Virgin Australia is upping the ante in the battle for domestic business travellers with a lie-flat business class seat on new Airbus A330s to be used on selected Sydney-Melbourne flights as well as the trans-continental trek to Perth.
The Virgin Australia seats are the same lie-flat seats used by partner Singapore Airlines for its new regional business class, which are often seen on SQ's Australia flights.
The seat itself is produced by Weber Aircraft and is also availble to other airlines as Weber's model 7811.
These 'catalogue' shots from Weber above and below provide a more detailed look at the seat.
Two of the new A330s are already in Virgin's hands and will begin flying mid-May on a morning shuttle service between Sydney and Melbourne as well as new daily Melbourne-Perth services.
A third factory-fresh A330 will arrive this year and a fourth in 2012, a Virgin Australia spokesperson told Australian Business Traveller.
While all of Virgin's new A330s will sport the new business class seats, a spokesperson for the airline confirmed to Australian Business Traveller that its first two A330s -- which were bought 'pre-loved' from Emirates and currently fly Sydney-Perth -- would not be upgraded to install the new business class seating or remove the middle seat from that aircraft's 2-3-2 layout.
Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti hints that Virgin Australia might even use these A330s for international flights on selected regional routes.
"We've got the flexibility of putting it domestically or internationally depending how the market is, depending on where our needs are" Borghetti says, with cities such as Tokyo, Mumbai, Shanghai and Beijing all within the A330's range.
The seats: lie flat and leather
At eight degrees from fully horizontal, the new seats are firmly in the lie-flat seat category rather than fully flat beds.
(They're also entirely different to the fully flat beds you'll find in the refurbished Virgin Australia Boeing 777-300ER business class cabin announced earlier this month, which flies to Abu Dhabi and Los Angeles.)
What's the difference between lie-flat seats and fully flat beds? We explain in our guide debunking the lie-flat lie.
As frequent flyers will know, the problem with angled lie-flat seats is that you tend to slide downwards towards the foot when they're in bed mode.
That tendency is magnified by the inherent slipperiness of the leather covering Virgin has chosen, and is a particular problem when wearing lined suit trousers or skirts because trousers bunch and skirts slide.
To try to remedy the problem, Virgin is showing off what seems to be a fitted sheet for the seat, to be used when in bed mode.
Still, our tip: if you're flying overnight and looking to get some sleep, wear something that isn't a suit.
More elbow room, but less room in front of you
Virgin has a total of 24 business class seats in the front cabin of the plane, split across four rows in a 2-2-2 configuration.
That means the dreaded middle seat -- which you'll find on the older, ex-Emirates Virgin A330s, has disappeared, leaving you with a bit of extra elbow room as well.
The extra room to the side comes at a cost, though: the usable space between you and the seat in front has shrunk, despite the official measurement of a 60 inch seat pitch remaining roughly the same.
Check out our illustrated article if you need a refresher on how seat pitch differs from your legroom on the plane -- it's more than you might think.
The old recliners have a decent amount of room between the rows, and you can usually hop out of a window seat without disturbing the aisle passenger.
Two aspects of the new seat mean the usable space feels a little smaller: the "tuck your feet under the seat in front of you" nature of the lie-flat seats and the extra plastic at eye level to hold the screen and headrests.
The extra plastic does mean that your seat feels a lot more private -- as does the pull-out privacy divider between each pair of seats.
Extra storage around your seat
Apart from the extra elbow-room and the ability to recline into lie-flat mode, the best news for business travellers is probably the numerous storage spaces in the new seats.
There are storage for laptops in the centre console and two personal effects drawers below the screen in front of you.
That's a big step up from the disappointing lack of space to stash your things around the old A330 seats (shown below).
Top-notch "red" entertainment system
The "red" on-demand inflight entertainment system is another big step up from the older planes' looped video with small screens.
Options for connecting your own devices -- iPads, iPhones, Android devices, laptops, and so on -- are also available, meaning you can download a movie to your phone in the lounge and watch it on the bigger screens on board.
To keep everything charged, AC power points and USB ports are fitted to every seat.
Economy also gets a boost
Improvements to the A330 aren't limited to the pointy end of the plane. The 251 'luxury leather' seats in economy all come with USB sockets for inflight charging of your smartphone or tabet, and of course the same inflight entertainment system.
For more on business class seating...
- Check out our photo guide to the different types of business class seating and cabin layouts
- Read up on the Virgin Australia Perth-Sydney old A330 flight's seats and service in our review -- and don't miss the pictures in our A330 business photo gallery
- See how Singapore Airlines works its own version of the new seat on its 777-300ER
- Compare Virgin Australia's new and updated business classes: on the long-haul Boeing 777-300ER, most-in-fleet Boeing 737-800 and smaller Embraer E-190.
For the very latest news and reviews, follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT.