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Virgin Australia evaluating new business class seats

By David Flynn     Filed under: qantas, Airbus A330, Virgin Australia, business class seats, Boeing 737-800

Virgin Australia is assessing new seats for its domestic business class fleet as the airline continues to battle Qantas for the well-heeled corporate travel market.

Several new seats are under consideration and have already been showcased at invitation-only focus groups with selected business travellers and corporate clients.

Participants in the ‘seat clinics’ are asked to evaluate the different designs and are required to sign a non-disclosure form.

Asked to comment on the new seats, a Virgin Australia spokeswoman said only that “we have a number of focus groups scheduled throughout the year.”

“We regularly draw on insights from our customers in the research and development process of product design via all forms of market research.”

The new designs are believed to be slated for Virgin Australia'ssingle-aisle Boeing 737-800 workhorses, of which there are now 70 in the fleet.

These are currently fitted out with eight business class seats, in two rows of a 2-2 configuration, with a 38 inch pitch and a generous recline.

Virgin Australia’s step towards a second generation of premium seats comes only 18 months after the airline launched domestic business class in January 2012 and keenly illustrates its ongoing fight with Qantas at the top end of the market.

Qantas still enjoys the larger slice of the business travel pie, but Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti is fighting a different battle: one based not on a 'line in the sand’ of market share but on increased revenue through sales of higher-yield fares.

Virgin’s clearest win in the business class dogfight has been trumping Qantas on the transcontinental route with international-grade seats on its Airbus A330 ‘Coast to Coast’ services.

The spacious angled lie-flat seats, which boast plenty of nooks for keeping personal items at hand plus a large seatback screen with video-on-demand, are leagues ahead of the more standard reclining seat fitted to Qantas equivalent Airbus A330s (which also sees the middle seat blocked off by a plastic shroud to create what Qantas tags as an ‘inflight workspace’).

Virgin Australia already runs the twin-aisle A330s on all weekday flights between Melbourne and Perth plus two out of three Brisbane-Perth weekday services, and plans to upgrade Sydney-Perth weekday flights to the same all-A330 status in October.

Qantas has responded by announcing plans to upgrade its entire 30-strong fleet of Airbus A330s with a new lie-flat business class seat which CEO Alan Joyce promised will be “the best domestic product anywhere in the world, and it leapfrogs anything our competitor's doing.”

“They’re very exciting, there’s plenty of legroom and we’re very confident that they will get an amazing reaction" Joyce told Australian Business Traveller earlier this year, joking that “I certainly swim in the seats given my size!”.

The new Qantas seats are not expected to debut until the end of 2014, however, giving Virgin Australia a substantial head start for wooing and winning corporate accounts committed to substantial east-west travel.

What would you want from a new domestic business class seat? What are the downsides of the current Boeing 737 seats used by Virgin and Qantas, and what improvements could be made? Share your thoughts with other AusBT readers by leaving a comment below.

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About David Flynn

David Flynn is the editor of Australian Business Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

 

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1 on 24/7/13 by mickeyg

If VA could mimic what VX have in business/first, I would be impressed!

2 on 24/7/13 by KG

I think what VA offers currently is very much up to scratch. In general I do not need much more on a 2-3 hour flight. Decent legroom, perhaps AVOD, but other than that, the seats are comfortable and width is good. On routes longer than 3 hours it is nice to have the A330 style seating so that lounging / relaxing is improved. You cannot expect that lie flat style of seat to be installed on single aisle planes however.

1 on 24/7/13 by nix584

American Airlines' new A321's to be used on transcon flights will have fully lie-flat seats in both First and Business Class.

1 on 24/7/13 by KG

Indeed, they do have full flat in First and lie flat in business, but as you said they will be used on the Transcon route (JFK-LAX / JFK-SFO) which is quite a trek and considered a premium route where the competition is heavy (with lots of widebodies plying the route). Kind of like Australia Coast to Coast where VA is having lie flat seats as the route justifies it. However, I do not think it is realistic to hope / assume that on a single aisle plane you find lie flat / full flat seats. It would be quite an investment. Remember, those seats are heavier than the current seats so it would mean the need to take more fuel, carry less passeners etc.

3 on 24/7/13 by Al

I shifted my domestic flights to Virgin Australia and am pretty happy with their business class, although more often than not I am in economy. I'm pretty happy with the current seat, I mean, how much better does it need to be for what for most people are flights of 1.5 to 3 hours?

But if a new seat is on the way, I would like to see a few extra touches like some storage space for reading glasses, iPhone, tablet, paperback or whatever; a good sized and stable table for your laptop, too often tables are a bit unbalanced and 'wonky' on the side furthest from the centre console; a foot rest, even for just a 90 minute SYD-MEL flight this makes for a more comfortable flight.

4 on 24/7/13 by StuParr

I fly quite regularly in the 737 J seat. I think it is perfect for what you need for the short flights. PLenty of leg space, comfortable seat and storage areas.

If they were to look at updating business class it should be in their 777. While it is quite good, aisle access for all would be much appreciated. It would bring it up to the standards of their network partners. 

5 on 24/7/13 by Mal

I agree with the need for more places to stow a few personal items. Seatback pockets are already filled with airline magazine, safety card etc. Surely another section stitched onto the seat above this pocket could be dedicated for the passenger's own stuff? Also agree on a footrest, and I think more adjustment on the headrest, just stuff which increases the comfort even on 'short' flights.

6 on 24/7/13 by RK

I recently flew VA J class in their 737-800 aircraft. Quite frankly, I'm amazed that they put in J class seats without a foot rest! AVOD certainly needs to be updated too, it's impossible to continue watching a movie on their hand held tablets when you're eating your meal. Apart from that, everything else was really positive.

7 on 24/7/13 by Skipp

Echoing similar comments so far, it would be nice to have AVOD installed so you can eat and watch the screen at the same time. A little more legroom, particularly in the front row (I have sat in the front row of economy in VA a few times to discover the legroom is greater there than in business!) would be nice. In addition, a decent leg & foot rest is needed for a business seat (NOT the foot only rest, used by QF in their new B737's that looks more like a wobbly bike pedal rest, and doesn't allow you to stretch your feet nicely).

The recline is ok, but what really helps you get more comfortable is if the seat base reclines a backwards as well when you recline the seat back. It makes a huge difference in comfort levels, without needing to increase the seat pitch that much (particuarly if a leg & foot rest is fitted). Seat width is already completely adequate.

More personal storage space, particularly for front row passengers is desperately needed.

I wonder if Virgin might expand their business class on some aircraft to be 12 seats (3 rows) as opposed to 8 seats (2 rows) on some east coast trunk business routes?

It is interesting to note that QF's equivalent new B737 business class seats used on both domestic & shorter Int'l flights are almost a DNA match to the Int'l premium economy seats they sell on longer Int'l flights.

1 on 24/7/13 by Skipp

Sorry I forgot. The tray tables do need an overhaul, as echoed by Al.

Also I have to say I am very impressed with Virgin Australia' s lounges. The food offerings have improved very well with more hot selections available. Their bathrooms are to a better standard and the barista service is fast and efficient.

1 on 24/7/13 by Hugo

I feel like I'm taking crazy pills, because having recently moved back to Australia after many years overseas and sampled both the Qantas Club and Virgin Lounge with fresh beginner's mind, I feel like the Virgin Lounge is far behind the QF competition, at least at SYD and MEL.

The QF lounge is a lot more spacious, there's not much you can do about that. But the Virgin lounges have fewer food options and the decor is a bit bare and charmless (the occasional flourishes don't make up for the bits which look like a dentist's waiting room). The barista service is nice -- it'd be nicer if I could have a full-size biscuit to go with my cappuccino though. I realise this is pretty nitpicky, but when you're in a cut-throat competition for passengers these little touches do make a difference. 

1 on 24/7/13 by matthewsnospam

I think the lounges in SYD and MEL arent bad, but flying to ADL a lot the biggest difference is definately their, ADL QC has to be one of the best domestic lounges in Aus where as the ADL VA lounge is shameful, its just a room with a soda stream, a salad bar and the dirtiest toasty machine you have ever seen, also the view of the taxi rank doesnt leave much to be desired.

2 on 26/7/13 by Alan

If you fly an airline because their lounge is better than the competition, then new seats etc are of no interest to you it seems.  

PS  Take 2 biscuits next time.    

8 on 24/7/13 by Alvin

For transcontinental flights, as Australia is (obviously) smaller than America, Virgin Australia does not really need to live up to AA's A321 Transcon standards. I'd say it should adapt a forward facing shell design (see Cathay's new regional business class for example) keeping its plush leather upholstering or using the VS bed springy band upholster. (Assuming, in this case, that reclines are electrically operated.)

9 on 24/7/13 by Sam

I flew on a midnight QF flight in Business Perth-Sydney last week, and was horrified to find that my 'seat' was nothing more than a glorified economy seat (a.k.a what is pictured in the above article). The seat was very uncomfortable for sleeping, the 'recline' was barely more than what I would expect in an international economy cabin. On top of that the 'service' from the cabin crew left a lot to be desired - I understand that it's a midnight flight, but to be quite frank I have recieved better service in economy on many other QF flights. I think Qantas' domestic business offering, overall, has declined substantially in recent years. Virgin's offering looks impressive by comparison, next time I fly Business I will be sure to keep Virgin in mind after this highly disappointing flight with Qantas. 

1 on 24/7/13 by matthewsnospam

The best thing on those Qantas flights is when the FA drops your tray down and dumps the preflight demo stuff on it without so much as an "excuse me"

10 on 24/7/13 by matthewsnospam

I flew VA J class on the trans-con flight a lot at the start of this year and, as stated, it was extremely comfortable, but Qantas would dominate this route with a fully flat seat like was availiable a few years ago when they swamped the route with their international A330's and 747's. The other issue is the constant lottery in regards to which VA A330 you will end up on, there is nothing worse then sitting in the crowded lounge at midnight on friday, picturing a 4 hour sleep or a decent TV watching session and getting onboard to find 10 y.o emirates seats that cradle recline and an AVOD system that requires you to go to war with the remote every time you want to change the channel.

As for the 737 business class, it is suited for me on most of the east coast sectors that I do, and the ones to Adelaide, but recently with a large number or flights to Darwin (most of which are "red-eye's"), and a few from DPS to sydney and melbourne, I find myself seriously uncomfortable. every flight to and from Darwin and DPS is solidly booked and there is no question that Qantas and Jetstar dominate, I seriously think VA has a market to expand "long-domestic" sleeper services in the NT and short hall international. Surely you could put in a couple of sleeper seats by just knocking out one row of economy?

For these long flights the row 2 seats are ok because you can stretch your legs out, but the row 1 seats are horrible, Ive given up flying business on this flight I usually just select the best economy seat (its row 4- not row 3) so i can actually put my legs out.

The inflight entertainment is a big one, Ive recently started booking with Qantas out of Darwin because if your flying anthing more than once or twice a fortnight you just get handed that stupid galaxy thing with the same 12 things on it every time. If your flying economy you get nothing, not even the left over "live 2 air" because all the flights up to darwin are the new 37's. 

I dont really have a problem with the storage space, its not like its hard to get up and get your things like it is in economy. although has anyone else noted that the "can we take your jacket" service now seems largely ignored in favour of a "cool, look at this place we can all hang our staff jackets" policy by some of the VA crews? I was on a flight recently where they took my overcoat and put it in an overhead locker, I looked behind me to see that all the coathangers were being used by their uniforms.

Ive gone on a bit of a rant here, in short

-current seats good for day travel and short hops at night

-not good for red-eyes or short hall international

-inflight entertainment

-also even though its got nothing to do with seats, I really really hate that FWD toilet on 737's. back me up guys

cheers.

1 on 24/7/13 by matthewsnospam

Haul* sorry im tired and i dont spellcheck comments :)

11 on 24/7/13 by Propofol88

What would sway me away from QF to VA J class domestically on the topic of the seat are:

1) Installation of foot/leg rests - on short flights this is of little concern but on longer ones (Eg. Syd-Drw) they would be incredibly welcomed 

2) Replace Galaxy tablet entertainment with seat back AVOD system (preferably with noise canceling headsets included) - as others have pointed out, it is exceptionally annoying trying to have your meal and balance a tablet somewhere at the same time

3) Maintaining current seat width and pitch - The extra 1 inch pitch on the B737-800s is noticeable IMO

4) Keeping 8 seats in B737-800 J class - IMO it certainly feels more exclusive than being crammed in with 11 others in QF J class. Also service is more efficient given the dedicated F/A has fewer passengers to attend to

5) Preserving product consistency across the fleet - It is a lot nicer knowing what seat type you are getting as indicated by earlier comments on the transcontinental VA A330 service

Although unrelated to the seat, VA's exclusive priority boarding of business class and platinum velocity members is a bonus and puts QF's boarding process to shame (ie. I think it's odd to dish out the extra cash for business class to have your boarding card scanned early only to be stuck in the jetway with the economy class and non platinum/gold frequent flyers who have been scanned from a parallel non-priority line). Improvement to the lounges at VA, such as building one in Darwin and adopting a dedicated 'business lounge' model for J class and platinum flyers as with QF, and entry into an alliance (preferably Star Alliance) would also be welcome.

12 on 26/7/13 by Stella

Ban children from business class - I recently flew from Sydney to Coolangatta behind two of the most annoying children on the planet.  I don't pay premium prices for that.

1 on 26/7/13 by dderoia

Ban children - on what basis. Why does the what you pay for a fare dictate who else is permitted to travel. Airlines are public transport and children are part of the public. Ban those children that misbehave and their parents for not controlling the monsters but not children just because they are children. Most are very well behaved and brought up in a civilized manner.

2 on 14/11/13 by Alvin

Remember Stella, once upon a time you were a kid before!

13 on 26/7/13 by dderoia

What I'd like to see in Business.

More leg room in row one. I always opt for row two in business or row 4 in economy - simply they have more leg room.

An entertainment system whereby I do not have to hold the Galaxy device along with decent headsets. The galaxy pad and ear buds are cheap and nasty not to mention dangerous. No idea how the got the galaxy concept past CASA, unrestrained missile devices in the event of an emergency and more relevantly very inconvenient.

A better range of meals - I prefer simpler fare. These exotic celebrity chef getups are not real food.

1 on 26/7/13 by dderoia

And on the Sydney | Melbourne to Perth routes, as prevously mentioned, consistency. The old seats don't cut it. How much would it cost to fit out just those two aircraft to be in line with the rest. Consistency is important.

14 on 27/7/13 by Des

I'm pretty much over QF as a whole. They have become nothing but a follower and only react or offer improved services/products when they are forced too. I much rather go with those who are proactive and  innovative versus reactive which is what QF is these days. They are and probably will always be playing catch up.

15 on 28/7/13 by aero-seat

I'm very impressed with Virgin Australia's current product, especially the A330s. I would recommend upgrading the amenities and adding more space on the centre table.

16 on 29/7/13 by gippsflyer

At current state of play, Virgin's Coast to Coast service far outstrips Qantas' offering, but I agree there is that risk you get one of the old Emirates birds (those these are being withdrawn as new aircraft arrive). Qantas' 737-400 style J seating (pseudo J) totally inappropriate for such a long sector, so good their A330s eventually upgrading to International standard seating - better late than never.

I reckon the Virgin Coast to Coast seating (on their new A330 birds, not the Emirates ones) in J is excellent. The Wraparound shell in front of non-bulkhead seats offers plenty of storage bins to put things, and the mounted Red ICE system offers plenty of entertainment options to keep you amused (including noise cancelling headphones). I also like that you get International standard meals and amenity kit.

I'm also a fan of Virgin's priority lane for check-in and boarding, nothing like avoiding the scrum getting on and off the aircraft.

As for what I'd like to see on Virgin, apart from the old Emirates birds going (only two left I think), I'm pretty happy with the current Coast to Coast service. If I was really fussy, maybe a change from leather to fabric or another air nozzle to keep things cool .

Qantas just needs to match Virgin soonish rather than latish, but it sounds like they are going in the right direction at least (real business class seats).

I'm sticking with Virgin, but I like competition and choice, so I'm glad the carriers are competiting for our custom. Can only be a good thing.

17 on 5/9/13 by Alvin

To some of you, I also agree that Virgin Australia should replace the Weber 7811 seats (or Sicma Majesty seats) with the Sicma Cirrus seat (i.e. CX's). Since it isn't a long flight whatsoever, a leather seat should do. For the Weber 7811 seats, they shouldn't be scrapped - they could replace the recliners (the recliners could be scrapped, they've been there for quite a while).

Yes, that means all seats have to be replaced, but just put up the price for it!

 

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