This week sees the debut of Virgin Australia's business class on flights between Australia and New Zealand. The challenger airline and AirNZ partner has previously offered only premium economy as its top cabin but that's now made way for proper business class seats on par with its domestic flights.
Australian Business Traveller flew on Virgin Australia's first Sydney-Auckland business class service to bring you this exclusive first review.
- Priority check-in and boarding: Yes, dedicated lanes for business class, Gold and Platinum frequent flyers.
- Checked baggage allowance: 2x32kg bags, plus a third 32kg bag for Velocity Platinum members.
- Carry-on baggage allowance: 2x105cm bags or 1x105cm bag plus 1x185cm garment bag at a combined total weight of up to 7kg.
- Priority security screening, passport control (Australia): Yes, but be sure you have an Express Path card before leaving the check-in desk – we had to ask for one.
- Priority passport control, Customs clearance (New Zealand): No, although Australian passport holders can use SmartGate on arrival.
Virgin Australia uses the Air New Zealand Koru Lounge in Sydney for trans-Tasman flyers – currently a temporary facility while refurbishments are completed in Air NZ's regular lounge.
Inside, the space is made up of several small zones including a dining room, relaxing lounge chairs and laptop working benches with the obligatory AC and USB power points.
A brisk walk from the departure gate used by today's flight, most of the basics are here – from espresso coffee and nibbles through to a selection of hot and cold dishes, and a hot dog cart for a sneaky pre-flight lunch.
Absent was true high-speed wireless Internet, with the provided connection struggling to reach download speeds of even 1mbps, albeit that the lounge was far from full.
With Virgin Australia's trans-Tasman business class seats exactly the same as found on Australian domestic flights, you'd be forgiven for confusing your hop across the pond with that regular trip to Melbourne or Brisbane.
To recap: there are two rows of black leather seats arranged in a 2-2 layout, with a central cocktail table, adjustable headrests, a generous recline and 38 inches of total space from seat to seat (known as 'pitch').
You'll also find a pillow and blanket as you board, although that blanket wasn't needed and the small, firm but foam-like pillow considerably less comfortable than something slimmer and softer that doesn't push you forward and away from the seat.
Crew offer to hang jackets behind row 2 as guests arrive on board, although the full 'coat check-in service' with complimentary garment bags originally planned for the Tasman didn't make it past the drawing board.
Also absent are leg rests and USB power – almost an essential and proving increasingly handy for charging smartphones and tablets – although each passenger does have their own AC power outlet for the same.
Yet none of the power outlets we tested were actually functional on today's service, and couldn't be enabled by the crew. Where fitted, these normally work quite well on VA's domestic flights, so we'll chalk that one up to 'opening night jitters'.
The legroom in row 1 is ample despite the bulkhead wall in front, with the tip of my shoe only just reaching that wall when stretching forward...
There's also an indent under the centre armrest, making for a more comfortable journey if you normally keep your phone or wallet tucked away in your side trouser pockets.
It's admittedly got nothing on Emirates' Airbus A380 trans-Tasman flights with fully-flat beds and an inflight cocktail bar and lounge for business class passengers, but at just three hours from gate to gate, at best you'd sneak in a brief nap.
On a flight this short, having a flatbed is realistically a novelty rather than a necessity, although if the price and schedule is right, we'd always choose a spacious international-grade sleeper over a domestic-style reclining seat.
Passengers are offered a choice of orange juice or water before take-off...
... with the seat also packing in a second, extendable cocktail table: great to separate your beverage from that of your neighbour: particularly if you've chosen the same drink.
That's followed by a civilised white wine and olives once the flight is under way, with a choice of either Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
The olives were fresh and rather flavourful, but were served without a second container to keep the discarded pips separate.
For the main course, two choices were provided from the Luke Mangan-designed menu: a beetroot and marjoram salad with pumpkin purée, leeks, pine nuts, parsley and ravioli; and lamb meatballs with Middle Eastern spices, zucchini, chickpeas and coriander.
The former can be prepared with or without chicken on top to suit personal tastes and dietary requirements, while we chose the latter and found the meatballs rather tender and the overall dish a great size for the peckish traveller without being too 'heavy'.
On the side: a choice of warmed bread rolls with butter, a snack-sized (single) cheese plate with quince paste and crisp bread, and a glass of Shiraz to match with the lamb.
Still peckish? There's also a 'pantry' menu with 16 snacks to choose from, including a slightly more comprehensive cheese plate that can be swapped out for the lone cheese soldier that comes as standard.
Skipping the basics such as potato chips and finger sandwiches, we decided to do a little 'sampling': ordering up the milk chocolate caramel popcorn, a Loving Earth caramel chocolate bar and a Californian chicken sushi roll with soy sauce.
The caramel and chocolate concoctions were, as you'd expect, quite satisfying, while the sushi tasted just-made and went down a treat.
Entertainment & Service
Again mirroring domestic flights, there's free streaming wireless inflight entertainment for all passengers to enjoy on their own smartphone, tablet or laptop, while business class guests are loaned a Samsung Galaxy tablet to view the same.
Whatever your device, there's a great selection of TV shows, music and both new-release and classic movies on offer. We settled for a favourite: Jobs, which played back smoothly and without interruption.
Just be prepared to hit the power switch on the Samsung tablets every now and again to wake it up – remaining on the same menu will dim the screen after just six seconds, with the screen completely shutting off after another six.
This obviously doesn't happen when you have something playing, unless there's a cabin announcement of more than 12 seconds which temporarily pauses your device and triggers that annoying 12-second shut-off.
Amenity kits with Grown-brand products are provided on flights departing from 7pm through to 2:59am the following morning, yet not on flights pushing back between 3am and 6:59pm.
On these daytime and early evening services, a specific subset of amenities are available only by request: including a dental kit with a toothbrush and Colgate toothpaste, a Virgin Australia pen, tissues, ear plugs, socks and an eye mask.
That's certainly not as great as pocketing your own fully-stocked amenity kit, but with competitor Qantas only offering these on trans-Tasman flights after 6pm and Emirates not providing them at all across the pond – even in first class – it's an understandable compromise.
All things considered, it's again not the lie-flat bed you'd get with Emirates or even LAN, but with friendly and attentive crew and a fulfilling meal service with a comprehensive snack menu, it didn't feel that anything in particular was missing from the experience, aside from a working power point and the full amenity kit, of course.
Now available daily between Sydney and Auckland, business class replaces premium economy on all Virgin Australia flights to New Zealand by March 31, including from other cities such as Melbourne and Brisbane.
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Auckland as a guest of Virgin Australia.
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