Qantas v Virgin: who is number one?

I’ve been watching this statistic for nearly two years: Virgin Australia’s steady encroachment on Qantas’s domestic market share, which has become white hot this year as the former backpackers’ airline reinvents itself as a business airline.

Virgin has been edging closer and closer to Qantas mainline domestic passenger numbers and finally slipped ahead in April. But the difference in favour of Virgin didn’t become pronounced until May, for which figures (which have been slipping further and further behind) were not announced to the Australia Stock Exchange until last week.

In May, Virgin Australia uplifted 1.422 million domestic passengers, compared with Qantas mainline’s 1.371 million.

But, of course, the comparison is spurious and is made possibly only through Qantas’s greater reporting segmentation of its different business units. In fact, the direct comparison between the brands is now even more spurious as the Qantas mainline figure excludes QantasLink, the brand invented about a decade ago to unify many different regional operations,  while Virgin Australia’s figures now include Virgin-branded regional flying in the eastern states crewed by pilots from Western Australian independent regional airline, Skywest.

QantasLink in May carried 441,000 passengers, taking Qantas’ total domestic uplift to 1.863 million, but it dwarfs Virgin Australia when all the patronage of both groups is added up – 3.707 million versus Virgin Australia’s 1.615 million.

Qantas was being cute when it rushed out a media release last Thursday accusing Australian Associated Press and several newspapers which carried its report of “inaccuracy”, when AAP’s only shortcoming is that it doesn’t employ a specialist whose job it is to understand  just how sensitive the airline industry is about market share statistics.

In fact, Virgin did not bother (or wasn’t game to) put out its own statement making the counter-case. In fact, Virgin Australia has claimed for a couple of years it has more flights to more places than Qantas mainline – and that’s strictly true: there were 10,208 scheduled Qantas mainline sectors in the system in May, compared with Virgin’s 11,554.

But add to that Qantaslink (9425) and Virgin’s new flights by ATR72 turboprops and some extra contracted flying by other operators (1146) and the comparison looks very different, with Qantas operations around 50 per cent bigger than Virgin’s domestically.

Both airlines are also flooding the market with new seating capacity in their market share war, which is mostly about bragging rights that are being used to attract high-yielding business travellers.

I found myself wedged last week into a tiny economy seat over and back across the Nullarbor on the national carrier. On the first leg over, the bloke I was sitting beside, who was six feet, four inches in the old money, had his knees jammed painfully against the seat in front; on the return leg, my companion had his wine spilt when the fellow in front of him suddenly reclined his seat.

But my gripe about seat space was the only one. The food was excellent and the plane pushed back from the gate in both directions exactly two minutes late, which meant we arrived early.

Australians are absolutely spoilt by the quality and price-competitiveness of their airlines. If only one of them would start a seat-space war.

How does it look from you corner of the airline war? Have you recently switched airlines? If you are a regular domestic flyer, are you locked into one brand or are you able to switch? Which one has your vote? Post a comment below.