Virgin Australia’s all-new A330 business class goes head-to-head against the Qantas Business Suite in the airlines' continued dogfight for premium passengers on the lucrative east-west route.
Marketed as ‘The Business', the seat+service package will be rolled out onto all six of Virgin Australia's Airbus A330 jets by the end of October 2015.
This will see Virgin's Sydney-Perth, Melbourne-Perth and Brisbane-Perth A330 services all boast a business class travel experience of international calibre.
Australian Business Traveller put The Business to the test on its inaugural flight from Sydney to Perth.
Virgin Australia's revamped A330 business class cabin consists of five rows, each with four seats in that pleasing 1-2-1 arrangement which ensures that every passenger has direct access to the aisle, along with ample personal space in terms of both shelving and stowage nooks.
The outer seats are angled towards the window.
The middle pairs of seats are angled towards one another...
... and separated by a tinted privacy screen...
... which slides back so you can chat with your seatmate.
Each seat's wrap-around shell adds privacy and makes it a little more of a 'suite'.
Virgin Australia's new business class seats are built on the Super Diamond platform from B/E Aerospace, but customised by London design agency Tangerine and Virgin Australia's Creative Director Hans Hulsbosch.
The result includes plenty of top-end touches inspired by the luxury automotive market, and the closer you look the more you can detect influences which could have been borrowed from a performance sports car.
The seat shells are cast from carbon-fibre, making them at once strong, rigid and light – but rather than cover that material, as many airlines do, Virgin has opted to leave it exposed and dressed in a scored cross-hatch finish which just begs to be touched.
Dusky near-black charcoals, blacks, white panels, silver trim (which is hard to catch in real-life photos) and dashes of Virgin Australia's signature purple contribute to a premium palette that oozes subtle upmarket style.
Fittings such as coat hooks and the LED reading lamp indicate a high degree of attention to detail.
Senior crew working The Business cabin are also decked out in matching grey threads.
This is an incredibly comfortable seat – which is no more than you'd expect given that the same basic design is used by Qatar Airways on its international Airbus A380s, A350s and Boeing 787s.
The well-padded seat is a generous 21 inches wide between the sidewall and the armrest facing the aisle, but lower the armrest and you gain up to another 7 inches of useable space.
Unlike the domestic Qantas Business Suite, Virgin's The Business is clad in a durable but soft-weave cloth below the plush leather headrest.
The seat itself is slightly inclined by 5.3 inches or 17.3°, even in what would usually be considered the 'upright' position.
This is immediately more relaxing than sitting bolt upright, and in fact it's approaching the recline which the Qantas Business Suite permits for taxi, take-off and landing (Qantas trumps Virgin with 21° on its domestic A330s).
Naturally, you can kick back into a more leisurely mode...
... set the seat to fully-flat...
... or find your sweet spot anywhere on the spectrum using a touchscreen panel.
For overnight flights such as the red-eye services from Perth to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, the seat converts into a flat two-metre bed that's topped with a memory foam mattress, high-grade cotton pillows and doona.
So how's the legroom?
In standard upright or recline mode there's room to spare, unless you're of the loftiest pro-basketballer dimensions.
Note the shelf above my feet in this photo, where you can stow your shoes, the pillow or rolled-up light blanket when not in use.
With the seat in lie-flat bed mode there's no problem for average-sized feet, but – as with the Qantas Business Suite – there's not there a lot of wiggle-room to cross your feet at the ankles, for example.
Virgin Australia’s new A330 business class seat is well-suited to making the most of that five-plus hour transcontinental trek as an inflight work session.
The large height-adjustable table's got plenty of space for your laptop.
Along the side of each seat there's a flat surface where you can plonk work documents.
What's clever about this is that the AC and USB sockets are tucked away in a recess under the larger of the panels.
There's room for the little power brickette of a MacBook...
.. along with a high-power USB socket capable of recharging your tablet en route, plus a standard aircraft three-pin headphone jack.
There's a slight gap between the cover and the surrounding panel which lets you close the panel and still have cables running to your laptop, tablet or smartphone and headphones...
... so that the entire surface of the table remains useful.
There’s also a natty little tablet holder hidden away inside the sidewall, behind the literature pocket.
And of course, that concealed USB power port is close at hand.
All that remains to transform The Business into a sky-high office for your business is inflight Internet, which could arrive sometime in 2016 powered by the new NBN satellites...
Part of The Business package is that passengers can choose when to have their meal, rather than dine according to the airline’s schedule.
Although the Sydney-Perth flight averages five hours, with the meal service slated to start around two hours into the journey, this gives business travellers the opportunity to spend more time working without interruption.
The latest you can be served a full meal is at 1 hour and 40 minutes before landing, although the ‘express meal’ (comprising a bakery selection, starter, salad and cheese or dessert) can be plated up as late as an hour before landing.
Lunch on my daytime flight from Sydney to Perth began with a choice of king prawns or pumpkin soup – I opted for the prawns served with corn, smoked paprika and chives.
On the mains menu:
- barramundi fillet with avocado, red beans, tomato, basil and lime
- soft cheese polenta with zucchini, tomato, broad beans and marinated feta
- lamb meatballs with Middle Eastern spice, zucchini, chickpeas and coriander (below)
Dessert options were a raspberry and passionfruit mousse or a cheese platter (below).
Luke Mangan oversees Virgin Australia’s inflight menu, and as I’ve come to expect, each dish could have come straight from a restaurant kitchen rather than a galley.
There's also a new Nespresso coffee service, using a world-first customised Nespresso machine...
... which delivers one of the best coffees you can get in the sky, from a frothy cappuccino...
... to a rich flat white.
Entertainment & Service
Service from the Virgin Australia crew was exceptionally attentive during this flight, and even though it was the first commercial service of the new business class, every crew-member was fully up to speed on the seat and its features.
Each business class seat is fitted with a large 16 inch high-definition screen...
... while pair of noise-cancelling headphones lurks under the armrest.
If you've brought your own cans, fling the airline-supplied ones into the overhead locker and you've recovered a little extra space that's suitable for a water bottle and some inflight amenities.
A conventional controller lurks under one of the seat-side panels.
The on-screen menu is easy to navigate and includes some unexpected extras, such as a chat room which can be used by every passenger on the plane (via a keyboard on the underside of the controller)…
... although it was a pretty lonely place on my flight.
There are, however, two shortcomings with Virgin’s A330 inflight entertainment system.
The first is that the screen is fixed in place, rather than having a tilt adjustment, and its position is noticeably below the line-of-sight for a passenger of average height when sitting in the upright position – although with the seat reclined the screen is almost exactly at eye level.
Secondly, the selection of movies and TV shows is relatively slim and certainly falls behind what Qantas has on tap.
Nobody expects to watch a Lord of the Rings marathon between Melbourne and Perth, but very frequent flyers on the cross-country jaunt could soon have worked through their choice of viewing.
Superbly designed and well-appointed, Virgin Australia's new A330 business class really is 'the business' – and from the end of October it should be on every one of Virgin's A330 east-west flights, making it the safe bet for doing your transcontinental business travel in style.
David Flynn travelled as a guest of Virgin Australia.
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