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.