Qantas v United from Sydney to San Francisco: which wins the business class battle?

Jetting to San Francisco to do the venture capital fund-raising circuit, take meetings with big hitters such as Apple and Google or the thousands of dot-coms and startups, or attend a conference on the latest in tech?

With Qantas and United Airlines both flying direct between Sydney and San Francisco, we put their respective business class experiences the test. (You can, of course, fly to Los Angeles and catch a connecting flight to San Fran – but navigating LAX isn't fun at the best of times, and that stopover adds hours to your trip.)


Qantas enjoys a natural advantage here, with Sydney being the Flying Kangaroo's home port – and where you'd expect to find its flagship lounges.

It's true that after almost a decade of solid use, the Qantas International Business Lounge is in serious need of an upgrade. But the variety and quality of meals, drinks and service are outstanding for a business class lounge, and flyers on QF73 out of Sydney can sample fresh juices as well as gelato made in the lounge's own kitchen. (And of course, if you hold Platinum status in the Qantas Frequent Flyer scheme then you can head upstairs to the unbeatable first class lounge.)

United's business class passengers out of Sydney have a choice between the lounges of Star Alliance partners Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines.

United steers you to the crowded AirNZ lounge where there's barista-pulled coffee, an 'egg station' for poached or fried eggs cooked to order plus the usual scrambled eggs, baked beans and grilled tomatoes. However your business class boarding pass also opens the doors at the neighbouring Singapore Airlines lounge which is less crowded and has a much broader range of dishes from the traditional Western breakfast to antipasto, smoked salmon, frittatas, chicken congee and lasagne.

Our tip: visit the AirNZ lounge for the coffee and the Singapore Airlines lounge for the rest of your breakfast.The winner here, however, is clearly Qantas – at least for your outbound Sydney leg of the journey.

When you're flying back from San Francisco both airlines serve up a sadly sub-par lounge experience.

Qantas relegates all but its VIP frequent flyers to the sub-standard Air France Lounge instead of the excellent Cathay Pacific lounge, which turns away most Qantas travellers despite being part of the same Oneworld airline alliance.


United's SFO lounge clearly expects you to dine in the air, with only soup, salad and snacks on offer. However, duck next door into the lounge of Star Alliance member EVA Air for a superior spread of Chinese dishes.

The aircraft

Qantas flies a Boeing 747-400 on the SYD-SFO route. She may be the venerable 'Queen of the Skies' but despite an interior refresh she's showing her age.

United has upgraded all Australian flights to the very latest Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which aces the jumbo in every way. The Dreamliner is significantly quieter, has a modern spacious cabin and even flies smoother.

More importantly for passengers, higher humidity in the cabin, cleaner air filtration and a lower effective altitude than the 747 makes the flight more comfortable and reduces the effect of flight fatigue and even jetlag.

You'll step off your United flight at San Francisco feeling fresher, more awake and alert, and ready to stride into your first meeting or presentation.

The seat

Both Qantas and United are out of step with the latest in business class seat design.

Forget the 1-2-1 layout, direct aisle access and personal storage spaces of the newest business class seats from Virgin Australia, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Etihad.

These seats are arranged in pairs, although United edges the Red Roo with more room for your carry-on kit. At least both seats convert into a fully-flat bed for the 14-hour flight.


Although almost the same width according to SeatGuru, the Qantas' Skybed II definitely feels wider in bed mode than its United counterpart.

It's also a better snooze experience: Qantas dresses the seat with a mattress to flatten out the bumps, provides a quilted duvet cover and a pair of cotton pyjamas. With United you get a pillow and a blanket.

But if you're a light sleeper who can do without those creature comforts, then the quieter and less tiring ride of United's Boeing 787 is a better choice.


American airlines in general don't exactly knock the ball out of the park when it comes to in-flight meals. Even in business class the food is 'good' rather than 'great'.

United sticks to the basics with mains: choose between beef, chicken, fish or pasta – while breakfast is cereal or an omelette.

Qantas's association with Neil Perry's Rockpool Group yields much better fare, from small plates to mains bolstered by soups, salads and sandwiches, plus a more extensive wine list.

Work and play

The benefits of flying a modern jet like the Boeing 787 again works in United's favour. There's inflight Internet which runs at a useable clip and costs just $US17 ($23) for the entire flight without any data limit.You also get a much larger personal video screen, at 39cm against Qantas' 30cm panel (both airlines' libraries of movies and TV shows have more than enough to please passengers on the trans-Pacific trek).

And the winner is…

Which airline makes the best play for your Sydney-San Francisco business travel budget? It's surprisingly close and depends on which factors you prioritise, but it's the Boeing 787 that tilts the scales in United's favour. In pretty much every other aspect, Qantas is my pick.

David Flynn travelled as a guest of Qantas and United Airlines.

If you regularly fly for business between Australia and the US, which is your choice of airline – and why?

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of Australian Business Traveller magazine. His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of Executive Style readers.