Posted by: Nick Ward | 11 June, 2013

A Trip Around The Globe flying the Halal Kangaroo

I’ve just returned from a three week test drive of the new Qantas-Emirates Alliance, and I found it most interesting, to say the least. Not being the shy type, I thought I’d share some of my observations.

Now, let me start with a disclaimer: I am not without bias, I love the Flying Kangaroo with a passion. In fact, I own some of it. OK, so a really really small part of it, but I did buy a handful of shares in the first release back before I claim to have been born. They don’t get me on the Board, in fact they no longer seem to even get me dividends, but I could show up to an AGM and not be shown the door, which is kinda nice.

I also have lots of friends who work for the airline, and I work for a company who does a lot of work with it. Let me therefore not make outlandish claims of neutrality. Switzerland I am not proposing to be.

You can imagine therefore that I would have been watching closely as I travelled on this trip, eager to note down the good, the bad and the ugly.IMG_0965

Let’s start with the good. It’s easy to see the logic of this alliance. Qantas code suddenly flies into 37 new destinations with only one transit. Awesome. They can now compete head-to-head with Virgin-Etihad on the arguably more jetlag-friendly route to Europe via the Middle East. Emirates in return get access to Qantas’s massive, and affluent, band of frequent flyers. Win-win.

The bad: Qantas metal now only flies into 19 international destinations, and there’s no sign of this changing in a hurry. Jetstar flies to almost as many. They have cancelled or deferred plane orders, including almost all their future Airbus A380 deliveries, and the group has given their first Boeing 787s to Jetstar, a bold move which could blur the value propositions of the two brands and see premium Qantas passengers dabble in flying the low cost carrier or, worse still, a competing premium carrier flying newer aircraft.

The big question on my mind, however, was this: if you allow, in fact encourage, the massive legion of Qantas Frequent Flyer members to try flying in an Emirates plane, will they still think you have a superior product and stay loyal, or will they switch camps to flying Emirates? Might not matter right now, but as British Airways will attest, alliances don’t last forever, and when they end you want to come out of it with at a minimum the customer base you went in with.

So how did the two airlines stack up?

On the trip, I flew on a Qantas A380 via Dubai to London, an Emirates 777 from Dusseldorf to Dubai and another on to Bangkok, and a Qantas A330 back from Bangkok to Sydney. I was lucky enough to be flying in Business Class, and in fact was upgraded to First on the Qantas leg from Dubai to London, so I’m afraid this was a front-end comparison, sorry kids. A lot of what I observed however I know translates to economy.

The alliance sees Qantas kick off some great product improvements, like chauffeured limousine pickups and dropoffs in Business and First Classes, which was something I found I valued more than I expected I would. Big tick. They also have their pyjamas in Business and First (they’ve had these for a while) which are a really nice touch, makes overnight flights way more comfortable. Emirates doesn’t have the same deal for the Business traveller.

Service was pretty much as you would expect, it was good all round, and the First Class leg was, not unexpectedly, outstanding. No big differences between Qantas and Emirates, in fact, the Emirates pilots were Australians as their accents quickly revealed. The Emirates crews were multicultural, which they leveraged by spending five minutes listing the languages spoken by the crew at the start of each flight. Nice one, particularly if you spoke Swahili or Icelandic, sleep tightly knowing you’re covered.

The seats and video however couldn’t have been more different. The Emirates TV screen size in Business was massively bigger than that in Qantas, in fact, as big as the Qantas one in First. It was huge. The Qantas TV screen on the A330 from Bangkok was about the size of a paperback, and just as grainy. I read a book instead. The so-called ‘flat bed’ seat on that A330 was at a sharp enough angle to feel like you were sliding into the baggage hold, and the Business Class beds on the A380 weren’t all that much better. The Emirates bed was pretty much flat, and seemed roomier – and it is supposed to be even better on their A380s.

The meals in Business were good on Qantas, but better on Emirates, as were the wines. Neither would I say were something to write home about. The Emirates Lounge in Dubai was crazy, it ran the whole length of Terminal A, was equipped with several restaurants and several more bars and lounges, not to mention an excellent spa. It had its own duty free stores within the lounge, and there were lifts above each boarding gate so you could scan your boarding pass and passport within the confines of the lounge and drop straight down to the plane. Impressive. That being said, the Qantas First International Lounges in Sydney and Melbourne, while smaller, are, I believe, the best in the world.  The First Lounges are perhaps the most truly outstanding thing about flying Qantas.IMG_0966

The thing which, for me, differentiates a good airline from a great one, however, is perhaps something you wouldn’t expect: it’s the amenities kits. Qantas’s was about as unremarkable as you can get – even in First. Emirates’ kit couldn’t have been more different. Little bottles of Bulgari cosmetics, and a little bottle of fragrance, in a presentation box, took centre-stage. Wow. What a nice touch, that’s a keeper.

Let me finish with the ugly: I’m not a fan of Emirates’ creamy beige interiors. There, I’ve said it. Given everything else I’ve mentioned, I trust this is not seen as a damning comment, but rather an offer of interior design advice should any carrier wish to take it up. Go blue, you can’t go wrong with blue.

So are the products on an equal par: no, at least not yet. I can fully understand why Qantas is wanting to remain conservative in their spending while their international arm continues to lose money, but that strategy carries the risk that their product quality falls further behind their partner. They can’t afford to do that. Patriotism and sports sponsorships, and a prettier interior, will only get you so far. You need to keep up and, dare I say it, show some leadership in product innovation.

I just flew this week to Perth, Virgin over and Qantas back. I was upgraded and tried the Virgin Business Class for the first time, and I have to say, it was stunning. Outstanding seats, lots of innovations and, yes, even an excellent amenities kit – and you already know how easily won over I am by an outstanding amenities kit. Domestic is where Qantas ARE making money, and they are under attack on the frontline – the business traveller. Danger Will Robinson.

The answer is, yes, spend money, but more importantly, to innovate. Work out what the traveller of 2015 will want and deliver it in 2014, before the competition. I can proudly state that I believe Qantas is one of the greatest airlines on the planet, and has the greatest people working for it, but it risks transforming into simply a strong business running a good little airline. If my loved airline loses its greatness and fades into the background of international aviation I will shed many tears.

This alliance is good, and it is good for Qantas, but it is not in itself the answer, simply one part of it. Now it’s time to head out of the comfort zone, spend some money on things other than sports sponsorships, excite us with new product innovation, and reinforce your position as one of the world’s greatest airlines. The clock is ticking.

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