It's been a little over two years since Virgin Australia brought real choice back to the domestic business travel market, ending Qantas' 10-year monopoly on domestic business class after the collapse of Ansett.
Virgin Australia has already won over many Qantas travellers as a viable alternative for business class. In this review I fly with Virgin Australia from Brisbane to Melbourne to give its Boeing 737 business class a real-world trial.
Guests travelling in business class have access to time-saving domestic priority check-in counters. In Brisbane, you'll find these on the far right of the check-in area.
Business class passengers are entitled to check two pieces of baggage, while Velocity Platinum members can add an extra bag free of charge. In all cases, each bag can weigh up to 32kgs.
If you're only travelling with carry-on bags, you can proceed through priority screening (located next to priority check-in) and head straight for the 'Express Entry' line in the lounge – although there wasn't an entry queue to battle on this trip.
Other ways to obtain your boarding pass include online, mobile and kiosk check-in – available until 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time.
With boarding pass in hand, I headed to Virgin's Brisbane lounge.
Finding a seat was no trouble: at this very early hour of the morning, the lounge was almost empty.
Barista coffee is available throughout the day, and the morning staff here know how to make a mean latte.
The buffet features mostly continental options, with cereals, yoghurts, juices and bakery items filling most of the space – although we shouldn't forget the pancake machine!
Boarding calls are made at a reasonable volume, and staff kept their voices down when away from reception... with free wi-fi throughout the lounge, if you need to sneak in a quick email before a flight, this is the place to do it.
Priority boarding is flawless, and moments later I'm seated with a drink in hand.
On morning flights, the choices are orange juice or iced water, with today's beverage served with a choice of morning newspaper – either The Courier Mail or The Australian.
VA304 left the gate exactly on time at 5:55am, reaching the gate in Melbourne just 10 minutes behind schedule due to "air traffic congestion" – in the aviation industry, the flight would be considered an 'on-time' statistic for both departure and arrival, as there's a 15-minute leeway before it's branded 'late'.
It's 38" from headrest to headrest in business class, with enough space in the first row for passengers in the window seats (1A and 1F) to easily access the aisle with a seatmate.
Legroom is more than ample for reasonably short domestic flights, although at 6ft, my feet could easily touch the bulkhead:
The leather seats feature adjustable headrests and a reasonable recline, although if you plan to sleep through the flight, go for the second row.
Why? There's no seat directly behind you, and with the wall between business and economy, you won't risk your seat being kicked by a misbehaving child (or a rowdy Velocity Platinum member) in row 3.
Here, the legroom is also quite reasonable – I'm able to stretch my legs forward without obstruction, and there's still room to work with a reclined seat in front:
Tray tables fold out from the armrest, and can support breakfast or your tablet.
Unfortunately, the seats lack a leg rest and adjustable lumbar support – all you can do is recline, which is a little average in comparison to Qantas' business class seats on the same aircraft type.
Also absent is a USB power port, something that's fitted on the Red Roo's newer Boeing 737 fleet.
Breakfast was a choice of either smoked salmon and corn fritters with tomato and avocado salsa (pictured) or Bircher museli served with yoghurt and peach cherries.
On the side was fresh fruit and a warm Laurent croissant, along with jams and butter:
The croissant was served at a perfect temperature with the butter easily spreadable, although the fritters were slighly overcooked and had hardened around the edges.
That aside, the salsa complemented the salmon and corn flavours rather nicely, while the fruit salad was fresh, juicy and tasty.
Cabin crew member Ruth offered coffee, tea, water and juice alongside the meal, while follow-up beverages (and croissants) were made available after the main meal service:
Interestingly, meals on this flight were completely prepared and plated in the galley, with the finished tray appearing from behind the curtain – a stark and restaurant-like improvement to the trolleys used in Qantas' domestic business class cabins, where passengers have a view of the crew preparing and presenting their meal.
Entertainment & Service
A Samsung Galaxy Tab was offered before departure and was quick to appear once airborne, along with a pair of 'in-ear' headphones.
The tablets pull content from the aircraft's wireless BoardConnect entertainment system, which has its ups and downs (no pun intended!) – on the plus side, the airline can update content much more quickly than having to manually load it onto every device, and can beam content to smartphones, other tablets or laptops over the aircraft's wireless network.
On the down side, you might be left without any entertainment if the wireless network or server is having issues – on this flight, the system took over an hour to boot successfully, requiring several restarts before content was flowing – during which time the tablet was nothing more than a paperweight.
In cases like this, it's almost a downgrade from the previous Samsung tabs found on these jets – all entertainment content was saved locally onto the tablet, so if the battery had been charged, you were good to go without a wi-fi connection.
These days, the older-gen devices are found only on Virgin's Embraer E-190 fleet, and on Boeing 737s that are without a BoardConnect system.
Once up and running, there was a reasonable selection of audio and video content to choose from, in addition to a live map.
The supplied headphones were of average quality – they could more than handle spoken word, although they're not particularly suited to action movies or louder scenes.
While comfortable, with no low end (bass) output and their terrible performance when listening to chart music, I swapped them out for my own pair.
My other gripe with the tablets is that there's really nowhere to stand them when you're eating – they're half the width of the entire tray table, so unless the seat next to you happens to be vacant, you'll need to pause your viewing at meal times.
While most of the video content seemed to have been encoded properly, some of the back catalogue had been set at the incorrect aspect ratio – the characters on Keeping Up Appearances appeared a little wider than usual (below), although newer widescreen-native content (including the movie selections) was shown correctly.
Having flown in business class across most of the Virgin Australia fleet, I've definitely noticed a more 'polished' approach to the service as of late.
In the Virgin Blue days, and beyond, phrases like "Hey mate, how's it going?" were commonplace. Now they're replaced by a much more elegant "Good morning sir, and welcome to business class."
Comparing this flight to those past, I recall the crew seeming rather overwhelmed in the early days.
Drink orders were frequently forgotten, crew often seemed nervous to be working at the pointy end and the presentation of the meals wasn't what it could have been.
Today Virgin Australia's overall business class offering has been greatly refined – particularly on quieter flights, where the crew can provide a much more personalised experience.
However, there's still work to be done.
If the airline is going to rely on tablets or 'bring your own device' for entertainment, then it really should consider installing a mounting strap or bracket on which to hang these – allowing passengers to actually watch the in-flight entertainment while dining.
The current system isn't a particularly good one – passengers can opt for a movie after take-off and find themselves suspending playback during the meal service.
While it can be resumed afterwards, there's nothing more frustrating than having the device taken away 10 minutes before the credits start to roll – particularly when there was enough time on the flight to watch that movie straight through.
If I choose to dine and enjoy the Virgin Australia hospitality when travelling in business class, don't punish me for it by leaving my movie on a cliffhanger...
Chris Chamberlin was a guest of Virgin Australia.
Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT