Flight Review: Flying Business Class during the Pandemic

2020 took a lot away from all of us, and for the longest time we couldn’t fly anywhere at all with lockdowns and domestic borders in Australia preventing even the closest destinations. We’ve always tried to push the boundaries in terms of what’s possible in the world of travel. When we found a loophole to get to the Northern Territory in August 2020, we took advantage of it by travelling to Darwin, Kakadu and Uluru. The experience was quite unique, to say the least, and we wrote about it in our article Flying during the pandemic – An Australian experience.

Qantas business class seats
Qantas Business Class seats

In the months since then, a lot has changed in Australia. Australians have become increasingly confident with flying for leisure, despite the continued risk for border closures. In December 2020, we took our second domestic trip of the year from Canberra to Western Australia which had just opened its border to most of the country just a month prior (see our first post in our WA series here). The risk of border closures being applied remained, and indeed Western Australia closed the border to New South Wales just a couple of days after we arrived, forcing all arrivals in the last 2 weeks into quarantine pending testing. We had avoided travelling across the border anticipating this exact risk, so thankfully we were unaffected, though many on our flight were!.

For our flight to Perth, we were fortunate to be upgraded to business class on a Qantas 737 for a direct flight from Canberra to Perth. The experience was very different to our prior trip in August to the Northern Territory. Unlike the ghost town of August, the airport was quite bustling and operating at over 50 per cent of pre-pandemic capacity. Some aspects of the experience had returned to normal, while others remained quite different due to a combination of health requirements and cost-cutting by the airlines. Read on to find out what it’s like to travel in Business Class to one of the most COVID-fortified territories in the world, Western Australia.

Arriving at the airport

Canberra airport departures board
Flights were much more frequent to major cities compared to our previous experience in August

We took an Uber to the Canberra airport and arrived around 2 hours before our flight. The airport was clearly busy with a lot of cars arriving. Walking through the sliding doors, the security line ahead of us was very busy, with signs up everywhere warning people of the border requirements for each state. Much as before the pandemic, domestic travellers on Qantas can get through the airport with very little person-to-person interaction, and that arrangement has been increasingly encouraged to help with social distancing.

The security line was crowded! (By post-COVID standards)

We used the self-serve terminal to check into our flight and collect our boarding passes and bag tags, then dropped our bags through the automated facilities. Proceeding to security, the (rather long, albeit well socially distanced) line took around 15 minutes to get through (there is no priority security for business class in Canberra), then we were good to go in the terminal.

The Qantas Business Lounge

We made our way up to the Qantas Lounge precinct. Qantas actually has three lounges that they typically operate in Canberra Airport – the Qantas Club, the Business Lounge, and Chairman’s Lounge. Guests are usually sent to the Qantas Club if they have Gold Frequent Flyer status or they are a Qantas Club member, and the Business Lounge if they have Platinum Frequent Flyer status or are flying in Business Class. The Chairman’s Lounge, conversely, is operated on an invite-only basis for high profile leaders of politics and industry. Due to the decreased flight capacity, however, Qantas was only operating the smaller and more premium Business Lounge.

Qantas business lounge canberra
Qantas Business Lounge, Canberra

The Canberra Business Lounge was originally a carve out from the larger Qantas Club. Despite being the more premium lounge, it actually faces the carpark rather than the Qantas Club’s runway views. Like the terminal as a whole, the Business Lounge was very busy and it made us wonder how long it would be until Qantas decided to finally reopen both lounges in peak periods (the ultimately did so at the end of March 2021). Similar to August, the buffet had been replaced by servers who provide you the food you request. However, unlike in August there was no table service, with guests queueing at the former self-serve buffet for food. At the time face masks were not required, however, we opted for a cautious approach and wore them while we were not eating or drinking – this has since changed and now face masks are mandatory within airport terminals, not just on the plane.

Qantas business lounge canberra
Qantas Business Lounge, Canberra

Other than that, the features of the lounge were mostly back to pre-pandemic. The regular drinks were available, as was the popular pancake maker. All seats were available for occupation, and the lounge was well staffed. The only outstanding facilities that remained closed were the shower suites. As this was the first flight of our trip we weren’t too worried about this, however we would welcome these reopening for long layovers in the not too distant future.

Flying business class

Perth boarding gate canberra airport
We boarded from Canberra Airport’s Gate 9

After around an hour in the lounge, our flight was called for boarding and we headed down to the gate. Another downgrade from the pandemic – so far at least – was priority boarding for Business Class – the flight was instead boarded from back to front for the greatest possible social distancing. The flight was completely full with a large number of people travelling from New South Wales back to Perth via Canberra as Sydney to Perth flights were already sold out. We were finally called up and boarded the plane.

Qantas Boeing 737 layout
The Qantas Boeing 737

Qantas operates its workhorse plan, the Boeing 737, between Canberra and Perth. These planes are perfectly adequate for short hops such as Canberra to Melbourne and Brisbane, although in economy class they can start to get a little tiresome and cramped after several hours. Economy class is configured in a 3-3 arrangement, while Business class features three rows in a 2-2 configuration. We were seated in row 2 which we generally find to have more leg room than the first row. The seats are comfortable and spacious with recliners. As the plane is mostly used for shorter routes the business class seats do not lay flat. Qantas also operates its larger A330-200s on routes from east coast cities to Perth, particularly the Sydney to Perth route, which feature the popular “business suites” with lay flat seats. For strategic reasons we had opted for a direct flight from Canberra so as to avoid entering New South Wales, so the 737 was the only option for us.

Flying over Western Australia

We were promptly served with our choice of drink including juice and sparkling wine after taking our seats. After boarding was complete we started to push back from the gate and before too long we were on our way. Masks were compulsory when not eating or drinking, and compliance with this policy was generally quite high. Once we were in the air the food and drink service started. Being a night flight, we were served with our choice of drinks from a relatively limited menu, as well as a reasonably nice meal served in a cardboard package. While the entertainment system was switched on and wi-fi was available on the flight, no movies or TV shows were available due to cost cutting measures.Overall the flight was perfectly pleasant with decent service, although the attentiveness was down a little from our previous experiences.

Arriving in Perth

After around 3 hours in the air, we started to descend into Perth. The crew provided an announcement advising of WA’s strict border requirements, including using the G2G pass app, a visa-like form required to enter the state. Due to a recent outbreak, visitors who had been in South Australia in the last 14 days were required to undertake 14 days in mandatory isolation. Arriving on time, we departed the plane and were directed to what looked like a repurposed international arrivals area in Terminal 3 (previously used for the Melbourne-Perth-London flights.

Western Australia entry
Arriving in Western Australia – Strict border controls apply

Unlike when boarding, we were the first off the plane so we were first in line. This ended up being a major benefit of being in business class (or at least, closer to the front of the plane) – we heard later that some had to wait up to an hour to be processed. We went through health checks and were asked if we’ve experienced any flu-like symptoms, then were directed to one of the booths staffed by Western Australian Police officers. The QR codes were scanned, then they completed their own forms. They asked if we had been anywhere except the Canberra in the last 14 days (we had not), then thanked us and said we were free to go.

All in all, the process took around 5 minutes from departing the plane to reaching the baggage carousel. A few more minutes of waiting and our bags emerged, and we were on our way to explore Perth and beyond! To find out where we went next, be sure to read the following post: Swimming with Manta Rays – Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. Thanks for reading!

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