What airlines can learn from Australia’s Indian Pacific transcon train

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Travelling by rail across Australia between Sydney and Perth on the fabled Indian Pacific is truly a pleasure trip rather than purely a means of transportation. Yet the pricing is similar to a nonstop flight in business class, and indeed the upmarket leisure traveller is the market the Indian Pacific is aiming for.

Some aspects of the passenger experience are already reminiscent of airline premium #PaxEx — single cabin suites with beds that fold down lengthways from the wall, chauffeur transfers to the terminal, a full bar, and so on. But much of the magic of the Indian Pacific is around a thoughtfully designed service, which airlines seeking to stand out in a crowded, increasingly price-focussed premium flyer market, would do well to consider.

To start, the Indian Pacific creates ways for passengers to meet each other — if they want. On my trip, it started with an optional pre-departure dinner at an Adelaide restaurant. In the mood for a chat, I went along and had an interesting dinner’s conversation with a few fellow travellers. Could airlines, especially those aiming for high-value holidaymakers on their way to leisure destinations, do something similar?

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Onboard, the social focus is the lounge car, which is supplied with cards, board games and group-style seating options. It’s somewhat like the Emirates A380 bar writ large, but the plane lacks the icebreakers of cards or board games. An opportunity missed? Sure, even the most gregarious will welcome the opportunity to close the door on their own cabin and have some time and space to think — which is a key joy of the Indian Pacific — but the option is there.

In the lounge car, I enjoyed chatting with the bartenders, who know their wine and how to talk about it. In the air, much is said about whether Etihad-style food & beverage managers onboard are for show or serve an actual function, but with the amount airlines spend on F&B it seems odd that most don’t invest a commensurate amount in training staff to be knowledgeable about it.

A small touch that really made a difference: asking when I’d like to be woken and given a cup of tea or coffee the way I like it. I’m always amazed at how few airlines offer this kind of service to passengers who might want to get on a new timezone, especially since it is essentially cost-neutral.

The Indian Pacific’s commentary track, too, is a delightful touch, and I’ve said the same thing about other scenic train journeys. But aircraft have windows too, and the world is perhaps even more beautiful from a window at 38,000 feet as it is from a train. There seem to be few logistical reasons why Qantas or Virgin Australia, for example, whose aircraft travel on a number of defined routes, couldn’t create a GPS-triggered commentary track on use an integrated entertainment app to do so (various geo-entertainment solutions were floated by IFE firms not so very long ago).

The Australiana that infuses the Indian Pacific brings another lesson to airlines: identity. From the outback hats and R.M. Williams trousers that make up the staff uniform, to the food and beverages with signature ingredients — river mint in the yoghurt parfait, jams from makers en route, Australian fish, local herbs in the toiletries — there isn’t a minute on board when you forget you’re Down Under. That’s not always the case in the air.

Onboard, the Indian Pacific is much more about the journey than the destination. These days, with connectivity-enabled aircraft and more inflight entertainment options than most passengers could hope to watch, there’s a fair amount of nostalgia from people who flew in previous decades about losing the feeling that stepping on a plane and being launched into the air was hitting the pause button on real life.

The Indian Pacific inherently understands that your two or three days on board are a chance to stop, think, and refresh. What can airlines do to make that an option for passengers, whether they’re on board for a few hours or for the best part of a day?

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