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TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen swung by LAX yesterday for an exclusive tour of Virgin Australia’s new business-class cabin aboard the 777-300ER. There, Virgin Australia Group CEO John Borghetti and Tangerine design-firm Chief Creative Officer Matt Round gave a group of media an inside look at the plane and its new classes of service.
After a few lengthy delays due to some issues related to licensing the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seats, Virgin Australia publicly unveiled its new international business class back in May and started flying a newly-refitted 777-300ER on its flagship route from Sydney to Los Angeles.
The airline has already refitted three of its 777-300ERs and will finish the other two by September 2016. At that point, Virgin Australia will fly its routes from Brisbane and Sydney to Los Angeles, and from Sydney to Abu Dhabi.
The airline will also refit its other long-range aircraft, namely six A330s, with the new business-class product, which will fly on Virgin’s routes within Asia and the Pacific as well as between Sydney and Perth.
To showcase one of the airline’s refitted planes, Virgin Australia Group CEO John Borghetti gave a press conference for a group of media from the US and Australia out on the tarmac at LAX.
There, he outlined the carrier’s process of putting the new classes of service on the planes, extolled the airline’s partnership with Delta and shared why he thinks the new business-class product is a game changer — Borghetti also let slip that the airline plans to begin rolling out Wi-Fi on its long-haul flights, followed by its domestic fleet, starting mid-2017. Then it was time to board the jet and have a look.
The first thing all passengers see after boarding is a flashy bar with four seats, a sculptural ceiling and frieze of Virgin’s buxom maidenhead opposite.
The new business class on Virgin Australia’s 777-300ER has 37 seats (compared to the 33 in the old cabins) split into two cabins.
You’ll find 24 seats in a larger front cabin and 13 seats in a smaller aft cabin between the bar and premium economy.
The new lie-flat seats are in a 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone configuration. The seats on the sides face out, while those in the middle are angled toward one another, with a sliding privacy divider.
While these seats may look similar to what you see on American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways, they’re designed by a different company, called Tangerine. They also look a bit more stylish, with black leather upholstery and purple mood lighting.
Tangerine’s Matt Round explained that he and his team put passenger privacy first and foremost, saying, “People want a space that’s their own. That’s the top of their wish list.” To that end, they envisioned those sliding dividers and played around with a lot of different fabrics and laminates “to try to get away from that manufactured look and give the cabin more of a human feel,” explained Round.
The seats recline to fully flat beds measuring 80 inches long and are 21 inches wide with the armrest up, or 28 inches wide with it down.
Each seat comes with an 18-inch ‘Red’ Panasonic XE2 IFE touchscreen, the largest on any route between the US and Australia — the A330s have 16-inch screens.
Some of the other fun features include a tablet holder designed specially for the airline.
The table folds out and slides back and forth so you can get more comfortable while eating or working.
A few different cubbies hide the IFE controls.
There’s also a side console with a universal power port, a USB port and a touchscreen seat control panel.
We did not get to see a fully turned-down bed, but the airline has incorporated new customized triple-layer seat cushions and what it calls its new “Deep Sleep” turndown service with memory-foam mattress toppers, cotton pillows and duvets.
What most impressed me was that the foot “cubby” was actually pretty huge (I apologize for not being able to get a better picture of it, but it went back a ways and was quite dark!), a real plus over the usually tight spaces these kinds of seats tend to feature.
Business-class passengers will enjoy restaurant-style service with new menus created by the airline’s chef partner, Luke Mangan, and new flatware and linens created for the airline.
Passengers are also treated to Juli Grbac pajamas and Mandarina Duck amenity kits featuring REN skincare products (though Borghetti also hinted that they might be tweaking these in the near future).
Virgin Australia is also rolling out a new premium economy cabin that it will call simply “Premium” on the refitted aircraft.
The seats are laid out in three rows of 2-4-2 and are 19.5 inches wide, with 41 inches of legroom (compared to the old version’s 38 inches) and nine inches of recline.
Compared to the 40-seat premium economy cabins in the old configuration, this one has just 24 seats.
The IFE screens are also slightly larger than before, at 10.6 inches instead of 10 inches.
All these developments bring Virgin’s premium economy in line with that of Singapore Airlines, although Virgin’s seats are roomier and recline more, while Singapore’s have bigger IFE screens.
As Borghetti put it, the point was to “make Premium feel more like ‘business light’ than ‘economy plus,'” by incorporating elements like business-class-style service, roomier seats, similar textures and an overall enhanced experience.
Premium economy also has its own little snack bar for mid-flight noshing. Round explained that this was meant to reduce crew foot traffic in the cabin and keep it quieter on longer stretches of the flight.
Economy Space +
The plane also features Virgin’s new “Economy Space +” seats, which will soon officially be on sale for an additional $135-$165 AUD ($100-$125) each way.
These 24 seats are located in the exit rows and first five rows of economy, and feature a few extra inches of legroom, dedicated overhead bins and a guaranteed meal of choice as well as dedicated crew members and the use of noise-cancelling headsets.
Passengers purchasing these seats will also get priority check-in and boarding.
The IFE screens in economy space + measure just 10 inches.
The aircraft’s economy seats remain largely unchanged (there are 278 seats instead of 288), and are laid out in a 3-3-3 configuration.
How You Can Fly It
As I mentioned, Virgin Australia is already operating a 777-300ER on its flight from Sydney to Los Angeles (VA 1 on the outbound and VA 2 on the inbound). Once it gets its final two 777-300ERs refitted, the carrier will also be operating VA 7/8 to/from Brisbane with the aircraft as well. Always double check the seating chart of your flight on Virgin’s website to be sure you’re getting the new configuration — you’ll know it’s the new one because the business-class seats are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration instead of 2-3-2.
If you want to book an award ticket, chances are you’ll be using Delta SkyMiles since it’s Virgin Australia’s main US partner. Delta requires 80,000 miles each way in business class from the US to Australia.
And now for the bad news: With the exception of a few dates next week, there is no award availability on Virgin Australia from LA to Sydney for the rest of the calendar that I could find. That’s right, not a single saver-level business-class award for the next 300 days.
But at least on those dates, there are some tickets, so if you can plan for a last-minute trip, you might just be in luck.
You might also want to use Virgin America Elevate points to book since you need just 80,000 points round-trip from LA to Sydney in business class and the taxes and fees would cost you just $130. Virgin is also now a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, so you would need just 65,000 Starpoints for a round-trip ticket after factoring in the 5,000-point bonus on 20,000-point transfers. That can be an incredible use of points… if Virgin ends up releasing more award space!
Overall, this refit represents a huge improvement on Virgin Australia’s old business class (you can read my review of it from a 2014 flight here). The seats are stylish, sleek, extremely roomy and comfortable. The IFE screens do feel really big, and all the cubbies and compartments make it easy to stow everything you need for the flight.
The cabin definitely ups the trans-Pacific competition another notch, better positioning Virgin to compete with newcomers to the routes between the US and Australia, like American Airlines. Hopefully it means we’ll also see new products from Qantas, and perhaps United’s new Polaris seats on these routes as well.
The new premium economy seats also represent a big step up, with an impressive amount of legroom and recline, while the economy space + seats are a nice option to have for passengers who want the extra legroom but don’t have the budget for a premium-cabin seat.
What do you think of Virgin Australia’s refitted 777-300ER?
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