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Flight Review: Virgin Australia International Business Class LAX-MEL

by on February 13, 2014 · 10 comments

in Australia, Virgin Australia

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TPG Managing Editor Eric Rosen had the (last-minute!) chance to fly Virgin Australia to the land down under on Sunday where he’ll be traveling with The Points Guy for the next week and a half.  Be sure to follow along with their trip on Twitter and Instagram @ThePointsGuy, @EricRosenLA. Read below for Eric’s review of Virgin Australia’s business class service and check back tomorrow to hear how Brian booked his travel.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my plans to travel to Australia were nearly completely derailed when my Delta Shuttle from LAX-SFO was canceled. Luckily, Team TPG swung into action and had rebooked me on another flight from LAX to Melbourne on Virgin Australia business class within mere minutes, and I was able to walk to Terminal 3 at LAX and check right in for my flight. TPG had called Delta and booked my flight within minutes for a total of 125,000 miles for business class to Melbourne non-stop and economy class back (I will shell out the additional 25,000 miles when business class space opens up, hopefully) and $101 in taxes and fees (since Delta doesn’t charge last-minute award booking fees).

The Virgin team were actually training some new employees that evening, so check-in took quite a while and there was no dedicated business class check-in agent even though there was a separate line. Instead, the Premium Economy check-in agent alternated between folks in his line and those in the business class line. I had to wait about 20 minutes, but was checked in and chose an aisle seat in the first row of the plane.

Check in took a while.

Check in took a while.

Virgin Australia used to depart Terminal 3, and while their check-in desks are still there, you actually have to exit the terminal and walk down to the Tom Bradley International Terminal to pass through security and to your gate. A lot of late-night flights to Asia were departing around that time so security was a zoo, even in the premium lanes, and I was glad I had extra time because it took a while.

One of the Star Alliance lounge's bars.

One of the Star Alliance lounge’s bars.

My business class ticket got me access to LAX’s much ballyhooed new Star Alliance Lounge (which is operated by Air New Zealand). The lounge opened back in September and has some really unique features (certainly by LA lounge standards) like an open-air patio with fire pits, a balcony that overlooks the terminal and fun little rooms like a “Library” with books painted on the walls (I mean, who reads in LA?), another with a huge photographic mural of the Hollywood sign, and plenty of different seating areas.

The outdoor deck.

The outdoor deck.

Though the palette is somewhat muted, the appearance is clean and stylish and looks like it’s based on LA’s mid-century modern heyday with chairs that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of recent seasons of Mad Men. More importantly, there were tons of outlets and the WiFi was fast, so I was able to get that little bit of last-minute work done before my flight.

The balcony over the terminal.

The balcony over the terminal.

The kitchen/cafe area displayed the usual selection of food with cold cuts, salads and wraps.

Some of the cold appetizers.

Some of the cold appetizers.

As well as a small hot section with pasta and chicken parmesan (which I’m afraid did not look appetizing).

The hot ones didn't look that great.

The hot ones didn’t look that great.

And perhaps my favorite food feature, the DIY noodle soup bar where you could choose noodles (rice or egg), chicken or tofu, a variety of veggies and sauces and then ladle your own beef broth over. I had a bowl and it hit the spot after my stressful evening.

Loved the DIY noodle bar.

Loved the DIY noodle bar.

There was also a selection of California wines, US beers and a variety of sodas and juices.

I’d been at the airport about 6 hours already, so I decided to have a quick shower, and the suites, though small, were nice and clean and stocked with Soaptopia products. These are low-flow showers (which I think everyone in California should consider getting since we’re going into a historic drought), so don’t expect fire-hydrant-style pressure, but it did the trick.

One of the shower suites.

One of the shower suites.

There’s also a small First Class lounge tucked into a corner, but I obviously didn’t have access to that. Passengers of the following airlines can access the lounge: ANA, Asiana, Lufthansa, Singapore Airline, SWISS and Thai Airways (Air New Zealand will move from Terminal 2 to Tom Bradley later this year), and Virgin Australia, of course.

The showers are stocked with Soaptopia.

The showers are stocked with Soaptopia.

The Flight

Finally it was time to board, and I took a leisurely stroll through the new terminal to peruse the stores and walked right through the premium boarding lane onto the plane. I had flown Virgin Australia several years ago when it was still V Australia, so I was looking forward to the experience – actually even more so than first class on United, because the V crews are always fun, the food is generally of a higher standard, and the wine selection would feature some interesting Australian bottles.

It wasn’t a full flight, but most of the business class passengers seemed to have boarded before me. I had seat 1H along the right side aisle and 1K on the window was empty. I’d say that of the 25 business class seats, only 20 were filled.

The main business class cabin.

The main business class cabin.

The Cabin

Business class is comprised of five rows total: four in the front cabin, then a small galley/bar area and then one row behind that. Row 5 is coveted real estate because it’s a single row and each seat section curtains off, so if you’re traveling with a friend/companion and have one of the side sections of seats, it’s like having your own private cabin. Last time I flew Virgin Australia, my seat actually had a malfunction and I got the whole middle section of Row 5 to myself – it was one of the best flight experiences I’ve had.

I got 2 seats to myself.

I got 2 seats to myself.

Behind business class comes the premium economy section and finally the economy section. The business cabin is laid out in a straight front-facing 2 x 3 x 2 configuration that feels a little outdated now, but at least the hard-shell seats recline to almost fully horizontal. The seats are billed as full lie-flat, but in truth, there are a couple of degrees of slope to them, but not anywhere near what you’d think of as angled lie flat. In short, I think they’re as flat as you get with a seat that’s cantilevered out like this instead of ones like Air New Zealand or Cathay have where there’s a foot rest at the end of it that actually makes it 180 degrees flat.

The bed lies flat, but not completely horizontal.

The bed lies flat, but not completely horizontal.

The seats extend to nearly 2 meters (1.88 according to Virgin), which is about 6’2″ – a little too short for TPG, but fine for me. The seat pitch is 77 inches, and each is 23 inches wide. Again, not the roomiest dimensions, but still decent.

Seat controls.

Seat controls.

Each seat also has its own universal power socket and USB plugin, with privacy screens between seats, and both overhead and seat-mounted reading lamps. There’s no real in-seat storage to speak of, just a couple small cubbies to stow your phone and wallet if you want, so pretty much everything has to go in the overhead.

The in-flight entertainment system is a 12.1-inch monitor that swivels down and stows away in the armrest area, so it also feels old-school, but unlike a lot of this style of monitor and those that are mounted on the previous seatback, you can adjust these every which way, so you’re not dealing with off color or pixellation from weird angles. While the movie selection wasn’t that extensive, there were still a lot of titles I hadn’t seen, so there were plenty to choose from (I watched Gravity, which might not be the best movie to watch on a flight!).

The monitor was small but decent.

The monitor was small but decent.

While sitting next to a complete stranger might be a little strange given how these seats are packed in, I had a great time spreading out with two seats to myself, and I switched to the window seat to sleep later in the flight.

The Experience

As soon as I’d found my seat, one of the flight attendants – a bubbly young lady named Kylie, appropriately enough – introduced herself, showed me how to work the seat, gave me a men’s amenity kit and pajamas, and presented the menu for the flight as well as a customs form with the flight information already filled out.

Then she was back in a flash with a glass of water and one of Lanson Champagne, and we were pushing back.

The amenity kit.

The amenity kit.

The amenity kit contained an eye mask, ear plugs, footies, a packet of tissues, a razor, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a little kit from Australian botanical beauty product line Grown Alchemist. It contained vanilla and orange peel hand cream, watermelon-vanilla lip balm, and sandalwood and sage shaving serum. The products smelled amazing – unfortunately I couldn’t use the shaving serum or hand cream because I’m allergic to aloe and they both have it in them.

Meal Service

The flight departed at 11:20pm, so meal service started fairly quickly after takeoff. The menus are created by Australian chef Luke Mangan, and dinner service began with a selection of hot nuts with a beverage service, then hot rolls and starters.

I chose the salmon starter.

I chose the salmon starter.

The starter choices included butternut pumpkin, ginger and orange soup with chives; a salad of baby rocket, watercress, radicchio, pear and walnut with lemon oil dressing; and king smoked salmon with fennel remoulade with dill and chervil, which I chose, and which was tasty, though the greens were really wilted.

I had the chicken as my main.

I had the chicken as my main.

The main course options were: paprika and saffron-braised beef with soft polenta, roasted capsicum, olive and basil; char-grilled chicken with cauliflower puree, petit pois, streaky bacon and cos lettuce; arctic char fillet with green asparagus spears, salsa verde and lemon; and vegetarian laksa with bok choy, bamboo, bean sprouts, macadamia, mint and coriander. I got the chicken figuring it would be lighter, and it was good, but a bit salty.

The cheese course.

The cheese course.

That was followed by a selection of cheeses including St. Nectaire from France and oregonzola from Italy, which I totally polished off. I had intended to stop there, but Kylie talked me into dessert – cassis-raspberry mousse on dark chocolate brownie with berries and Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream.

Kylie talked me into dessert.

Kylie talked me into dessert.

When I’d finished dinner, I filled out the menu card for breakfast and checked off a box asking the crew not to wake me if I was sleeping – though truth be told once they start serving breakfast, with all the smells and the clinking of the cutlery, it’s hard to stay asleep.

Breakfast included a choice of juices and smoothies, coffee, tea, cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit and main course selections of bacon-egg burrito with tomato and avocado; lemon ricotta pancakes with mascarpone, pineapple and maple syrup; and bircher muesli with date, raspberry and Greek yogurt.

One of the areas where Virgin excels is in its wine list, which is all Australian (except for the Lanson champagne). I love flying airlines like Virgin, Qantas and Air New Zealand because there’s a palpable sense of national pride and the wines are almost all (if not entirely) sourced from their home country, which contributes to the sense that you’re already there when you step on the plane.

The current list includes Grant Burge 5th Generation Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris from the Yarra Valley and Geoff Hardy rosé from Adelaide Hills as well. On the red side there was Serafino Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend from McLaren Vale, Wick’s Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Adelaide Hills, and Howard Park “Flint Rock” Mount Baker Pinot Noir from Western Australia. I really liked the chardonnay, which was minerally and really acidic – very food friendly and bright for a flight wine.

The Pinot Noir was also delicious and vibrant with lots of fresh strawberry and cedary spice to it. There was also a botrytis Semillon and  cane-cut Riesling among the sweet “stickies” for dessert.

There was also that small bar area behind the main business class cabin where the staff put out the spirits, water and soda as well as snacks throughout the flight, but with the exception of two guys who were hanging out there for about a half-hour after dinner, it was empty.

The bar area.

The bar area.

The Timing

After dinner service, I finished my movie then went right to sleep for about 7 hours. I got up as breakfast service was starting, but held off as I dozed and then got up and cleaned up a bit. I got my food around 3 hours from Melbourne, and finished watching another movie then got dressed and ready to land.

Another shot of the bed.

Another shot of the bed.

One of the other features of the plane that I really love is the starry ceilings that the airline installed with some constellations (I’m convinced some of the star clusters are just plain made up) lighting up as the cabin darkens. There’s a lighting program where the cabin changes from dusk to night then back to dawn over the course of the flight and that makes it feel so dynamic – it’s just a nice, fun touch.

All in all, the 15-hour flight felt…well, like 15 hours, but they were a fun 15 hours thanks to the friendly staff, the decent food and wine, and being able to stretch out and really get some shut-eye. While I’d love to see Virgin update its business class cabins, they still do feel clean and comfortable, and make a great ride to Australia. I haven’t flown United’s Global First, and I was sorry to have missed out on it, but I would be lying if I said that I still think I had a better experience on Virgin Australia than I would have on United.

Have you flown Virgin Australia lately? How was your experience?

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  • http://www.doctorofcredit.com/ doctorofcredit

    How many points did it set you back?

  • AK

    My advice? Use United points to fly partners, or if you can have to fly economy and get premium for being gold. Otherwise, never – ever – ever fly United. Its just an all and all bad experience. I’ve had better staff experiences flying Cathay economy vs. United First.

  • Sherman

    Cathay economy is definitely better than United Biz, sometimes United First. US airway lines are just sad, and it’s not like they charge less as budget airlines.

  • Cory

    I flew Virgin Australia SYD-LAX a few days ago. The LAX-SYD leg a few weeks before was on Delta. For me, it’s all about the seat and I found the Delta Biz Class seat to be much better to my liking than the VA seat. Which isn’t to say that VA’s seat was uncomfortable. But the configuration and overall comfort of Delta’s seat was better. Now, if only DL made as much space available as VA.
    I thought the VA experience was pretty good. I liked the flight attendants. The wine and food were generally good, but I don’t have a very refined palate when it comes to things like wine, so about all I knew is that it was red that I was drinking. Sadly, I was completely unable to sleep on my VA flight, mostly because I left Sydney at 2:30 pm and wasn’t going to be able to sleep until the tail end of the flight no matter how comfortable the seat was. But I did try, and I was comfortable not sleeping :)
    I find it to be a pretty good product for a long flight, and makes the 13-14 hour return flight tolerable.

  • benstephens

    I flew the same route, LAX-MEL in late December and had a very similar experience. The seat is not private and if you’re seated next to someone you will get to know them. The crew was great and the seat is mostly flat. Given the significant cantilever of the lower half of the bed, I found it a bit bouncy. Not a big deal, but it was there. I also noticed the lack of cubbies. Those stars on the ceiling are magic.

  • JohnnieD

    My wife and I flew VA last Feb LAX-MEL. I completely agree about the seat. It was a bit less comfortable than other products I have flown. It was a bit too short for me (I’m 6’4″) and it didn’t seem to be completely flat. It did work out ok for sleeping.
    My favorite seat is still the USAir Envoy seat with Cathay Pacific right up there.

  • pacheco18

    V Australia is by far the best business class experience I have ever had. Better than Singapore IMO . We had one of those private curtained areas. There were 3 FAs for 7 passengers. They made our bed, gave us cozy pjs and fed us well. I wish they flew more places

  • Michael

    Great report…loved hearing about the lounge, which I haven’t had a chance to try. And Virgin has been on my list to try down under since it seems like a nice ride and has better points availability.

    Just one thing…I’m not sure what you mean by “who reads in LA”?

  • Crissy Maier

    I flew Va business class RT LAX to BNE in November. Aside from not having access to the lounge in LAX (it was the day of the shoot), it was a great experience!

  • anita

    How many points do you need Brian TPGuy? I’d like to go to Australia next year, could I do layover in Hawaii? is that possible? Thanks

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