My intention for the intra-Australia sectors of my relentless round-the-world trip was to compare the two largest Australian airlines – Qantas and Virgin Australia – in a business class double-header on the flights between Perth and Melbourne.
Having flown Qantas business class on the eastbound flight, then, I had booked Virgin Australia A330 business class for the westbound return using 21,800 Etihad Guest miles plus about $20 in taxes and fees.
On paper, booking Virgin Australia via Etihad Guest is harder than booking Qantas via Avios, because Etihad Guest miles are slightly tougher to come by. I was therefore curious whether it was worth the premium to fly on Virgin Australia, whose A330 business class product looked, on pictures at least, to be quite a bit nicer and more modern than its rival’s.
Virgin Australia uses Terminal 3 at Melbourne Tullamarine Airport, and I had arrived with about an hour and a half to spare, which would give me ample time to check out the lounge too. Check-in was a smooth experience, made a little more pleasant by a very friendly staff member dressed in the airline’s distinctive bright-red uniforms.
A quick scan of my boarding pass, and I was through to the airside area (the security checkpoint would come later, before the gates).
I simply followed the signs for “The Lounge” – this being the dedicated terminal for Virgin Australia, there was no need to clarify which lounge was being referred to.
The Virgin Australia Lounge was decorated in a boisterous style befitting of the airline’s identity. Red and purple accents provide a splash of colour against largely monochrome seating zones, illuminated by wavy strips of fluorescent lighting.
The food and drink selection was pretty standard fare for a domestic lounge, although I thought the Stella Artois beer carts were a nice touch.
The lounge also featured a fully-staffed liquor and espresso bar, where I ordered an iced latte to perk me up on this particularly jet lag-stricken afternoon.
After catching up on some work in the lounge, I headed for the boarding gate. It’s worth noting that a few of the terminal’s gates are linked to the lounge, allowing business class passengers to clear security and board the plane directly from the lounge, although unfortunately my gate wasn’t one of them.
Instead, there was a bit of a zoo at the security queue, since there was a huge bank of Virgin Australia flights departing around this time.
And despite my best efforts to be among the first to board the plane so I can snap pictures of the empty cabin, the boarding gate turned out to be quite chaotic as well, and I had to squeeze in alongside my fellow business class passengers as Zone 1 boarding was called.
Virgin Australia | VA691
Aircraft: Airbus A330-200
Cabin: Business class
Route: Melbourne (MEL) to Perth (PER)
Date: Monday, November 18, 2019
Time: Departing 5:35pm and arriving 6:50pm
Duration: 4 hours 15 minutes
Virgin Australia business class on the Airbus A330 features 20 lie-flat seats, all with direct aisle access, arranged in a 1-2-1 reverse herringbone configuration.
This is one of the most cutting-edge seat types that you’ll find on major airlines, making it the clear choice above Virgin’s Boeing 737s on domestic routes, which only feature forward-facing recliner seats.
I had assigned myself Seat 5G, a middle seat in the very last row. I’d usually prefer sitting by the window, although on this occasion all the window seats were already occupied by the time I made my selection.
The jet-black seat finishes were unmistakably on-brand for Virgin Australia, and I was mightily impressed by my surroundings as I got settled in.
The style of this reverse herringbone seat was very similar to what you’ll find on Air Canada’s Dreamliners, with a 16-inch in-flight entertainment screen at the very front of the seat, situated above a tray table that slides back and forth along a diagonal rail.
As the tray table slides down towards you, it can then be folded over into the full-sized surface for dining and working.
There’s a respectable amount of legroom down below, with a sloped surface between the footwell and the floor providing a place to rest your feet. However, there’s no under-seat storage, so any larger personal items will have to go in the overhead storage bins.
Moving along the side of the seat, you’ll find a series of flaps and hatches. The hatch furthest forward simply contains the entertainment controller, set within an otherwise flat surface.
Underneath the hatch was a set of electronic seat controls, which were quite simple to use.
The next hatch opens up to reveal a storage compartment, as well as the USB and power ports and the headphone jack.
When the hatch is closed, there’s a tiny gap between the lid and the edge of the compartment itself, so that the charger or headphone cord can extend out of the hatch even when it’s closed. Alternatively, you can also place your device within the hatch as it charges, leaving it out of sight and out of mind.
Finally, the compartment nearest to you also serves as the literature pocket, and opens up just slightly enough to allow you to fit a book or tablet inside.
The middle seats have a privacy divider that can be opened if you were travelling with a companion, and slid shut otherwise. All 20 business class seats were taken on this journey to Perth, so my seatmate and I kept the divider shut throughout.
On the opposite side, the armrest can be raised or lowered according to your preference, and it opens up to reveal one final storage unit, which is where the headphones were stored at the start of the flight.
As with most reverse herringbone seats out there, you’re treated to a great deal of privacy here in Virgin Australia A330 business class – you really weren’t able to look into any of the neighbouring seats even if you tried.
One drawback, however, would be that the seat walls aren’t very high, so taller individuals might feel a little exposed as they look out over the cabin.
I was greeted by the flight attendant who would be taking care of me shortly after sitting down, and selected the sparkling wine as my choice of welcome beverage. She also asked me, “Have you flown our suites before?” – and upon realizing I hadn’t, proceeded to give me a full tour of the seat features, just in case I had missed any.
The flight attendant later returned to pass out the in-flight menu as well.
The main pamphlet, which listed the wine, beverages, and snacks, read as follows:
Meanwhile, there was a separate menu sheet for tonight’s dinner choices, with an express dining option listed on the opposite side.
The plane was boarded in a highly efficient fashion, and I was surprised how quickly the steady flow of economy class passengers walking past me had dried up. Virgin Australia’s racetrack-themed safety video played on our entertainment screens as the captain announced a brisk three-and-a-half-hour flight time to Perth.
As our flight began in earnest, I took a few minutes to check out the airline’s entertainment selection. The movies and television shows weren’t quite as numerous as you’d find on some other airlines, with a dozen or so titles in each genre.
Meanwhile, the airshow was one of the most high-resolution maps I’ve ever come across, and it was a real pleasure to track our progress as we made our way across the country – I just wish it had a few more different viewpoints to play with!
The crew members came through the cabin to take our meal orders immediately after we reached cruising altitude. However, it would be another 30 minutes or so before the meal service would begin, which seemed like a slow pace for a domestic flight that’s only a few hours long.
First up, I was served glass of water and a ramekin of almonds. It would’ve been nice if the almonds were toasty, but they were sadly pretty cold and stale.
The dinner service would only begin in earnest after another 20-minute wait. On the plus side, though, I was impressed by Virgin Australia’s table setting, which included individual plates for the bread, butter, and individual courses, as well as a cute set of salt and pepper shakers shaped like the Sydney Opera House.
I was allowed to choose freely from the breadbasket, and I opted for a simple bread roll, which was still nice and warm when it was served on my plate.
Another 20-minute wait would ensue before my appetizer was served, and I must admit I was getting a little frustrated with the slow pace of the meal service. That was especially because I had wanted to get a lot of work done on this flight, and with my table being set, I now had to work awkwardly with my laptop on the side surface and my arms halfway in the air.
For the appetizer, I had selected the smoked salmon with buckwheat noodles, which was served in a light miso mayo sauce.
This was a very creative appetizer dish, and I don’t think I’ve tasted anything quite like it. I probably would’ve preferred the soba noodles in a simple miso sauce as a more authentic Japanese-style dish, rather than the Western twist of adding a creamy mayonnaise to it, although I still very much enjoyed it overall and finished every last morsel.
(Since I was in the mood to work effectively on this flight, I passed on the alcohol this time around, instead ordering a glass of orange juice to accompany my dinner.)
Next up, I had selected the massaman beef curry for the main course, which came presented very elegantly atop a bed of jasmine rice. It tasted just as good as it looked, and I polished it all off very eagerly.
The dessert, orange polenta cake, didn’t sound like it was worth the caloric premium to me. I therefore decided to order a cheese plate to nibble on, as well as a cup of black tea, and call it a day.
Overall, I was highly impressed by the quality of Virgin Australia’s catering, which I thought was on a much higher level than the Qantas business class flight that I had flown three days earlier.
However, the service was a little disappointing: the pace felt too relaxed for a short domestic flight, as the meal took up more than half of the entire flight’s duration, and I also thought that the crew members could’ve been more friendly as they went about their service.
I paid a quick visit to the business class restroom, which is about as nondescript as it gets here on the Airbus A330, and didn’t really feature any special amenities for business class passengers to set it apart.
Returning to my seat, I spent the remainder of the flight, which lasted just over an hour after the meal service was complete, working on my laptop. Before that, however, I decided to test out the seat in lie-flat mode – mostly so that I could snap a few pictures for the review, but also to see how comfortable it would be if I did want to rest during the flight.
The upper-body section was made of a plush fabric and was quite comfortable, and the seat was wide enough for lying down comfortably, as long as you lowered the armrest to make it feel less claustrophobic. However, the footwell, like any other reverse herringbone seat, is pretty limited in space, so you can expect to bend your legs a little bit, but not fully, if you were to take a nap.
We began our descent into Perth just as the sun was setting on Western Australia, and Virgin Australia’s signature mood lighting cast a snazzy purple glow on the cabin as the flight came to its conclusion.
I also cracked a smile when I heard the disembarkation music: “Clearest Blue” by CHVRCHES, a song I used to listen to on repeat many years ago. One thing’s for sure: the Virgin Australia business class experience was true to the brand until the very end, even down to the indie synth-pop track to bid us goodbye.
Despite a few notable shortcomings, such as the slow pace of service and an attitude among the crew that was generally less spirited and friendly than their bright-red uniforms might suggest, I found the overall Virgin Australia A330 business class experience to be quite positive.
Importantly, I thought that Virgin was the clear winner over its rival, Qantas, in this little business class double-header that I had tried between Perth and Melbourne. Both the reverse herringbone seat and the finely executed dinner dishes were a step above what Qantas had to offer on their domestic A330s, so if you’re looking for the best experience possible, I’d recommend redeeming Etihad Guest miles on Virgin Australia even if it may be a little more work than redeeming Avios on Qantas.
I’d like to try both of the major Aussie carriers on a long-haul flight one day. For now, though, the journey was set to continue with another exciting flight coming right up in the next instalment: ANA 787 business class from Perth onwards to Tokyo.