Carrier: Virgin Australia
Route: Melbourne to Sydney
Terminal: Despite traveling through Melbourne quite regularly this was my first trip to the Virgin Australia terminal in a very long time, in fact not since it was the Virgin Blue terminal so it was all a new experience for me. Arriving into Terminal 3, which old school travellers will recall being the Ansett terminal I was faced with a long check in queue, somewhat hiding the row of bag drop and check-in counters. Although that’s a sight I never like to see when I arrive at a terminal, Virgin’s priority service for high status flyers and business class passengers fortunately starts at check in, with a priority line available for Gold, Platinum and Business class passengers which dramatically reduces the time it takes to check in. I was the only person using the priority queue and had my two boarding passes for my connecting flights to Canberra via Sydney in no time.
After checking in I wandered down the escalators and of course relaxed a little in the lounge before my flight. I’ll post a complete lounge review in the future, however my first impressions were somewhat less than what I had expected (probably more so as some media had possibly over-hyped the lounge a little). Despite that, it’s a comfy lounge and I passed the time chatting to fellow passengers before boarding was called almost exactly as scheduled. One thing to note is that the lounge is pre-security, and thus you need to make sure not to dawdle towards the gate when your flight is called. Priority security screening is also available, which reduces the queue, however there seemed to be not enough security checkpoints / scanners available generally, which might mean a bit of a wait during peak times, especially if you’re not traveling with Velocity status.
Departure: Virgin print the gate numbers on your boarding pass, meaning you don’t need to search for a monitor to find your gate. I haven’t seen this on a Qantas boarding pass in a long time and found this really handy (especially when you have connecting flights). Boarding was well underway by the time I arrived at the gate with both the aerobridge at door 1L and the rear stairs in use. On boarding the aircraft the warm and friendly crew welcomed me by name to business class and advised that although my assigned seat was 1F, there were only 3 guests travelling in the business cabin today and thus I was free to select any seat in row 2 should I want to spread out a little. I decided to take them up on this offer and opted for seat 2F instead. Awaiting on each pair of seats were copies of the weekend Australian for each guest, which although I didn’t read, was a nice touch for those wanting to pass the time before take off with a read of the paper.
The crew assisted with stowing my bag in the overhead locker and my jacket was quickly hung on a rail attached to the partition separating business and economy before my pre flight mocktail was presented. This has to be one of the nicest and most refreshing pre-flight (non-alcoholic) drinks I’ve had, consisting of cranberry juice, lime and ginger over fresh ice (Thanks to the @VirginAustralia Twitter people for the ingredients). If anyone knows the recipe for this little beauty please leave it as a comment as I’d love to make these at home. If the delicious mocktail isn’t your thing, water was also offered, but no one took up the water option. We pushed back on schedule before a very smooth take off towards the north, a few gentle turns over Craigieburn before pointing towards Albury on climb to Sydney.
Seat: 2F. The business cabin has 8 dark grey leather recliners in a 2-2 configuration in the forward cabin, separated from economy by a dividing wall topped with purple Perspex. As Business class has only been available for a few months the seats are in excellent condition, each sporting the Virgin logo stitched into the centre of each seat. Being new the seat feels fresh, and is nicely padded. Between each pair of seats is a small cocktail table, with an extendable portion should you need it, with your tray tables being stowed in the outer arms.
Virgin reports legroom as 38 inches meaning there is plenty of room to stretch out and relax and if looking out the window is your thing, the legroom means you have 2 all to yourself (if you are on a window seat of course). The recline is decent, meaning you can lounge back, however one bit of functionality that I thought was missing was a leg rest. I only noticed this when I reclined and noticed my legs felt a little odd being in the same position. If there is a leg rest, apologies to Virgin, but I couldn’t find it or how to work it. Each seat is completed with a soft headrest, although as I didn’t play with it during the flight I’m not sure how adjustable it is, however for the flight up to Sydney I found it comfortable and supportive.
These seats definitely deserve more than the 3 guests in the cabin on my flight; they are comfortable, stylish, spacious, and leaps and bounds ahead of the combi business class seats found on the 737-400’s Qantas fly. I was really impressed with the seat and business cabin!
Aircraft: Boeing 737-800 (VH-YIE). On my flight down earlier this weekend I reviewed economy on the 737-800 which you can read here, so this time I’ll be brief and just say that Virgin have won me over on the BSI lottery odds this weekend with 2 out of 2 737’s sporting the new interior. As the business cabin is only 2 rows, without the BSI interior I think it might feel a little cramped, however the recessed overhead bins, curved sidewalls and sculpted window frames make the cabin feel much bigger than the 8 seats it holds. I think the use of a solid wall also helps define the product much better than a curtain, and the magnetic rope that goes across the aisle during flight adds to the “exclusivity” of the business class cabin.
The mood lighting was more noticeable on this flight as the sun gradually set during the flight. The orange glow of the sunset contrast well against the strong blues and purples within the cabin. Once the sun had set, the Virgin colours projected along the sidewalls added another Virgin element to the flight.
IFE: There is no built in IFE in the business or economy cabins of the refurbished 737 aircraft, with the LiveTV that was previously offered removed and replaced by tablets. As I said in my earlier review, I’m not a fan of this move, but alas on this flight I was offered a digEplayerXT so I’ll let you know what options are available on that, although I think that these too are being replaced by Samsung Galaxy Tablets so you may not get one of these for much longer. The digEplayer contains a limited selection of movies, TV shows, games, audio tracks and podcasts. I opted for an episode of Modern Family that is a mainstay on any airlines in-flight selections these days. The content available is sufficient for the 1-1.5hr hops around the east coast and providing a movies you liked was loaded it could do a 2hr flight, however the longer transcontinental hops could be pushing the entertainment value of these units a little far. I’m hoping to try out a Galaxy tablet soon, which hopefully has some more content available.
A handy feature if travelling with a partner or friend is that you can plug two sets of headphones into the unit, each with its own volume control. This isn’t much of an issue in Business where you can both have your own for free, but if you had to pay, then it’s a good way to split the cost and save some money. The unit has an adjustable stand that sits nicely on the tray table or if there is no-one sitting next to you the centre armrest is also a good spot if you want to get the tray out of the way.
Meal: This was my first time flying Virgin’s Business class so I was quite interested as to what meals would be served. From what I read online before the trip, my flight fell into the afternoon snack timeslot, which today consisted of a cheese plate and drinks. The cheese plate had a soft and hard cheese, some grapes, what I think was a quince paste and a packet of wafer biscuits. To finish off the afternoon tea a sweet cake was also provided. I’m not a huge fan of overly strong cheese, so Virgin’s choice to keep it simple with just a basic soft and hard cheese went down well for me, although there could have been a few more biscuits as the cheese to biscuit ratio was a little low.
Each Luke Managan inspired meal was neatly presented on a purple tray bringing the airlines colour scheme into another aspect of the service. Even the napkin and cutlery are wrapped in a purple band, reminding you again who created the meal. Virgin are definitely making sure that at each contact point you have with the airline you are reminded that they are something new and something different which I found was a good way to remind everyone of their new corporate image.
Arrival: On descent into Sydney the crew collected the digEplayer and thus my attention turned to the great view of the harbour and the city lights out the window. It’s probably co-incidence but I always seem to get a better view of the city when flying Virgin than on Qantas. Arriving a few minutes early, we were soon at the gate however it took a while for the stairs and aerobridge to be connected, as the crew took a while to extinguish the fasten seat belts sign. Despite being connected to the aerobridge the ground crew asked the cabin crew to hold off disembarking the passengers, however business class passengers were permitted to disembark anyway. I’m not sure what the delay was about, but it was nice that they assisted the premium cabin.
Crew: The crew were enthusiastic and seemed genuinely excited about having a business class cabin, being able to offer a professional level of service in this new and exciting cabin. I was greeted by name during the flight and the service was well paced, which wasn’t unexpected given the light load. It was the small things that made the experience feel more personal, such as the cabin manager noting that I had brought my own iPad on board, but offering if I would I like to try their entertainment unit anyway and asking how my weekend was and where my final destination was today, noting a few passengers connecting to Canberra from this service. I always say that a crew make or break a flight, and just like the economy service the day before, this crews attitudes and presentation is very removed from Virgin Blue and definitely portray a professional premium airline.
Overall: Being the first of hopefully many Virgin Australia Business Class flights I was really impressed with both the hard and soft products offered. The soft service compares well with and even exceeds in some respects that offered by Qantas on domestic routes and the hard product is much nicer than the comparable cabins found on Qantas’s narrow body fleet. The only room for improvement I could see is an improved beverage selection, which should be relatively easy to implement and the return of built in IFE, which may be a little harder. Overall a great first experience of the new Virgin product which has definitely persuaded me to move more of my travel across to this product.