Australia: where big planes rule the skies

If you end up on board a narrowbody Boeing 737 while crossing the country, you've drawn the short straw.
If you end up on board a narrowbody Boeing 737 while crossing the country, you've drawn the short straw. Photo: Craig Abraham

We can thank the mining boom for more than just recession insurance: the extraction and minerals and petroleum on and offshore in Western Australia is paying for a sharp upgrading of air services between the two coasts in the past decade.

If you check the air schedules these days, you’ve drawn the booby prize if you find yourself squashed into a single-aisle Boeing 737 or a low-cost Airbus A320 for the four to five-hour journey to Perth from the east coast – at least in terms of perceived comfort.

The competition between Qantas and its new business rival Virgin has hastened the replacement of narrowbodies on the trans-Nullarbor routes with twin-aisle widebodies.

The announcement last month that Virgin would replace two of its three daily Brisbane-Perth 737 services with widebody A330-200 jets completes a stunning improvement in services from all the major east coast cities to the west.

Being a nerd, I can remember scanning airline timetables in the 1980s and 1990s and seeing to my amazement even then that there was not a single daily – or even weekly – non-stop flight between Brisbane and Perth.

In those days, especially the legislated two-airline duopoly of the 1980s, everything was routed via Sydney or Melbourne because (a) it suited the airlines; and (b) price was no object: the airlines just calculated the total cost of providing a service, added on their margin and the sum of the two parts was the fare. If you didn’t like it, you could walk or catch a bus.

It wasn’t until the Compasses (I & II) stirred up the industry in the 1990s, then later Impulse and Virgin, that airlines were forced to provide non-stop services – not the least of the reasons being that it was the cheapest way of providing the seat. Adding a stop simply piled on an extra 20-30 per cent in operating costs.

Today there are up to seven daily flights from Brisbane to Perth and from May only one of them will be aboard a 737.

The domination of widebodies on services from Melbourne and Sydney to Perth is already complete. From Sydney, Jetstar is alone in offering a narrowbody service – it’s morning A321 (a bigger version of the A320) flight. The other 16 services are aboard Qantas 767s or A330s or Virgin A330s.

From Melbourne, only Jetstar and Tiger have A320 services.

Here’s the funny bit: at least in economy, the seats are as squeezy in a 767 or an A330 as they are in the 737 or the A320.

In the 737, the seats are 17 inches (43 centimetres) wide with 31 inches (78 cms) of forward space per row – the same as in the 767 – although some seats on Virgin’s 737s can have as little as 28 inches (45 cms) of row space.

On the A320, economy seats are the same width as on the A330 – 18 inches (45 cms).

Only in business class are there currently significant differences in the product offering – 60 inches (152 cms) of seat row “pitch” in Qantas’s A330s versus 50 inches (127 cms) in Qantas’s 767s, compared with 62 inches (157 cms) in Virgin’s A330s.

Yet because of the increased height of the cabin ceiling in the A330s and 767s compared with 737s and A320s, passengers “feel” like they have more space.

In the widebodies, there are also fewer seats that are more than one seat away from an aisle (one of the reasons the Embraer 190 jets that Virgin has were designed with four-abreast seating versus five abreast, even though it means a narrower cabin (the A190 designers, however, stretched the shape of the cabin vertically into an oblong to provide more headroom).

While we’re bagging the smaller planes, because they are designed to operate over shorter distances, they cruise up to 65 kilometres an hour slower than the widebodies, which means the difference in the trip time can be noticeable on the long trans-Nullarbor routes.

But the enabling factors behind the upgrading of the longest Australian east-west routes are petroleum, gas and iron ore: many of those shuttling between the east and Perth these days are either travelling to and from work in the north-west or are the executives who are making the work happen.

Have you noticed fewer flights with narrow-body aircraft when flying within Australia? Do you have one type of plane that you always seek out? Have you recently travelled across the country? If so, how did your trip stack up for flight comfort? Post your comments below.

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