Monday, November 14, 2011

EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW - Virgin Australia Short Haul Business, Sydney to Melbourne on the A330-200


      Now You're Flying

The world of Australian domestic aviation has changed recently. The once proudly low cost Virgin Blue has new management and a new direction, relaunching as premium airline: Virgin Australia. It's a gradual change but already we are seeing the new logo gradually being applied to the existing fleet, the introduction of two new aircraft types (the A330 and ATR72), and possibly most importantly, the introduction of domestic business class.

The domestic business class service arrived with the first A330 (ex-Emirates) and is featured initially only on the 'coast to coast' domestic runs between Sydney and Perth. The newly arrived 737s feature a similar business class seat although with lower seat pitch than the A330 and the existing fleet has been slowly refitted with business class seats too. There is sufficient refurbished and new build aircraft now (November 2011) for the airline to feature business class on ALL flights from the east coast to Perth and Virgin have announced business class service will be available around the rest of the domestic network starting January 2012.

VIRGIN AUSTRALIA AIRBUS A330-200

So, how does an airline that never offered a business class product before prepare to launch the service? Well, one thing it can do is have test or sample flights where the crew can perfect the product and timing of services. It is one thing to operate business class on 4 or 5 hour flights to Perth, but completely another when you have barely 65 minutes in the air such as between Sydney and Melbourne. I just so happened to be a participant of one such test flight, operated by an A330-200 on the Sydney to Melbourne run. This is how they went....

Sydney Premium Entry for Virgin Australia
 A friend had kindly driven me to the airport and we made use of the premium curbside entry in Sydney which has dedicated security and delivers you directly into the lounge without having to step foot in the main terminal. What a fantastic concept, I love it! It is available for business/premium economy passengers as well as gold and platinum frequent flyers.

Being a Saturday evening and on one of the last departing flights it was extremely quiet with nobody else in sight as I checked in at the desk. The lounge receptionist informed me my flight was delayed 30 mins as she checked me in and I was handed my boarding pass for seat 1A. I proceeded through security which was staffed by 4 people and I think they can't have been screening more than 10 people in the previous hour. What an easy job!

Premium Entry - Sydney

Departures display
 The Sydney lounge is yet to undergo renovations to bring it up to the new standard as seen in Melbourne and Brisbane, but the premium entry more than makes up for it. It is still quite comfortable and there was a reasonable selection of cold meats, cheeses, bread, soup and dips to choose from. The bar had quite a good range of beer and wine and the barista service is available all day which is something that Qantas should definitely implement.

The Lounge - Sydney

The Lounge - Sydney

The Lounge - Food and Beverage 

The Lounge - Food and Beverage


View from the Lounge - pity it is not slightly higher
 Being a Saturday night I felt sorry for the lounge staff with our flight (the last of the day) being 30 minutes late, meant they would be staying back late too! They did start to pack up the buffet as the clock approached 8pm, with one of them coming to ask if we needed anything else before they did. I decided to head to the gate before the boarding call was made as I wanted to take a photo of the aircraft.


THE FLIGHT

Airline:  Virgin Australia
Flight:  DJ888 Sydney - Melbourne
Aircraft:  Airbus A330-200 VH-XFA (11 years old, formerly operated by Emirates)
Seat: 1A (Business Class)

Scheduled Departure:  20.00
Actual Departure:  20.22

Scheduled Arrival:  21.35
Actual Arrival:  21.55 (20 mins late)

VH-XFA at Gate 40
 As I arrived at Gate 40 boarding had just commenced and I made use of the dedicated priority boarding queue. All passengers were boarding through the forward entry door which was connected to the jetbridge for this flight. I showed my boarding pass to the flight attendant at the entry and she warmly welcomed me on board and greeted me by surname directing me to my seat. I do like the greetings by surname, on any airline, I find it highly professional and courteous.

Seat 1A - Headsets in nice case found on each seat
 The aircraft interior was refurbished into Virgin colours but I believe the seats are the same as Emirates just with new leather covers. Although not angled lie flats they are still quite comfortable with huge seat pitch and very generous recline. On a flight of under 5 hours I would say they are very comfortable.... and certainly superior to the Qantas 767 domestic offering. Each seat also has video screens available with many different channels running on a loop system. I expect audio video on demand will be a feature on the new build A330's that Virgin receive in the future.





As I was being seated a Virgin staff member came to see me and addressed me by name again (in fact I was addressed by my surname throughout the flight which was very impressive). This staff member was not a part of the cabin crew but he was on board to get feedback from the passengers about the new service. I was given a survey and pen to fill out. Shortly after a male member of the cabin crew came and offered either water or the Luke Mangan signature mocktail as a pre-takeoff drink. I took the mocktail which was kind of spicy but very delicious.

Luke Mangan mocktail

Legroom - nobody will be complaining about the lack of!

 Business class was completely full, mostly of status passengers and presumably those on premium and flexi fares. As the cabin filled up the crew came around and offered newspapers.

The entertainment system was not yet available but boarding was pretty quick and we were soon pushing back from the gate. An animated safety video played with a single crew member standing in the aisle to point out the exits at the appropriate point of the video.

Add caption
Once the video was complete the cabin was dimmed and we headed for runway 16R and departed to the south. There was a little light turbulence as we climbed into the night sky and everyone got comfortable.

Seat Controls

Flight information
Soon after takeoff there was a PA which was played only in the business class cabin welcoming us on board and explaining the services available on board. Shortly after I could faintly hear a similar announcement coming from the economy cabin behind us explaining the buy on board food options. Just after the PA the entertainment system started up. I started watching an episode of the Simpsons while I waited for dinner... and we waited.... and we waited....

At this point dinner service had not yet commenced
I'm not sure exactly what the delay was but as you can see in the above photo - it was quite some way into the flight before dinner service commenced. I would have assumed that the hot meals would be in the oven on the ground so that they could start service as soon as the crew could get up from their seats. Anyway, eventually a trolley appeared in each aisle with 2 crew on each of them. There was 2 options, one of them was vegetarian and the other was Moroccan Lamb. I chose the lamb and it was presented on a single tray as you can see below:



First things first... why the aluminium foil? That is VERY economy class I'm afraid. I believe the foil should be removed by the crew just prior to presenting the tray to the passenger. The bread was offered from a basket shortly after the tray was placed on the table. Also on offer was either red or white wine, and either still or sparkling water. No other drinks were offered although I guess they were available? 

The Reveal
The tray consisted of a green leaf salad with vinaigrette, bread with olive oil and dukah, a box containing two chocolate covered macadamia nuts and the main course. Can I firstly say the bread with oil and dukah was very nice! Bread was fresh and quality seemed really high. The salad though was very dull, nothing but leaf. I guess that's pretty standard though.

Bread with oil and dukah
Unfortunately the lamb main course left a lot to be desired. It was simply too dry, I guess the high altitude doesn't help things but it needed to be more saucy. By the time it hit my tray table there was very little sauce at all, and with all that cous cous you need some! It was edible, but only just. Luke Mangan - please fix it!

By the time the crew had served the last row of business class our descent was commencing  and the crew came to remove my tray. There was NO top up of wine, and NO tea or coffee service. I know this is a trial service so they are certainly allowed to make mistakes but I think by this stage of the flight Qantas would have offered more wine, more bread and coffee. Something for them to work on, and I certainly mentioned it in the survey I had been given:


A few moments later the seat belt sign was illuminated and it was time to bring the chairs back into the upright position and prepare for landing.



We made a standard approach onto Melbourne's runway 16 with a relatively smooth landing. We made our way to the A330 gate at the Virgin terminal where the jetway was connected to door 2L. The cabin crew were on hand to ensure the economy class passengers allowed business class to exit first, this is certainly appreciated.
About to park at the gate

The seats as we disembark

My seat

Overall it was a good experience, they just need to work on the quality of the main course and the timing of the service. The crew really need to be up and serving dinner as soon as possible on these short flights. And somebody walking through the cabin with wine bottles for top ups would certainly be appreciated. My other gripe is the width of the business seats, have a look at the last picture above - the seat really is pretty narrow. With the terribly awkward position of the handset built in against your leg you will find the tv channels changing if you move your leg at all. Seating in a 2 x 2 x 2 arrangement would be better, with a bit more seat width please. Or at least move the handset location.

I absolutely can not fault the customer service at ALL stages, both at the lounge, and on board. The staff were exemplary at all times, and highly professional. There was NO funny business which Virgin had been known for before (like making jokes over the PA). This was greatly appreciated by me. If Virgin keep this up they just might win me over from Qantas, at least part of my travel may head their way anyway.

Now, if only they would just join Star Alliance!


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Riding the McDonnell Douglas MD-90 with Delta

As an avid frequent flyer and aviation fan I try to ride on as many different types of aircraft as possible. With this in mind I recently needed to get from Las Vegas to Vancouver and one of the options was Delta Airlines via Salt Lake City with a ride in the McDonnell Douglas MD-90. The MD-90 is an upgraded version of the older MD-80 with more modern IAE V2500 engines (like those found on the Airbus A320) and a longer fuselage. The aircraft was not a huge success and according to Wikipedia there is just 74 aircraft in airline service as of 2011. The majority of which fly with Delta, with Japan Airlines and Saudi Arabian Airlines as other operators with several in the fleet. So for this reason I was excited to be able to book a flight on the MD90, it's not likely to happen again any time soon.

As a Flying Blue platinum member I had some status with Skyteam carrier Delta but there is no lounge for Skyteam at Las Vegas, so I stopped by Burger King for a croissan'wich breakfast. Today's flight DL790 is the second flight of the day to Salt Lake and was due to depart at 7.55am.


Breakfast!

Arriving at Gate D41 I was pleased to see the scheduled equipment parked at the gate. The aircraft for today was N927DN, a 12 year old MD-90 which was initially operated by China Eastern airlines. It was sold to Delta and joined them in July 2010.

N927DN Delta MD-90 at the gate
Boarding was called slightly late due to the crew waiting for the aircraft to cool down. Boarding was by zone number and as a Flying Blue platinum I was able to access priority boarding. Once on board I found my seat in the forward part of the economy cabin. I was impressed with the newness of the seating, obviously Delta had put new seats in when they took ownership of the aircraft. It was also fitted with inflight wi-fi, although there was no other entertainment and no tv screens at all.

Looking across from my seat during boarding

Looking across at a company Boeing 767-300 I believe it was bound for Atlanta
The aircraft is in a 2x3 configuration and leg room was tight. The flight was quite full so soon enough the seat beside me was occupied.

Leg Room

MD-90 overhead controls

MD-90 Cabin with Blue leather seating

Seatback contents

Overhead bins showing that wifi was available
Boarding was very slow with people stopping in the aisles stowing their baggage and a very full flight. Eventually doors were closed and we pushed back. The crew performed a manual safety demo with the forward crew member demonstrating each action to first class and then moving forward to the economy section to repeat the same action. The weather in Las Vegas was generally clear for the departure.

Taxi to the runway we see the dominant carrier at LAS - Southwest airlines

Making a right turn shortly after takeoff - love this scenery

climbing through some cloud
The takeoff was short and powerful and the MD-90 climbed steeply with a quick right hand turn to set course for Salt Lake City. The ride felt really stable and I enjoyed my view of the engine-less wings. Flight time was just 1 hour to Salt Lake so the crew quickly sprung into action and commenced service. Drinks were limited to either juice or coffee. I was surprised that a full range of soft drinks was not available like on United. They did offer a Delta biscuit to go with the half glass of juice I was handed. I noticed the lady opposite me asked for a tea which the crew did get for her from the galley despite it not being on the trolley.

Juice and Biscuit - the biscuit has the Delta logo on it too
It wasn't long before we were on descent and were being treated to some pretty fantastic views!

Mountains on descent to Salt Lake

Some kind of mine near Salt Lake
The approach took us along the coast of the lake before making a couple of right turns and approaching the airport from the north. The landing was super smooth and we docked at the gate about 10 minutes behind schedule.
On the ground at Delta Hub - Salt Lake city

Parking next to a Delta connection CRJ900

I am not likely to ride an MD-90 again any time soon but it was great to tick it off the 'types flown on' list. The Delta service was typical USA airline service, not bad but not particularly good. They got me their efficiently and basically on time.... my next sector was to Vancouver, I'll report on that next.