Flight Test: Virgin Australia’s 737 Business Class
After flying Virgin Blue’s disappointing premium economy many times over the years, I was eager to get the opportunity to fly the rebranded Virgin Australia’s new domestic business class product.
The airline invested heavily in bringing its business class product to the domestic market and finally, Australian travellers have a choice. Since Ansett folded more than ten years ago, Qantas has strangled the premium cabin market – this resulted in higher prices and a drop in quality drop (hardly unexpected in a monopoly environment).
Virgin Australia’s new CEO John Borghetti spotted a gap in the market and rebranded Virgin Blue from a trashy ‘boys & girls’ leisure airline to that of a more professional outfit. Unfortunately Virgin Blue bungled the implementation of its premium economy product so travellers were weary of the airlines ability in delivering a solid business class experience. Industry watchers have observed this rollout closely to see if the airline can deliver a more effective premium product, and do so profitably.
Whilst it is clear that the airline needs to do more to steal business class passengers from Qantas, the results have mostly been positive.
DJ993 Sydney – Brisbane
Due to a chock-a-block Friday work schedule, I needed to book a late evening flight. I left the office and went straight to the airport – as I booked online I just needed to check-in my bags and make my way to the airline lounge. The airline has a curb-side premium entrance which is gets you from car to lounge in under 2 minutes, which is convenient if you aren’t checking-in luggage.
As I was starving after my long day in the office, I was keen to get something in to me. Unfortunately this is where the Virgin lounge really falls flat in comparison to Qantas as the food choice is awful. After I tried (in vain) to eat a hotdog in a stale dry bun that disintegrated after the first bite, I opted for a tuna pasta salad which filled the gap. Fortunately Virgin has a reasonable selection of lounge wine, so to celebrate my weekend away I had two cheeky glasses.
Boarding for the flight was announced in the lounge and I made my way to the aircraft. Virgin recently implemented priority boarding which gives guests a clear path to the aircraft via a dedicated boarding queue.
Soon enough I was on the 737-800 aircraft and sitting in my seat in the first row. Shortly after taking my seat I was presented with an option for juice or a mocktail. Quietly hiding my disappointment at not being offered something with a percentage value, I opted for a mocktail which was actually quite delicious.
We were soon taking-off into the night and I was eagerly keen to see what food and beverage offering the crew would be serving up on the flight. I was disappointed when I was presented with a ‘cheese plate’ consisting of a piece each of cheddar and brie, five grapes, wafer crackers and a cookie. I realised at this point that my nutrition would need to come from vodka, so I ordered a mocktail with a dash of the good stuff.
The crew looked tired but kept up with the demands of a full business class cabin on this flight. They managed to almost pull off the odd fake smile, but I think everyone in that cabin was weary from a long day at work and no-one noticed the deflated mood of the crew.
Another unfortunate omission from the business class offering is the lack of inflight entertainment. I wasn’t desperately hanging out for something to keep me busy as the flight time was just over an hour, but guests travelling on longer legs may suffer from epic boredom. “At least there is vodka” I mused whilst quaffing another alcoholic mocktail.
Flight was on-time and the bags were quick to arrival on the carousel due to the priority tags.
DJ526 Gold Coast – Sydney
After checking-in at the dedicated premium check-in queue, I was soon on my way to the new Virgin lounge at Gold Coast airport . The lounge is a welcome addition and offers the stock standard Virgin lounge fare (such as the same alcohol and dire food selection as other Virgin lounges). I sat in a seat close to the windows which offer sweeping views of the apron – it’s nice being able to see the comings and goings of the airport.
I squeezed in two glasses of sparkling wine before the flight was called which made for a floating-like walk to the awaiting aircraft. Boarding was quick and it appeared I would have an empty business class cabin for the flight to Sydney.
After take-off I was presented with the delicious options of a ‘cheese plate’ or a ‘cheese plate’. Unimpressed by getting the same snack as on the previous flight, I sucked it up and ate my cheddar. The cabin manager obviously took note of my frown lines and offered me something from the economy menu. I decided on the New Yorker sandwich which was a passable excuse for a late lunch but filled the spot. I again had a vodka mocktail to help pass the time.
The crew on this flight were more attentive and the cabin manager was a bouncy chap that loved to talk and laugh (which also helped pass the time). We landed in Sydney on-schedule, but due to apron congestion were late arriving at the gate.
Whilst I’m a Virgin Australia fan, I felt a little underwhelmed in the food and beverage offering on these flights. To be fair, these flights are classified as ‘Snack’ flights as they fall outside the typical breakfast / lunch / dinner mealtimes. The seats are proper business class seats so you get more elbow room but the awkward omission of a footrest is strange – hopefully the airline installs these in the future.
The broader Virgin Australia proposition including frequent flyer program and airline lounges makes for an exciting alternative to Qantas. Whilst they don’t ever say they will be the same as Qantas, they may need to improve on some of the finer details to woo over the Qantas-centric business traveller.
Would I fly Virgin Australia domestic business class again? Probably not on the short east coast routes, but I would seriously consider the product on longer flights like Perth (which uses larger A330 aircraft and has a enhanced in flight offering).
Have you flown business class on Virgin Australia?
What was your impression – Pass or Fail?
Check out our other Virgin Australia review – Queenstown to Sydney on DJ89 here.