Route: Canberra to Sydney
Carrier: Virgin Australia
Terminal: Anyone who has flown into or out of Canberra during the winter months knows that its always a little bit of a gamble as to whether fog will delay your morning arrival or departure and today was no exception. From my window seat in the Virgin Australia lounge I watched the last of the aircraft that had overnighted disappear into the fog while taxiing to the southern end of the runway before hearing loud roars as they rolled along the fog covered southerly end of the runway and climbed out towards their destinations. As I wondered why I didn’t get here a little bit earlier and try and move onto one of those planes that just departed, all that was left were two lonely Virgin Australia planes, an E190 and 737 who were awaiting the arrival of their crews across an otherwise deserted apron.
All hope of an on time departure wasn’t completely lost as I watched a few light aircraft land, although they had the advantage of not needing the whole runway and effectively flew over the foggy patch at the threshold and landed further down the runway. My optimism was quashed when a loud roar caught my attention as a Qantas 737 commenced a go around, unable to land due to the persistent patch of fog over the threshold, and unlike the Cessna, needed a wee bit more runway to land on and couldn’t simply fly over the fog. That 737 was the first of many to attempt to land, 2 E190’s a Dash 8 and another 737 all had a crack but all ended in go around’s.
I’ve never found the small lounge in Canberra to be overly full however with half a dozen morning departures delayed the lounge quickly became quite full and the mood in the lounge, which has great views of the runway deteriorated as each successive plane attempted, yet failed to land. Credit goes to the sole lounge agent at the front desk who probably spoke to everyone in the lounge as the constant parade of passengers asked about their flight, connections and when operations were going to return to normal.
I might write a separate article on what not to do when delayed however one point to share here that I found very amusing that one passenger was very vocal that this wouldn’t happen on Qantas. She was quite vocal on her plans to go and try and get on a Qantas flight immediately, until her colleague signalled across to the Qantas bays and pointed out that they had no planes on the ground, thus she wouldn’t be getting anywhere any faster with them. Her next best option appeared to be to pace around her chair until the fog cleared.
I decided to check out where all these planes had actually gone so pulled out the iPad and after checking out the list of flight numbers from the Canberra Airport website, looked them up on the Flight Aware tracking tool to see where they had all gone. I found that they were all doing some nice circle work (well some where, my flight, which originated from Hobart was doing some handbrake turns) to the north of the airport while waiting for the pesky fog to clear. The FlightAware app is free and is pretty handy if you want to know more about where your flight is coming from, or after your flight, where you have gone.
While we all waited in the terminal, a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster (correct me if I got the type wrong, military aircraft aren’t really my thing) entertained the lounge as it taxied past and took off through the fog. To my surprise I wasn’t the only one who jumped for a camera, as half the lounge suddenly became airplane enthusiasts quickly snapping photos and video with mobile phones or cameras. A short clip of the take off is below, apologies for the poor quality, unfortunately the windows in the lounge are very reflective and not a plane spotters friend.
A few minutes later the first go around aircraft, a QF 737 surprised the lounge and made a quiet landing from the north and was soon followed by a constant stream as each plane took its turn to land. As more Virgin flights landed, 3 Virgin flights to Sydney were all past their departure times, and ironically my flight (the earliest departure) was still listed on the board as “Delayed”, while the other flights were all “Go to Gate”. I took this a my queue to chat to the friendly lounge agent, who apologised and informed be that the boards weren’t being updated very well this morning, and that my flight was a priority so it would be best not to change. A few minutes later, boarding was called and it was time to leave the lounge for the short walk to Gate 8.
If you want a review of the lounge itself, rather than today’s fog delay background, feel free to read the lounge review here.
Departure: With 3 flights to Sydney, all listed to depart from the same gate, there was a lot of people around Gate 8 and the boarding line had began to mix into the crowd. Fortunately the priority-boarding lane was empty and the crew smoothly stopped general boarding, scanned my pass and then continued boarding seamlessly (I’m not sure why Qantas seem to need 2 people and still struggle with the concept of Priority boarding). Gate 8 is a walk across the tarmac and up the stairs before freezing your bits off kind of gate, but once onboard I was warmly welcomed by what turned out to be one of the best crew’s I’ve come across to date.
Unfortunately fate wouldn’t allow the fog to be the only cause of delay this morning as whatever systems are used to produce the paperwork for the cockpit prior to departure also went down this morning, resulting in the ground staff performing this manually. Sitting in row 1 (and the only person in Business Class) I was able to chat, joke with and be very well informed about the delays from the crew (and a ground crew agent who had sought refuge from the cold onboard). Although our aircraft was the priority a few other issues were cropping up on the tarmac – Virgin had run out of bays for all these late arriving aircraft to park in. All the bays were now full so a few aircraft had to taxi around the airport and wait on taxiways and across at the tower by the RAAF base.
On arrival onboard I was given the standard juice or water (I went with juice) however as the onboard delay continued the cabin supervisor made me a hot chocolate which was a nice touch – and handy to keep warm by door one. Another crewmember dropped several hints to his supervisor suggesting he could also use a Hot Chocolate to warm up to, before he was jokingly put in his place and declined. Our paperwork was finally prepared and delivered to the cockpit after which the final door was promptly closed up and we pushed backed and navigated our way around a few parked fellow company aircraft and lined up onto Runway 17 for departure. During the turn to line up the end of the runway just disappeared into the still persistently stubborn fog at the southerly end. As we rotated off the runway we quickly encountered the inconvenient fog, before just as quickly punching through it to a lovely sunny morning above. The rest of the flight was smooth and uneventful, seemingly perfect flying conditions however my connecting flight in Sydney and my first chance to try out the A330 Business Class seating was looking increasingly unlikely.
Seat: 1A. Although Virgin offers business class across most routes now, the seating on the E190 aircraft is yet to arrive and thus you are actually seating in the old premium economy seats. The seats are in a 2-2 configuration however only the window seats are sold as Business class, meaning the aisle seats are guaranteed to be empty. Despite the blocked out seat beside you, its not the business class as you would imagine it to be and falls well short of all other business class seats on the Australian market (although I’ve heard this kind of blocked out economy seating for short haul business is common in other parts of the globe).
The seat itself is comfortable enough for an economy seat and for the short hop to Sydney it does the job. Its annoying not having somewhere to put your pre take off drink without pulling out the next seats tray table, but I guess that’s something worthy of the first world problem hash tag if there ever was. I knew these seats would be here so wasn’t expecting any different, but if you had just connected from a 737 or A330, and hadn’t read the Virgin website or online forums before you’re flight, it wouldn’t be too hard to think you had been downgraded back to economy. I won’t bag out the seat any further but am looking forward to when the new seats are installed, in a 1-2 configuration like the promo images on the media release.
Aircraft: Embraer E190 (VH-ZPG). Despite the lack of real business class seats, I really like the E190’s. They have all the comforts of a 737, offer a nice smooth ride yet being a little smaller feel more intimate and cozy without being claustrophobic or crowded like a crowded Dash 8. The aircraft is divided into two cabins by a curtain (that is not used) with 2 rows of “business” and 23 rows of economy seating behind.
The 2-2 configuration in economy also means that there is no middle seat (which really no-one likes). The windows also seem a little larger, or at least wider than a 737 so it feels like you get a better view although at Row 1 the window is slightly forward of the seating position so you need to lean forward a little to get a good view (I’m not sure if they are actually bigger, but it feels like they are). The overhead bins are smaller but given the low loads in Business (e.g., just me) I had no trouble with my average roller size bag.
IFE: This section is pretty simple to write about, there isn’t any IFE on board. I’m not sure if tablets or digEplayers are carried on the E190’s as I’ve only flown them to Sydney, but if they are they have never been offered on any of my flights, and realistically, with flight times of sub 30mins (this flight was 24mins), there isn’t really any point in my view.
Meal: A morning tea service was offered on my flight which today consisted of a quiche (which I think was ham, tomato, cheese and spinach) a small bowl of fruit salad and a second hot chocolate to wash it all down. Although the food was nice and I had no complaints on the quality or taste of the food offered today, I’m not yet sure that the Virgin Business catering really screams “Business Class” at you.
My view its more of a premium economy offering with the offerings rather sparse with too much space on the tray (although this is probably good for the waistline). I know it adds weight, but perhaps put a cup and a glass on the tray too to fill it up a little and be a little more creative with the menu selections as currently I’m not sure adding a “Luke Managan” label to a quiche from the local bakery suddenly makes it taste any better or any closer to the price league of a business class ticket. I’m not saying to just make a carbon copy of the Neil Perry options that Qantas serve, but perhaps just try and go a little further so the meal matches the price expectation that you paid for (which on short flights, especially with the current seating on an E190, is really the only differential between Business and Economy).
Arrival: Our approach into Sydney overflew the southerly end of the airports approach paths before making a few right turns and landing towards the north on the right parallel runway. This provided an opportunity to take a few photos of the airport, and a great view over to Sydney in the distance. Our landing was smooth before we taxied to our gate just as my A330 flight I was trying to connect to, pushed back from its gate. Unfortunately the house won my gamble for a connection, with a little help from Canberra’s foggy morning.
Crew: I wish I had a better memory for names, as the crew on this flight were exceptional from gate to gate. I must sound like a broken record, but the crew make or break a flight and the crew on this flight, especially the Cabin supervisor who ran the business cabin made my flight extremely enjoyable. They acted professionally without being stuffy or pretentious and were comfortable in making and getting involved in several conversations with me, including entertaining my obsession with flying. If you hadn’t already realised, I’m a plane nerd, so explained my interest in trying out the A330 after this flight. When I saw it push back as we arrived in Sydney, meaning I missed the flight, I told the cabin supervisor, who replied jokingly with something along the lines of “I’d like to tell you that plane is off to Perth and yours is hiding around the corner but I know that we both know that’s not the case.”
So despite being delayed out of Canberra due to the fog and paperwork issues, having a pretty average quality business class hard product (the seat) and having catering that wasn’t really up to what I’d call business standards, I still had one of the best and most comfortable flights I’ve had in quite a while. The only variable left that I can attribute this to is, the outstanding crew who worked together like a well oiled machine and handled the delay and other passengers dissatisfaction with being delayed really well.
I’d love to fly with this team again, and hope their enthusiasm and smart professionalism rubs off on the rest of the Virgin Australia team. FYI – I passed on thanks to the @VirginAustralia social media team via twitter, and I hope this was passed onto the crew.
Overall: So this review was slightly different to my previous posts with more detail on the pre-flight activities than the flight itself, and has opened up a few new articles that I’ll add to my ongoing list of things to write about (if only I had the time). As I said earlier, the hard product and catering weren’t really up to business standards but the crew were fantastic and were the key factor in making this flight comfortable and enjoyable. Well done – its this kind of service that will encourage me (and others) to fly with the airline more often which will hopefully allow them to invest in newer seating and upgraded catering.