airline, Traveller asked some of Australia's leading aviation experts to drill down on the consumer common sense among all the jargon on the hot topics: who flies where, why and how.

THE PLANES

Unless you check the fine print online on your booking, or check the safety card in the sleeve pocket of your seat, many of us may be blissfully unaware of the type of aircraft we're flying in. But there are two planes that are transforming aviation, in terms of the passenger experience and environmental impact.

Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787Dreamliner are the stars of contemporary aviation. Both are new long-range, wide-bodied, twin-engine aircraft made in strong carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP). What does that mean for you? "That makes them far lighter and stronger than the aluminium it replaces," says Geoffrey Thomas, editor of airlineratings.com. "And that means airlines can add a lot of nice frills inside and still save on weight."

It also makes them fuel-efficient, and a smooth ride. The cabin pressure is equivalent to about 2000 feet lower than comparable aluminium planes, making for a far healthier atmosphere. Our experts applaud their airconditioning and lighting systems, saying they produce less jet lag than predecessors.

The lightness and fuel efficiency also make them super long range. With about 800 of the A350 already sold and 787s "opening up more than 100 new routes", it's likely that if you travel, you'll be riding one soon if you haven't already. Etihad, for instance, just added Johannesburg as the ninth city to be served by its B787-9 Dreamliner.

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The aircraft is also deployed to Brisbane, Dusseldorf, Perth, Riyadh, Shanghai, Singapore, Washington DC and Zurich. As wonderful as these aircraft are, it's the fitouts that will vary, however, with the airlines deciding how spacious or crammed to make them. But amid all the hype surrounding the Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Airbus 380 can still not be overlooked.

See also: The Airbus A350 vs Boeing Dreamliner - which aircraft rules long-haul?

Rumours of its demise have arisen in recent years in respect to the economics of flying such a huge plane. Though the massive double-deck, four-engine aircraft is not without commercial challenges, our panel of experts agree it is one of the most comfortable for passengers and there are nearly 200 of them flying, with about 140 on order.

Etihad's A380 features  its amazing three-room The Residence suite.

All Nippon Airways recently  lodged an order and Emirates, which has 85 of them, has just announced, after retiring some older planes, it's now the only all-A380 and 777 fleet in the world.

"It's an important part of the Emirates identity and we now offer passengers the opportunity to travel to more than 40 destinations worldwide on our flagship A380," says Barry Brown, Emirates' divisional vice-president, Australasia.

"[The] superior on board offerings and service features have seen the A380 set the benchmark for modern air travel, while the additional seating capacity allows us the chance to offer more passengers the chance to travel the globe."

Rico Merkert, professor and chair in transport and supply chain management at the University of Sydney Business School, concurs, and adds, "It's the best aircraft in the market for economy class: good leg room and width, and very quiet." Chrystal Zhang, a senior lecturer at the department of aviation at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology, describes it as "one of the technical innovations of aviation history, with comfort one of the strong features of that".

Thomas says the A380 is an excellent plane when an airline is flying into airports with capacity constraints. "A classic is Heathrow. It means you can fly more people in there. It's a big plane to operate, so when it's full it's fine, when it's not, airlines are losing money."

Merkert sees its four-engine configuration as a mark that it's here to stay. "While the economics of the aircraft only work on trunk routes, the number of engines matters, too. For example, airline safety regulator rules favour or require four-engine jets on some routes over water – Sydney-Johannesburg, for example.

"What is more, in the growing aviation hubs of the world, such as Dubai or Doha, it gets so hot in summer (increasingly above 50 degrees) and the air so thin that current twin-engine aircraft find it physically difficult take off and climb."

Boeing's wide-bodied B777 is a set of the world's biggest twin-engined. Emirates flies 160 of them. Cathay flies 70. Thai has 25. If long-haul take up of Boeing's big baby is anything to go by, this is one successful aircraft. The fuel-efficient big brother of the 787 is a big part of Australian flying, especially with Virgin Australia recently refurbishing its five, a move that Merkert says has made them "one of the most comfortable offerings".

Virgin Australia's new business class cabin on board its Boeing 777.

Virgin Australia's new business class cabin on board its Boeing 777.

Smaller than the A380, it's a handy plane to run on those routes that don't warrant as much room yet still require long-haul capability and comfort. It's versatile and profitable. China Eastern is excited about its new 777-300ER offering on the Sydney-Shanghai and Melbourne-Shanghai routes. "It gives travellers premium service and state-of-the-art facility," says Kathy Zhang, the airline's general manager, Oceania.

Riding the slipstream of the 777 and 787, is the Boeing 777-8X, which will have important implications for Australian passengers. It will be the largest and most efficient twin-engine jet in the world, with an interior "inspired by the comforts and conveniences of the 787 Dreamliner … larger windows, a wider cabin, new lighting and enhanced architecture". "It's coming in 2020," Thomas says. "With that, Qantas will be able to fly Melbourne-London and Sydney-London non-stop. It has that kind of capability."

THE SEATS

Flying is a lot like Dante's Divine Comedy. You've got business class which is heaven, economy which is hell and in between sits purgatory, premium economy. First class, for the few who can afford it, is heaven with extra icing on the angels but it's disappearing. Even many premier league carriers are abandoning first class although with lie-flat beds, fancy lounges and food by big name chefs, business class seating is better than most first class seats of 15 years ago.

If you're in business, chin-chin, you're in for a sweet ride. There are not too many airlines that do not go all out for their business class flyers, largely because it is these passengers who deliver profits for carriers, and we're well served. In the 2016 Skytrax Word Airline Awards, no fewer than seven of the 10 airlines on the list of World's Best Business Class Airlines fly to Sydney and Melbourne at least among Australia's cities, although no US airlines make the cut.

Even hell has its slightly less hellish spots and airlines are recognising that some passengers are prepared to pay a modest premium for a hot seat in economy, which might be behind a bulkhead or in an exit row, both with a few centimetres of extra leg room.

Last year, Virgin Australia launched its "Economy Space+" class on its US route. It costs between $135 and $165 one way when selecting your seats via the airline's website or through a travel agent. The seats are in the first five rows and the exit rows of the main cabin on Virgin Australia's Boeing 777-300ER fleet and includes features such as extra leg room, check-in via a dedicated premium economy counter, guaranteed "first meal choice" and premium noise-cancelling headsets.

Air New Zealand won applause for its innovative SkyCouch, a row of three economy class seats on its Boeing 777-300 aircraft that can be made into a 1.55-metre bed. The cost varies, depending on the season and demand. Between Auckland and Los Angeles, for two people sharing the Skycouch the cost is between $400 and $2000. Although the SkyCouch has been around for several years, the concept has not caught on with other airlines.

There is the quieter, kid-free zone on Scoot and Air Asia, which come at a modest premium on top of both carriers' rock bottom fares. A step up the comfort ladder is premium economy. For many flyers this is the new kid on the block and it's spreading its wings with more and more airlines offering premium economy on long-haul flights.

What you get is essentially a wider seat in a separate cabin with more recline and leg room than an economy seat, minus the frills that jack up the price of a business class seat. On a premier carrier such as Cathay Pacific, premium economy passengers also get a bigger checked baggage allowance and separate check in, better headphones, priority boarding, a bigger inflight entertainment screen and about 15 centimetres more seat pitch than economy class passengers.

What you won't get is lounge access, a separate menu and wine list from economy nor a dedicated toilet within the separate cabin, you're sharing with the economy passengers. Premium economy is a considerable improvement although a gulf still divides a premium economy seat from a standard international business class seat.

Really, there are many options, even if they're not necessarily advertised – such as exit row seats with more leg room. Thomas believes in doing your homework, even down to choosing the aircraft. "See what sort of aircraft is flying on the route at seatguru.com [a popular website that provides airline seating plans]" he says. "Run your cursor over your booking. For instance, if I'm flying Perth-Sydney, I don't want to fly 737. They are basically configured for short haul. Little things like that make a difference to your trip and it's amazing how many people don't do it."

In Europe, Thomas says he always chooses low-cost carriers, "… like Norwegian and easyJet, where I find the exit row is usually still available because everyone is too lousy to buy them. I end up optioning up my low cost booking into a first class experience and still flying cheaper than on legacy carriers".

THE ROUTES

The big news is the rapid growth of China carriers flying to and from Australia (see below) with a total 1,136,700 Chinese tourists visiting Australia in the last financial year. Kathy Zhang says China is Australia's largest source of tourists, accounting for nearly 1 million visitors this year, representing a 23 per cent growth on the previous year. "We expect to see more Chinese carriers flying into the Australian market as strong demand continues," she says.

"We're seeing new routes Sydney-Chengdu, Sydney-Hangzhou, Sydney-Kunming, Brisbane-Shanghai, Melbourne-Shenzhen, Melbourne-Xiamen, for example," Merkert says. "I don't know about more carriers, but I do think in the future we will see services between Australian and even more secondary Chinese cities."

Queensland airports have benefited, with the Barrier Reef and beaches an attraction to Chinese visitors. The trend in Chinese carriers flying to and from our shores may not be about Australian travellers, but the explosion of service between China and Australia has opened up a world of possibility for them.

It's the long way to most places Australians want to go, but cheap airfares on the outbound flights make heading that way attractive. Add to that visa changes, which mean, says Kathy Zhang: "Tourists can break up their long haul travel with a 144-hour visa-free stopover in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing, giving them a chance to refresh and explore a new destination."

Qantas is the latest to join the party, launching daily flights between Sydney and Beijing from January 25 after a seven-year absence on the route. Already flying to Shanghai and Hong Kong, the new Beijing-Sydney service is part of the expansion of Qantas' joint venture partnership with China Eastern, which adds Sydney-Hangzhou, Sydney-Kunming and Brisbane-Shanghai to Qantas' offering. Virgin Australia will enter the fray in 2017, introducing direct Asia flights through its strategic alliance with HNA, the parent of Hainan Airlines. It also began Melbourne to Los Angeles flights in April, and Perth to Abu Dhabi in June.

See also: Cheap flights to Europe - how Chinese airlines are changing the way Australians fly

THE PARTNERSHIPS

Major airlines continue to look for ways to increase their reach and the most realistic way to do that is to find good-fit code-share partnerships, such as that between Qantas and China Eastern. While it continues to add new destinations to its roster, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad recently forged an expansion of its code-share arrangement with Hong Kong Airlines, adding nine new routes to bring their shared total to 14.

Etihad's code-shares are hugely important in Australia, though. Within Australia and to New Zealand, Etihad Airways code-shares on Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand flights from Melbourne to Adelaide, Auckland, Brisbane, Cairns, Canberra, Christchurch, Coffs Harbour, Darwin, Gold Coast, Hamilton Island, Hobart, Kalgoorlie, Launceston, Mildura, Newcastle, Perth, Queenstown, Sunshine Coast, Sydney, and Wellington.

And Singapore Airlines and the Lufthansa Group recently announced they are further expanding their partnership agreement which will link SIA customers to more than 20 new routes on Lufthansa and SWISS-operated flights, to and from points in Europe via the transfer hubs of Frankfurt, Munich and Zurich, such as Aberdeen, Bologna, Dublin, Madrid and Venice.

Future aircraft capabilities have airlines eyeing non-stop options, particularly Qantas, is launching Perth-London next year and has touted Sydney-New York direct. Some of our experts believe the advent of longer range aircraft could also see the return of some European carriers to our airports.

Merkert sees Perth-Rome or Milan as a possible new route on the 787 as both those Italian airports are only a few hours stretch beyond the UAE.

Commercially, these direct flights are attractive for airlines, because they can fly over hubs. That's not only cost saving, but, says, Chrystal Zhang, "It cuts out another carrier. It allows airlines to protect their existing customer base by not exposing them to code-share partners."

For the traveller, it means getting there quicker. But will people want the 17-18 hours' flying time?

"There will be people who will say, 'I want a stopover'," says Thomas. "But in 1990, we were bunny-hopping. Then came Singapore-London non-stop and people said, 'Oh, 13 hours – I can't do that.' We got used to it.

"Plus, the new generation of planes will make it so much easier with their increased humidity, decreased cabin altitude, noise and vibration, new wind gust censors cutting turbulence down by 70 per cent, new filtration systems. When you get off, you will feel remarkably more fresh than previously."

Still thinking the whole Perth to London thing might be a schlep? Thomas says the B777X-8 (coming in 2020) will mean Sydney-London and Melbourne-London are firmly in the realm of possibility while Chrystal Zhang also foresees Perth as becoming an important hub for Qantas. Already, it's the place to catch the likes of South African Airways and Air Mauritius flying across the Indian Ocean. With Qantas joining that party, "I foresee more frequencies between Perth and those capital cities to facilitate connections."

THE STOPOVERS

Singapore and Hong Kong are still the two favourite stopover ports for Australian flyers en route to Europe, but the ever expanding list of airlines that serve Australian cities has opened up some intriguing options beyond the most recent entrants such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and more latterly, Doha.

Air India flights, for instance, between New Delhi and Melbourne and Sydney have brought the possibility of a stopover with a unique character. The madness and mayhem that is India is no place for faint hearts but those who dare are in for a unique experience. New Delhi is the seventh city built on this site and is filled with treasures from its glorious past along with teasing mysteries, although you need to hold your nose occasionally, especially as it's one of the world's most polluted cities.

Two days is a bare minimum. The Taj Mahal is a day trip. Make it three days and you could include the pink city of Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, the most colourful corner of a country that is never anything but flamboyant.

Elsewhere, China Eastern Airlines connects Sydney and Melbourne with five major cities in western Europe via its Shanghai base. Home to 24 million, Shanghai is the dynamo of Chinese entrepreneurial capitalism, a city straight from the future with architecture that comes from sci-fi, yet the leafy streets of the former French concession endow it with a time-warped melancholy.

This is also one of the world's great dining cities. On its western outskirts the serene gardens of Suzhou are balm for the soul. Venture further and you can be strolling through bamboo forests or admiring the leaping peaks of Huangshan, whose mist-woven mountains and pine-covered ridges have given China's ink painters some of their favourite icons.

"As new routes come online, this means China will continue to grow as a hub for Australian travellers," says Kathy Zhang, who sees the potential for more tourism in China by Australians. "The introduction this year of the 144-hour visa free transit for Australian passport holders who are transiting in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing, has resulted in strong growth for Australians travelling to European countries. It's a long total journey so the opportunity to break up the trip with a stopover has been well received."

South African Airways and Qantas operate non-stop flights to Johannesburg from Sydney and Perth, with onward SAA connections to Europe. Johannesburg is the prime mover of the South African economy but the country has many more dazzling possibilities. For the first-time, short-term visitor, Africa's wildlife wonders are the main draw, and the place to come eyeball-to-eyeball with lion, elephant and rhino is Kruger National Park, where the options range from budget-priced camping to ultra-luxe safari camps at $1000 a night.

THE EXPERT PANEL

NEIL HANSFORD

Hansford, a 30-year airline professional, is chairman of the NSW-based Strategic Aviation Solutions consultancy.

RICO MERKERT

Merkert is professor and chair in transport and supply chain management at the University of Sydney Business School.

GEOFFREY THOMAS

Perth-based Thomas is editor of airlineratings.com and a prominent commentator on aviation issues.

CHRYSTAL ZHANG

Zhang is a senior lecturer, at the department of aviation at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology.

FIVE OF THE BEST TRENDS AIR PASSENGERS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT

MORE DIRECTIONS CONNECTIONS

Direct connections to so-called secondary hubs are on the increase (for example, Melbourne to LA, Shenzhen to Sydney).

MORE SMART TRAVEL APPS

Smart travel apps will continue to ease hassles at airports, while connectivity in the air and at airports will improve. Qantas is promising Wi-Fi on domestic services in 2017 while Virgin Australia chief executive John Borghetti announced that the airline's domestic and international services would introduce Wi-Fi from mid-year.

MORE SHOPPING AROUND FOR SEATS

There is growth in value-added options that give you a lot more space for not a lot more money.

MORE ENVIRONMENTAL ENHANCEMENTS

Aviation is leading the world in reducing CO₂ emissions and has reduced them by more than 70 per cent since the 1960s.

MORE AFFORDABILITY

More capacity on Chinese airlines may mean even more affordable Kangaroo Routes. For example, Sydney-Guangzhou-London with China Southern.

FOUR OF THE WORST TRENDS AIR PASSENGERS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT

LESS SPACE

Economy class will become more crowded. For example, Qantas has decided to operate the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, which it will begin flying in 2017, with nine seats in each economy class row. So do most other airlines that fly the twin-aisle aircraft.

LESS CERTAINTY

Expect heightened security at airports around the world and higher safety concerns on the ground. Drone interference at airports might also become more common.

Airport curfews continue to be applied based on noisy older aircraft. With modern aircraft having dramatically lower noise footprints, the methodology on aircraft noise is flawed and outdated.

LESS COMPETITION

US travel conditions may change. Under the new administration, US carriers may be more protected which may result in less competition and higher fares. Expect increased security at US airports.

LESS QUALITY

More routes will become dominated by low cost carriers. (But this might also be a good trend due to affordability, depending on whether you value comfort over economy or vice versa.)

See also: Jetstar the "world's worst airline"? No it's not

CHINESE CARRIERS THAT NOW FLY TO AUSTRALIA

AIR CHINA

China's mostly state-owned national flag carrier has the capital Beijing as its hub. It flies into Melbourne and Sydney and connects to a huge number of Chinese destinations plus 10 European capitals, including Moscow. See airchina.com.au

CHINA AIRLINES

Benefiting from better relations between China and Taiwan, the state-owned plum-blossom-tailed airline of the Republic of China (Taiwan) is expanding. It flies direct between Taipei and Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. See china-airlines.com

CHINA EASTERN AIRLINES

One of the "big three" split-offs of Communist China's central airline, China Eastern is based in Shanghai. In addition to flying cheap fares Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Shanghai, mid-November it began flying Sydney-Hangzhou and due to new visa allowances, Sydney-Kunming in south-west China with transit to south-east Asian destinations. See oa.ceair.com

CHINA SOUTHERN AIRLINES

Considered the most Western-friendly of the majority state-owned big three Chinese airlines, China Southern flies to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth to Guangzhou in south-eastern China and onward. It has Asia's largest fleet. See csair.com

HAINAN AIRLINES

China's largest privately owned airline flies between Melbourne and Sydney in Australia and Xi'an in the north-west and Changsha in south-central China. It now also has an indirect equity share in Virgin Australia. See hainanairlines.com

HONG KONG AIRLINES

Targeting Chinese tourists, the airline flies between Hong Kong and Queensland's Cairns and Gold Coast airports. See hongkongairlines.com

XIAMEN AIRLINES

The all-Boeing airline half owned by China Southern started flying to Sydney in November 2015 and Melbourne in July 2016 from its Xiamen home base on China's south-east coast. See au.xiamenair.com

THE AUTHORS

JULIETTA JAMESON

With parents in the Royal Australian Air Force and more than a few relatives employed by the now-defunct Australian airline, Ansett, regular Traveller contributor and columnist Julietta Jameson has enjoyed a lifetime love of all things aviation. She likes to get to the airport early, just to hang out and likes to board ASAP to get the most out of aircraft time.

MICHAEL GEBICKI

Traveller's Tripologist columnist Michael Gebicki has become a master of airline travel since his first flight aboard BOAC from Toronto to London in the 1960s, "although I sometimes reach for my seatbelt when I sit down at the dinner table".

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