Business class in all but the seat: A review of Virgin Australia’s premium economy on the 777-300ER, LAX to Sydney
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For 2019, I challenged myself to fly 30 different airlines and sleep at 30 different hotel brands. While I’ve already completed the hotel challenge, I find myself behind pace on the airline front.
So, when I needed to fly down to Australia to catch the Qantas Points Plane back to the US, I skipped the perks that I’d get from flying a Oneworld or Star Alliance carrier and decided to try Virgin Australia for the first time. And, oh boy, I am glad that I did!
Despite notable hiccups, Virgin Australia premium economy highly impressed me, easily catapulting the airline to the top echelon of the 11 airlines I’ve flown in premium economy.
I had a fairly tight window for positioning down to Sydney for the Qantas Points Plane, as I was just coming off of another review just before. I stalked award availability on Virgin Australia for a while, but nothing ever opened up. So I worked with TPG’s travel analyst, Zach Griff, to look for a cash option.
While Delta’s Premium Select was priced reasonably, premium economy fares on Virgin Australia were astronomical — both one-way and round-trip fares were well over $2,000. We wanted to book premium economy for the flight review, but I was happy to fly economy for the return. But I wasn’t sure the best way to search for a mixed cabin itinerary like this.
Zach shared an ITA Matrix search tip for booking mixed cabins that I hadn’t heard of before now. By putting “+CABIN premium-coach” for one direction and “+CABIN 3” in for the return, ITA Matrix found a mixed-cabin option for $1,617 round-trip.
While that was far from cheap, it would give me the chance to experience both cabins of Virgin Australia — premium economy now and economy as a return from another one-way Qantas flight I’d booked to Australia for next year.
We put the cost of the fare on The Platinum Card® from American Express ($550 annual fee. See rates & fees) in order to take advantage of the card’s 5x bonus category on flights booked directly through the airline or with AmexTravel.com. We earned a total of 8,085 Membership Rewards points for this ticket, which are worth about $162 according to TPG’s current valuations.
Online check-in was a breeze, and I could email or print my boarding pass or both. During online check-in, I was prompted to review my seat selection, but there were only middle seats available. So I stuck with my aisle seat.
The airline website noted that the LAX check-in counter doesn’t open until three hours before the flight. That wouldn’t be much of a limitation for many travelers, but I’d flown in from Las Vegas (LAS) on a separate ticket, leaving myself plenty of time between tickets in case there were any issues. Thankfully, there was an earlier Virgin Australia flight to Brisbane (BNE), so I was able to check in my bag more than three hours before departure.
As the Virgin Australia flight departed out of LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, I headed to TBIT looking for the Virgin Australia check-in desk. Screens prompted passengers to the check-in counters in Terminal 3, about a five-minute walk away.
So I lugged my bag over to Terminal 3, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a dedicated premium economy check-in line with two agents. Even better, there was no line. Within three minutes, the friendly agent checked my bag and handed me a printed boarding pass and my bag tag.
Although I didn’t need them, I noticed there were no self-serve check-in kiosks.
Virgin Australia isn’t a TSA PreCheck airline, but the standard security process only took about 15 minutes. In other recent flights out of TBIT, I’ve had much longer waits clearing standard security, so make sure to budget extra time to clear security.
No lounge access was available for Virgin Australia premium economy passengers, so I went to P.F. Chang’s for a free dinner (before tip) through my Chase Sapphire Reserve-issued Priority Pass. It was at this visit that I found out that the restaurant was leaving the Priority Pass network on Oct. 25.
The gate area was busy, but there were still empty seats to be found shortly before the scheduled boarding time. Each bank of seats had two U.S. power outlets and two USB ports for every four seats. However, the power outlets didn’t seem to work at any seat, and passengers around me expressed frustration about their devices charging slowly through the USB outlets.
Boarding was originally scheduled for 10:50 p.m. but was bumped to 11 p.m. before I arrived at the gate. Shortly before 11 p.m., an announcement was made that boarding was delayed to 11:30 p.m. The plane was finally towed up to the gate at 11:11 p.m.
At 11:20 p.m., boarding was delayed further to 11:45 p.m. — which meant we would start boarding at our scheduled departure time.
Signs above the boarding gate doors indicated lines for business and Virgin Australia elites, premium economy and Economy X and then standard economy. Hoping to get clean photos of the cabin, I lined up early behind the premium economy sign.
But this strategy didn’t work out for me. Gate agents dragged mobile boarding signs out to the middle of the concourse, and lines quickly formed. As the gates were practically in the terminal walkway, the line blocked passengers from getting by for about a half hour as we waited to board.
Preboarding began with families with children at 11:38 p.m.
At 11:44 p.m., business-class and Virgin Australia elite passengers were welcomed to board, followed by premium economy and Economy X passengers two minutes later. It’s not clear if the aircraft wasn’t quite ready or if the families were slow to board, but a line quickly formed on the jet bridge.
Unfortunately, the ground experience wasn’t quite over yet. As the captain explained near the end of the boarding process, two passengers needed to deplane, and their bags needed to be located and removed before we could push back.
While we waited, the temperature in the cabin soared from a warm 76 degrees Fahrenheit to a very hot 86 degrees. And it felt even warmer due to the stale air. Flight attendants offered water to passengers affected by the heat.
The flight finally pushed back at 1:08 a.m. — one hour and 23 minutes late — and was wheels up at 1:30 a.m. We made up a few minutes and arrived at the gate in Sydney (SYD) about one hour and 15 minutes late.
As I didn’t get many clean cabin shots during boarding, I stuck around to take photos on the plane and ended up being the last passenger off of the plane. Still, I had to wait 20 minutes from arriving at baggage claim for my checked bag to drop — which it did more than 50 minutes after gate arrival.
Cabin and Seat
Virgin Australia’s Boeing 777 premium economy product has three rows of 2-4-2 seating.
Seats are arranged with a whopping 41 inches of pitch, leaving an incredible amount of legroom and personal space.
That impressive pitch allowed Virgin Australia to install seats that recline a whopping 9 inches.
Seat measured 20 inches between the armrests, which is above average for premium economy.
On my flight, the fabric-backed seats were a bit more firm that I liked, but there weren’t any noticeable rods or bars that made the seat uncomfortable.
The bifold tray table extended from the armrest. When unfolded, the tray table measured 14 inches wide by 10 inches deep. If you needed a little extra space, the tray table moved forward a few inches.
The only pair of seats in the cabin without a fixed armrest were the two seats in the middle of the middle section.
In the seatback, there was a large pocket and two smaller pockets in the front, which were barely noticeable at first but useful for storing my cellphone, boarding pass and passport without needing to toss these in the larger pocket with everything else.
Under the seat in front of me, there was an adjustable, retractable footrest and a tight area for storing a backpack. The space was squeezed at each seat by an inflight-entertainment box and the seat supports.
None of the seats had a legrest. However, flight attendants provided footrests for passengers in bulkhead seats to support their feet while they tried to relax or sleep.
Although bulkhead seats are typically some of the best seats in a cabin, I’d pass on choosing the bulkhead seats in this cabin. The 41 inches of pitch leave more than enough legroom in the other rows, and the lack of legrest or fixed footrest make the bulkhead seats less desirable.
The seat’s headrest is adjustable up and down and has small wings to cradle your head while you try to sleep.
There were two lavatories at the back of the cabin. It seemed these were technically shared with the economy cabin, but the flight attendants drew a curtain between the economy cabin and the galley where these were. That dissuaded some — but not all — economy passengers from using them.
Amenities and IFE
At boarding, each seat was stocked with a pillow, a blanket and an amenity kit. The pillow was quite comfortable when the seat was reclined, either as lumbar support or behind my head, but was too large for practical use when the seat was upright. The blanket was soft and warm.
In the seat pocket, Virgin Australia provided a dinner and drink menu, breakfast order form, a 16-ounce bottle of water and a pair of over-the-ear, three-prong Phitek noise-canceling headphones.
The headphones were presented in a case similar to what is typically found in business class. While my headphones didn’t seem to produce active noise-canceling, the sound quality was good. Even better, the headphones weren’t collected before landing.
Despite its plain exterior, the amenity kit was packed with an impressive number of amenities — including an eye mask, earplugs, socks, tissues, a pen, Hunter-branded lip balm, a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Each seat not by a bulkhead contained a 10.5-inch touchscreen built into the seat in front. The IFE system wasn’t particularly modern or responsive. There were periodic lags between making a selection and the system loading the choice, which made it unclear if your touch wasn’t recorded or if the system was just being slow to load. However, the screen could be tilted a decent amount, especially good considering how far seats could be reclined.
The inflight-entertainment system offered 175 movies, including a number of new releases, and 111 TV show selections. Some of these selections contained a season of the TV show, while others were one-off episodes. Although I wasn’t able to find the exact number of TV episodes or full seasons of TV shows, it’s sufficient to say there were plenty of entertainment options. Movies started with a reasonable 45 seconds of ads.
Due to the IFE system lag, it was nice to have a remote to help browse the entertainment. Seats, besides bulkhead seats, had a remote built into the seatback. Bulkhead seats had the remote built into the armrest.
Each seat has a universal power outlet under and to one side of the seat. Its location made it a bit hard to find at first, but plugs stayed put. In addition to this outlet, there was a USB port under the remote on most seats and in the armrest of bulkhead seats.
Virgin Australia installed high-speed satellite-based Gogo 2ku Wi-Fi on a number of its aircraft, and there’s a way of confirming whether or not your flight will have Wi-Fi ahead of the flight. Virgin Australia directs passengers to check flightstatus.virginaustralia.com “up to three days prior to your departure” to see if there’s Wi-Fi on board. Sure enough, my flight was showing as Wi-Fi-equipped.
Prices for the Wi-Fi ranged from AU$9.99 ($7) for one hour of limited internet speeds to AU$49.99 ($35) for a full flight of high-speed access
I was going through the process of purchasing a flight pass of the high-speed access when a peculiar thing happened. I logged into my Gogo account to retrieve my saved cards and was prompted whether I wanted to use my Gogo passes from my Business Platinum Card® from American Express.
Out of curiosity about what a pass would get me, I selected that option. And I was connected. When I tried to reconnect to the Wi-Fi midflight, I was prompted to pay again for access, requiring me to burn a second American Express Gogo pass.
It’s unclear whether I got the limited-speed or high-speed connection. Either way, I was able to save at least AU$24.99 ($17). Wi-Fi speed tests clocked speeds all over the place, from a poor 0.04 Mbps to an excellent 53.5 Mbps download with upload speeds ranging from exactly 0.00 Mbps to 3.89 Mbps. Across the eight tests I ran, the Wi-Fi averaged 10.3 Mbps download and 2.7 Mbps upload.
There’s no live TV, tail camera, streaming entertainment or in-seat ordering functionality.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
The food-and-beverage service on this flight easily rivaled — if not exceeded — what I’ve experienced in business class on other airlines: white tablecloth, multicourse meals, metal cutlery and real china.
Virgin Australia made a good first impression by having an impressive eight-page menu — half of which was dedicated to wine options — and breakfast order cards available at the seat at boarding.
During boarding, premium economy passengers got a choice of sparkling wine, orange juice or water — which was served in real glassware.
Shortly after takeoff, flight attendants took drink orders and served a premeal snack of packaged cashews and pretzels.
Flight attendants took dinner orders from the rear of the cabin first and moved forward. As a first course, passengers had a choice of smoked salmon salad or tomato soup along with a choice of two bread options. I chose the salmon salad and a sesame roll.
There were three options for the main course. As red meat can be challenging to cook or reheat in the sky, I usually choose the red meat when reviewing a flight. So I chose the black pepper beef with noodles and vegetables this time. The beef was surprisingly tender and juicy while also being perfectly cooked.
For dessert, I tried a bit of the fruit-and-cheese plate and found it to be a refreshing finish.
The downside to the multicourse dinner was just how long it took. Combining the late departure with the extended service, my main course wasn’t served until after 3 a.m. Pacific time.
If passengers felt peckish between meals, they could go to a self-service snack bar at the back right of the cabin.
In addition to plastic-wrapped wraps, there was a variety of snacks, both healthy and not-so-healthy options.
For breakfast, passengers were given a breakfast order form allowing them to indicate whether or not they wanted to be woken for breakfast. Premium economy passengers were given a choice of juices, bread and spreads, two different starters, three different mains, Nespresso options, teas and complements.
I ordered the pear-and-ricotta crepes with caramelized walnuts, and Greek yogurt, butter croissant, apple juice and espresso with milk. While I didn’t have much of the breakfast, the parts I had were tasty and the crepe seemed fresher than I’d expect for being at the end of a long flight.
Impeccable on-board service from start to finish. Flight attendants were friendly, responsive and helpful.
The service on this flight was simply top-notch. The 24-seat premium economy cabin seemed to have two dedicated flight attendants, with flight attendants from business class stepping back into P.E. to assist after finishing service in business class.
Passengers were individually greeted at boarding by name by flight attendants, although names weren’t used the rest of the flight.
As a test of the service, TPG reviewers are supposed to press the call button between meal service to record how long it takes the flight attendants to reach our seat. I’d recently been to the galley and talked with the flight attendants, was sitting in an aisle seat and didn’t need anything. So, I “accidentally” pressed the flight attendant button on the remote. Seconds later, a flight attendant was at my seat. I awkwardly tried to play it off. Needless to say, they passed that test.
In some aspects, Virgin Australia premium economy sets the bar. From incredible service to a multicourse dinner and thoughtful breakfast service, this product rivaled business class on other airlines. The seat pitch, width and recline are some of the best you’re going to find in premium economy.
Yet the product fell short in some ways. The inflight-entertainment system was frustrating at times. The Wi-Fi speeds varied widely. And the ground experience — from a delayed boarding and an overheated plane in Los Angeles to slow-to-arrive baggage in Sydney — could certainly have gone better.
Overall, Virgin Australia premium economy definitely impressed, and it’s certainly one of the best premium economy experiences that I’ve had. Given the right price, I’d certainly look to fly it again for future flights to and from Australia.
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All photos by the author.
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