Recently visiting Canberra for a conference proved an excellent opportunity to try out Virgin Australia's new Capital Connect service between Canberra and Sydney.
These daily shuttle flights are operated for Virgin by Perth-based Skywest Airlines on new ATR 72-500 turboprop aircraft.
Capital Connect service replaces the previous "Capital Jet" service that Virgin operated using Embraer 170 jet aircraft; the route is now serviced with a mixture of the Skywest-operated ATR flights, as well as some Virgin Australia-operated Embraer 190 flights.
Check-in at Canberra Airport operates similarly to other domestic Virgin Australia counters. There is a separate queue for 'premium' guests (Velocity Frequent Fliers at Silver status or above, or those with a flexi fare), web check-in is available one day before the flight, and detailed seat selection is available up to two weeks before flying for Velocity members.
Check-in staff were keen to point out the peculiarities of seating on the new ATR aircraft: unusually, boarding is done from the rear of the aircraft only, so passengers who want to make a quick exit when the flight lands should go for seats towards the rear.
As the ATR72 flights don't offer a premium-level service, no tickets come with lounge access. But if you're a Velocity Gold or Platinum member you can make use of the decently-sized Canberra lounge with runway views.
This lounge hasn't been renovated along the same lines as other Virign Australia lounges, in fact it still carries the old Virgin Blue branding. A new Virgin Australia lounge will be one of the features of Canberra Airport's rebuilt Western Concourse Terminal when that opens in mid-2013.
The flight was called for boarding some 15 minutes late. After walking through the gate doors, we found ourselves in a sheltered holding area where we waited for a few minutes, before we were invited to walk out onto the tarmac.
From there, we queued up for the stairs at the back of the aircraft. Coralling the queue of passengers onto the aircraft was an excruciatingly slow process (even though the flight only had some 60 passengers), and I can imagine that this would be less than ideal on a rainy day.
Once aboard, finding my seat was pretty easy (bustle past all the passengers until I reached the front). As I was in a bulkhead seat, my backpack needed to go in an overhead locker.
These are quite small, so don't expect to fit a medium-sized suitcase in the compartments -- it seems as though ground staff are trained to spot oversized bags on the tarmac, and I saw a number of bags getting checked whilst we were queued on the tarmac.
The flight itself was reasonably short -- 40 minutes (about 10 minutes longer than the same route operated by the former E170) -- and about 25 minutes in total were spent with the fasten seat belt sign off. Note that the ATR has a much lower cruising altitude than jet aircraft, and can therefore be subject to a lot more turbulence.
For travellers who've been on other turboprop aircraft, you'll be pleased to know that the ATR is remarkably quiet after takeoff, comparing favourably to the Embraer E-Jets that service the route.
The seats on the ATR are comfortable, standard economy seats, but nothing to write home about. If you've got a seat in front of you, you'll be happy to see the seatbacks have been rearranged to increase the amount of legroom available, by moving the document pocket above the tray table.
There's no movable headrest on the seats (unlike with the new Virgin Australia mainline seats), and curiously there is no recline function, but for flights where you're only permitted to recline for 20 minutes, this really isn't a problem.
My seat, 1A, was an exit row seat -- one of two available to passengers on the aircraft (1C and 1D aren't allocated, as they are too close to the forward crew member seat), aside from a bulkhead, this gives an excellent amount of legroom.
Note that choosing row 1 also ensures that you won't get a second passenger next to you.
For the short hop from Canberra to Sydney, we were served a snack of cheese and crackers, and the option of juice or water to go with it. This is served with a curious white fabric thingy, which upon opening holds a serviette, salt, pepper and a stirring spoon.
The thing enclosing these actually turned out to be a rubbish bag, which I only discovered accidentally -- it's not labelled, and according to the flight attendant, not many passengers figure this out at all.
Free snacks are served on all of the Virgin Australia/Skywest ATR services, as well as Virgin Australia services between Melbourne and Canberra, and the Embraer 190 services between Sydney and Canberra.
Entertainment & Service
The ATR72s have no in-flight entertainment available, which for the short flights the aircraft handles is understandable. On the plus side, the windows are surprisingly large for such a small plane, so you'll get a good view.
In terms of service, things were a little patchier. It's clear that you're flying with Virgin Australia -- the planes are painted in Virgin colours, the boarding pass says "Virgin Australia" and the flight attendants wear Virgin uniforms (in fact, the only sign that Skywest have anything to do with the service is the Skywest logo on the crew's name badges) -- but things are slightly different from normal.
Announcements are sound overly factual and authoritative, rather than the conversational announcements that you'd hear on mainline Virgin flights.
It's obvious that the crew don't have the same level of training in customer service as their mainline counterparts, and the differences in approach are slightly jarring, but not the end of the world.