Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

Qantas is risking its excellent reputation by cutting costs

Saturday 11 November 2006 01:00 GMT

Reputations can make or break an airline, and Qantas has one of the best. For one thing, the Australian national carrier enjoys an impressive fatality-free record - as celebrated in the airport scene in the 1988 film Rain Man:

Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise): "Ray, all airlines have crashed at one time or another. That doesn't mean they are not safe."

Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman): "Qantas. Qantas never crashed."

Actually, Qantas has crashed - but since a trio of fatal accidents in New Guinea in 1951, only gently, without killing anyone. The airline also enjoys a formidable reputation for premier-league service. Which is why Leila Jarvis and Natasha Prajapati from Essex booked flights on Qantas for their trip-of-a-lifetime to Australia which began this week.

They were sitting comfortably, if a little nervously, in their pre-selected seats all the way to Singapore. The reason for their anxiety: after they had booked their flights, they received an e-mail saying that the overnight stretch from Singapore to Cairns would no longer be operated by a wide-bodied Qantas Boeing 767. Instead, the airline had handed down the route - and its passengers, including Ms Jarvis and Ms Prajapati - to its no-frills subsidiary, Jetstar. This is the discount airline that Qantas launched to do battle with its low-cost rivals, notably Virgin Blue and Tiger Airways.

The pair's tickets still carried a Qantas flight number, so they queued at the Qantas check-in desk in Singapore. When they reached the front, they were told they must join the line forming at a different desk; no frills, no pre-selected seating.

At gate C11, their spirits sank further. Jetstar had deployed an Airbus A320 on the route. Unlike the big, long-haul Boeing originally scheduled for the flight, this is the narrowest common denominator of the Airbus family. It is kitted out with the same number of seats as its no-frills rival to Australia, Jetstar - and offers the same personal space as easyJet. But the longest flight on easyJet, from Istanbul to Luton, lasts four hours. The Singapore-Cairns link is scheduled to take more than twice as long. And on the night, a delay pushed the journey time to nine hours.

"If it was a couple of hours you wouldn't mind," says Leila Jarvis, "but it was an overnight flight, and we arrived in terrible shape in Cairns."

To make matters worse, there was no built-in inflight entertainment. The only on-board fun on the Airbus takes the form of portable video players, for which passengers must pay 10 Australian dollars (£4). Natasha and Leila had identified this issue in advance. They pointed out to Qantas staff in both London and Singapore that they were being asked to pay twice for the privilege of something to take their minds off the discomfort - initially when they booked their flights, and again on the night. A promise that the fee would be waived was not honoured on board.

"We've been saving up for two years for this trip, and we've paid Qantas prices but got easyJet," says Natasha Prajapati. "At least on easyJet you know what you're getting, or not getting."

Business travellers have taken even less kindly to the downgrade. The premium cabin has been abolished on the Jetstar connection, and executives from the UK carrying the Oneworld Sapphire card - which normally gains access to the Qantas business-class lounge in Singapore when travelling on the alliance's flights - are being turned away.

The issue here is transparency. Qantas has always struggled to make money on the Singapore-Cairns route. The problem is: the likes of you, me, Natasha and Leila are not prepared to pay fares high enough to cover the costs that Qantas labours under, and this route attracts little business traffic paying premium prices. So you can understand the airline wanting to hand the route to its low-cost subsidiary: by employing Singaporean cabin crew and ditching expensive inflight entertainment, Jetstar can keep costs way below Qantas levels. But if it says "Qantas" on the ticket, passengers should expect Qantas standards - or be compensated for accepting a second-rate product. Otherwise that precious reputation will be tainted.

More Bucks For Starbucks

Another global brand is seeking to extend its domination. Starbucks began dispensing coffee in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1971 and has been steadily expanding ever since, with 12,000 locations around the world. The company's latest cunning plan is the Starbucks Card. You buy a re-chargeable card in the UK which can be used at coffee bars in the US, Canada, Australia and Thailand.

"The card will enhance the Starbucks experience for customers allowing them to buy their daily cup of coffee quickly and easily, even when they are not carrying cash." Yet have you ever found yourself out of cash in a foreign country and decided that your biggest problem was how to get a cup of coffee?

"With Starbucks Card you'll never be far away from great coffee and comfy chairs," promises the company, seeking to persuade travellers to take the soft option rather than seek out more interesting local cafés. One consequence is that we will become aware of how expensive the stuff is in Britain: according to the latest tall-latte index in The Economist, the average price of a large, milky coffee at Starbucks in the UK is one-sixth higher than in the US and twice the going rate in Thailand.

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