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|
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|
|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|
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|
|Seat 1A - Headsets in nice case found on each seat|
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!|
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.
|At this point dinner service had not yet commenced|
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?
|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|
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!