InFlight: Flying from the Capital of Far North Queensland to the Great Barrier Reef Hub of Cairns

Introduction at Townsville Airport

I arrived at Townsville Airport pretty early after an unexpectedly prompt Uber pick up from my hotel. I must admit that I was ready to leave Townsville after an overall average tourist experience in the regional city that is the unofficial capital of Far North Queensland. While I appreciate that the tourism industry is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, it seems that the general attitude and lack of friendliness to tourists was lacking in my encounters with tourism staff in Townsville. Little things like table service, being able to park your scooter outside the hotel or ferry terminal or just a smile cost very little yet were lacking.

That said, this time the Uber service was prompt yet grumpy and I arrived at the terminal with a couple of hours before my flight departed. The airport terminal departures and arrival hall is on the same level with departures at one end of the building and arrivals at the opposite end. There is a small cafe / bar in the centre of the terminal opposite security and rental car desks near the baggage claim area but otherwise its a pretty simple yet effective design.

I’d already checked in online so presented by digital boarding pass to check in my bag pretty seamlessly. I also requested a paper copy of the boarding pass and for some reason needed to present ID to get the paper copy, despite already holding a digital copy. I prefer the paper copy as I’m always taking pictures on my phone.

I’d planned to spend some time in the lounge but found it was closed until 1 hour before boarding. I’d known this was the case at some regional ports, but presumed there would be other flights departing before mine. Alas this wasn’t the case so I had about an hour to explore the terminal before the lounge opened. A few other people seemed to be less patient and waited, staring disappointedly outside the closed club door. I on the other hand explored. The ground floor area has a Relay airport store selling quite a wide range of books and tech to go as well as your regular convince store stuff. They stocked quite the range of international travel adapters for what is a domestic only airport as well as some colourful ’North Queensland Cowboys’ merchandise. 

There is one gate on the lower level and the remaining five gates are on the upper level. There is a decent view across the apron and runway so I sat and watched a Virgin 737, Alliance F100 and Qantas Dash 8 arrive as well as some military jets land. While I’m an avgeek, that really only covers civil aviation with not so much interest in the half dozen or so fighter jets that did a loud flyby before coming in to land shortly after. 

The doors to the Qantas lounge opened an hour before departure of the flight to Brisbane with a queue of people waiting to get inside. The lounge was relatively full until the Brisbane flight boarded, after which there were only 3 of us left making for ideal filming conditions. Once inside the lounge has two seating areas separated by a low divider between the sections. There are more comfortable lounge style chairs in the central section and less comfortable mini dining style chairs in the area closest to the window. 

An interesting feature of the lounge is the three clocks showing the time zones for Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory. One of the first places I’ve seen only showing domestic timezones. As daylight savings has ended down south, the Queensland and New South Wales times were the same. There is a small selection of cold food available as well as a soup and the bar opened at midday. The selection is limited due to COVID, with staff handing you your chosen selection. I had a similar experience in a few hotel buffets and given what we know now about the aerosol nature of COVID transmission, I’m not sure having someone hand you food is actually any after than just sanitising your hands before serving yourself.  The view across the tarmac is at ground level but still provides something to look at as you wait for your flight. I watched a few planes come and go as I waited for the flight to Cairns to board. 

Townsville Airport Departures Entry
Townsville Departure Board


The aircraft operating today’s flight is a Bombardier Dash 8-400Q airplane with registration VH-QOR. This aircraft was delivered direct to Sunstate airlines (a Qantas subsidiary) in February 2009 and has been flying with the airline ever since. It’s named ‘Eyre Peninsula’ which is an interesting naming for an aircraft that is based with Sunstate and spends most of its time in Queensland. While there is a set naming convention for each aircraft type within the Qantas fleet, I couldn’t find any information on the naming convention for the Dash-8’s. There are 31 of the 400 series Dash-8’s flying in Qantas Link colours across a few different subsidiary airlines. 

The cabin is all economy across 19 rows with 4 abreast in a 2-2 configuration. The total capacity is 74 seats which is pretty standard for a dash 8. There is another version of the 400 series that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) just approved which firsts 90 seats into the aircraft. That comes at the expense of some cargo space and at a squeezed in 28 inch seat pitch compared to the 31 inches offered on Qantas. Whether we’ll ever see the 90 seat model fly remains doubtful as the De Havilland company who build the Dash-8’s have suspended production and it’s likely in 2023

At the rear of the cabin there is a small crew galley and the front of the cabin is a compact toilet in front of a forward cargo area. Many people seem to go for the cargo area door before realising the toilet is the door that’s practically in the cockpit. There are small overhead lockers that can fit a backpack but don’t take any roll on size bags. Instead there is a premium luggage service offered where you drop the bag at the foot of the stairs and when you disembark you collect it from the same place (obviously at your destination airport). 

Qantas Dash 8 at Townsville Airport
Alliance Airlines F100


The two by two layout of the cabin means you’re always in either a window or aisle seat. I selected a seat at the rear of the cabin today to try something new as I normally am seated in the front. On boarding the cabin crew asked if I wanted to move to the exit row in row 2, which I declined as I find the window is too far away to see the action from that row. Instead I remained in my allocated seat of 17A which is the third last row onboard. 

The seat has 31 inches of pitch and a width of 17 inches which is pretty standard for an economy seat on a regional flight. The centre armrest moves which means you can really spread out once the seatbelt sign goes off. The legroom is pretty good, however the window side seats are a little narrower than the aisle due to the curvature of the aircraft. The seats are clad in leather and are relatively comfortable for the short flight, although the neck/head support isn’t great as the headrest is fixed and low. Given these aircraft don’t fly further than a couple of hours, its not a bad seat when you have the seat next to you empty. If however it occupied it does feel a little cramped at the elbow level. 

Qantas Dash 8 Cabin Interior
Carl in a Qantas Dash 8 Economy Seat


The route between Townsville and Cairns is the almost exclusive domain of Qantas, with some minor competition from Rex who has three flights per week and Alliance who has a single flight on Tuesday mornings. The Qantas Dash 8s fly at least 3 times a day Monday to Saturday with flights in the morning, middle of the day and early evening. There are two flights a day on Sunday which misses out on the early morning flight. Additionally there are a few extra flights scattered across the week with a total of 24 weekly services.

The flight I’m taking (QF2354) is the regular middle of the day service which originates in Rockhampton with a stop in Mackay before arriving in Townsville and then continuing on to Cairns. Each of the three sectors is about a 40-50 minute hop as the route follows the coast up, stopping at the major towns between Rocky and Cairns. 

The aircraft had departed a little late from Rockhampton earlier in the day so we departed 21 minutes behind schedule. We departed to the north east crossing the coastline shortly after take off and making a slight left turn towards Cairns just before Magnetic Island. We tracked over the easterly side of Palm Island which gave a great view of the airport that I’d flown into on Hinterland Aviation the day before before continuing on the same track until we were approaching Cairns. 

We flew at 18,000 feet for the cruise which only lasted 18 minutes before beginning our decent into Cairns. Looking at a map it looks like we followed the Great Barrier Reef, but the view from the left hand side of the aircraft only allows for glimpses of the reef but a great view of the coastline and Cairns. 

View from Dash 8 Window over Great Barrier Reef

Inflight Service 

 After take off the crew came through the cabin to offer a snack service followed by tea, coffee and cold drinks. Today’s flight offered a caramelised pear and almond cake as the snack, which although looking tasty was off limits to this fructose intolerant flyer. As fellow fructose unfriendly folk would appreciate I find it difficult to eat on planes as many meals are FODMAP unfriendly. The sweet snacks often use apple or pear (or in todays case, both) and many savoury snacks contain onion or garlic powder. Often I find the cheese and crackers the safe bet, but alas they are few and far between. Unfortunately there is yet to be a FODMAP friendly special meal option available on any airlines that I’m aware of. Given the FODMAP diet was pioneered by Monash University in Australia, perhaps an Australian airline could pioneer a FODMAP friendly meal option. 


Given we were cruising at only 18,000 ft the decent was very gradual over 14 minutes as we flew offshore past Cairns and then landed towards the south on runway 15. The view from the left of the aircraft gives a view of the airport and Cairns on arrival. Once we landed there is a short walk across the tarmac before entering the airside area of the terminal. This is handy if you have a connecting flight as you don’t need to clear security again. The terminal is quite welcoming to the tourist market that Cairns relies on, including information in multiple languages. Hopefully the overseas tourist market will be able to return but for now it is up to the domestic market to fill the gap. 

The airport is about a 15min drive to the marina in the city centre where many of the hotels, including mine are located. There is also a helipad at the marina so I’m guessing if you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket you might be able to arrange a helicopter transfer directly to the foreshore. I stayed at the Shangri-La on the marina which is a great spot in the city to stay if you’re in Cairns. It’s been ages since I’ve stayed at a Shangri-La property and I’m impressed that even in Covid times the brand was on point. 

Qantas Dash 8 Meal
Carl Arriving in Cairns Airport

Final Impressions

Overall an enjoyable flight with something interesting to look at as you make the quick trip between the regional hubs of Cairns and Townsville. While waiting for the lounge to open wasn’t ideal, I’m guessing most people don’t bother arriving as early as I did, given most of Townsville is within 15mins of the airport. The crew were a lot friendlier than I’d had on recent Qantas Link flights and seemed proactive despite the very short sector length. The alternate would be a 350km drive over four and a quarter hours so flying makes the journey much quicker and enjoyable. 

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