Virgin Australia markets their A330 ‘coast to coast’ service between the East and West coasts of Australia as their flagship domestic Business Class offering – a cut above the service and space on their shorter domestic flights.
I took the opportunity to take a quick trip to Perth from Sydney to sample Qantas’ arch-rival. I’ve experienced Qantas A330, which for many services offers their (ageing) SkyBed Mk1 seat several times so a direct comparison was in order.
I travelled out to Perth on the morning flight, VA551, at 7am. This was paid for using 33,800 points and $27.25 taxes, which compared to Qantas at 36,000 points in Business Class for the same route, is a good deal. On the return I caught the afternoon flight back, VA558, this time paying for a Flexi fare and using a complimentary upgrade from Virgin for being Velocity Gold – what better way to use it than on one of Virgin’s longest domestic flights.
Outbound – Sydney to Perth on VA551
I arrived at the airport a short 50 minutes before departure at around 6.10am at the Sydney kerbside premium check in area, which routes straight from drop-off or valet parking, through security to the (currently being refurbished) lounge. Time from leaving the taxi to arrival in the lounge was an impressive less than 5 minutes, where I quickly stowed away a flat white and some fruit to keep me going until breakfast inflight.
After moving swiftly from the lounge to the gate, boarding was straightforward and I was happy to discover a relatively empty cabin with around 5 or 6 people travelling. This looked like it would make a great test of Virgin’s service given the crew wouldn’t be overworked. I was happy to see an expansive view from my 2.5 windows next to my seat, and no one next to me. This was shaping up to be a great flight.
On each seat was Virgin’s large Bose headset packs and sealed blankets, and amenity kits, juice, water or champagne was offered soon after.
After a short wait for landing aircraft (who else but Qantas) we were up into the morning light out toward Botany Bay.
With the seatbelt sign off, I started exploring Virgin’s seat and their design for my personal surroundings. Each seat had a couple of storage compartments directly under the large LCD for the ‘Red’ inflight entertainment system, and a side table large enough for a couple of drinks – I took another flat white.
Legroom was excellent, and my 6’2″ frame didn’t feel restricted in any way. The seat controls yielded a heap of options, but also gave away the ‘somewhat well used’ feel of the plane – that, along with the rather large amount of dirt and grime between the seat and the window, and around sides of the seat cushions. It was about the negative to the seat, which could have been dealt with with improved cleaning standards.
The seat itself was pretty comfortable, with great recline to angled lie-flat. I quite liked the leather covering and Virgin detailing for style and daytime comfort, but I’d imagine when trying to sleep at night, it could be fairly slippery.
In terms of seat features, the neatest were the slide-on reading lamp, wide array of power and entertainment connectivity options, small trays to hold glasses, boarding passes, wallets and the like, and water bottle holders in the central pillar of the seats in front.
Menus were distributed at the beginning the of the flight, along with a personal greeting and the offer of my coffee. The menu covered off both outbound and return legs – one size fits all if you like – which meant I initially stupidly selected a breakfast from the ‘opposite’ menu, unfortunately. But I changed my mind and ordered fruit salad and banana bread with poached fruit, lemongrass syrup and crème fraiche.
Calling this serving banana bread though was just wrong – this was a beast of a pile of well plated, very tasty sugary goodness. I was kind of wired for the rest of the flight, but it was as good a breakfast I’ve ever had in Business Class domestically.
Before breakfast kicked off, I had a play with the Red inflight entertainment system, which was pretty well stocked with a decent selection of movies and TV. It was easy to use, and the main thing that struck me was the size of the screen – easily large enough.
A little later in the flight I chose a small pie for a late morning snack – this was again fairly tasty, but the best bit was a (not pictured) small bowl of chutney which made this ten times tastier.
Finally, we started descending down toward Perth. My overall impression of this flight was that the gentlemen serving me was very professional, considered, and given he knew the cabin was relatively empty, was happy to take his time and offer some great service. I was addressed by name on almost every interaction, asked and offered drinks or snacks on a regular, but not intrusive, basis, and generally offered a great experience.
Return: Perth to Sydney on VA558
The departure time of VA558 was 11.30, with a scheduled arrival of 17.45. As such this would be a lunch service, and given I was flying on a Friday, I expected it to be busy. I hung out in the Perth Virgin Australia Lounge for 1/2 hour before the flight but I found it a pretty miserable windowless box with no views and not much food. In need of attention, Virgin.
Boarding was busy, and the flight did turn out to be full – every seat in Business Class was occupied. I sat at the rear of the cabin on the opposite side as my outbound flight for a little change, but I still couldn’t remove myself from my favoured window seat.
Given the flight timing, the meal was an extended lunch, served around an hour or so after take off. I opted for the King Prawns with Sweetcorn salsa and Chipotle dressing to start, and as I was at the rear of the cabin, I was left only with the Lamb Shank, Polenta and Pepporonata to eat as the main.
The food again was excellent. Loads of flavour, a crispy, cool but spicy entrée and piping hot, delicious main. Very happy. Desert was a small and equally tasty cheese cake.
Finally, the amenity kit – I cracked this open in more detail when at home and discovered a high quality set of products that felt at home with the rest of Virgin’s inflight experience.
Service on the return flight was understandably less personal than when the cabin was less than half full on the outbound from Sydney, however the crew did a decent enough job of taking orders politely and offering drink top ups and extra snacks. But nothing noteworthy, either positive or negative.
Virgin Australia’s coast to coast service was, to put it simply, pretty faultless. As I wrote above, I had some minor niggles on the cleanliness of the seat and plane, and thankfully for me there were no issues that were presented for Virgin staff to resolve.
Apart from this, the Virgin experience felt nearly up to high international grade Business Class in terms of service, met all my expectations for the quality of food on offer (although an extra snack and drink run would have been appreciated on both flights), and in terms of seat comfort, room, personal storage, comfort and entertainment, was a cut above the SkyBed Mk1 product available on some of Qantas flights. Given that Qantas only offer SkyBeds on some of their A330’s, Virgin’s consistently high quality product is one to aim for.
Virgin and Qantas are in a fight (hopefully not to the death) for your hard earned dollars and points when travelling domestically, and both are engaging in product improvement programmes for their domestic Business Class. Qantas announced their A330 upgrade intentions with minimal detail, intending to launch them sometime in late 2014, while Virgin have started scoping out what their new Business Class seat may look like across their fleet.
Given the good standard out in the market already, this next round of upgrades over the next couple of years will ensure Australia has a continued reputation for the quality of our domestic Business Class.
Do you fly Virgin Australia’s Business Class regularly? I’m interested to hear your experiences in the comments.