Virgin Blue's Premium Economy offers these features:
- At least 34" seat pitch in 2-2 configuration
- Priority check-in
- Complimentary access to The Lounge
- Extra baggage allowance (32kg)
Our work flights are normally booked into "Blue Zone", which gives a guaranteed exit-row seat (39" pitch), without the other extra features. Let's compare...
Tuesday July 8, 2008
Virgin Blue DJ424
Perth (PER/YPPH) - Sydney (Kingsford Smith) (SYD/YSSY)
Scheduled: 06:00 / 12:00 (4h00)
Actual: 06:05 / 12:20
Aircraft: Boeing 737-7BX VH-VBR Mackay Maiden
Seat: 2D (Premium Economy)
I checked in online on Monday afternoon - despite seventeen previous flights with Virgin Blue, I think this is the first time I've been able to check-in online (I'm usually in Blue Zone exit row seating where online check-in is not allowed). The process was nice and smooth but I wasn't able to change my assigned seat from 1D. Row 1 has more legroom than the other rows, but isn't great for using a laptop.
So on Tuesday morning I was up really early for my flight. I took a cab to the airport and after the very short trip arrived at 05:05. There was a lot of traffic around, but inside the terminal the Virgin Blue queues were short and I wasn't waiting more than a couple of minutes to drop off my bag. I asked to move back to row 2 and this was no problem, so I was assigned 2D.
The queues at security were pretty short with two machines operating. On the other side I was given the random explosives residue test that I seem to get every time I fly. Upstairs the departure area was pretty busy, with two Virgin Blue flights plus several Skywest flights (Broome, Kununurra, Albany, and several mine sites), an Ozjet flight to Derby, and a couple of Alliance flights to more mine sites. Virgin Blue still haven't opened a lounge in Perth so I just sat and watched the activity on the tarmac.
Ozjet Boeing 737-200 going to Derby
Skywest F100 and our Virgin Blue Boeing 737-700
Once we boarded it was apparent that while this was a busy flight (at least 90% load), Premium Economy was very empty with only two of the 12 seats occupied. The seats are in a 2-2 configuration, with a small table between the seats. The table can be folded back (the guy in front of me took advantage of this to lie down after having a couple of early morning vodkas). The fold-back table also allows the seats to be converted into the regular 3-3 configuration where required. The seats were slightly wider than normal - I'm not a big beefcake or anything but I've sat in 2D before and found it uncomfortably narrow.
On the back of the seat is the screen for Live2Air, Virgin Blue's inflight entertainment system which features 24 channels of live Foxtel ($9.90) plus three pay-per-view movie channels ($9.90 per movie). The screens in Premium Economy are the same size as in every other seat.
Premium Economy seats
Apart from the seat, the flight itself was very normal. The only difference in the service was that the flight attendants used my name when trying to sell me things, and they would have taken my things down from the overhead bin if I'd put anything up there. I bought the hot breakfast for $8.50 and while it looks unattractive, it was nice and tasty.
Unattractive but tasty hot breakfast
I spent most of the flight using my laptop - initially to do work and then later to watch movies. The extra space in Premium Economy allows for comfortable laptop usage. We arrived about 20 minutes late into Sydney and after a short wait for bags I was in a cab on the way to my hotel in Kings Cross and a week of work.
Friday July 11, 2008
Virgin Blue DJ431
Sydney (Kingsford Smith) (SYD/YSSY) - Perth (PER/YPPH)
Scheduled: 17:30 / 20:45 (5h15)
Actual: 17:35 / 20:44
Aircraft: Boeing 737-82R VH-VOV Alluring Alice
Seat: 15D (Blue Zone exit row)
Arriving at the airport at about 16:10 it was extremely busy outside Terminal 2, which the taxi driver says has been happening for the past few weeks with many people apparently making the switch to Virgin. I checked in at the premium check-in desk for Velocity Silver and Gold members, and those traveling on Corporate Plus and Premium Economy tickets. I was allocated 15D, which is a pretty good seat. I prefer the aisle for longer flights and row 15 has seats that recline, unlike 14. My colleague who checked in just after me was unlucky and got 15B.
Security was painless and amazingly I wasn't randomly selected for the explosives residue test this time. So it was straight to the imaginatively named "The Lounge" where my details were manually typed into the computer to establish my credentials. This seems a bit silly when the boarding passes have bar codes on them and the Velocity membership card has a magnetic strip. The Lounge was far busier than I have ever seen it before, it is quite small and they seem to have jammed more seats into it than last time I was there. There were even queues for the toilets! They have also removed the cinema to make more room for seating. There are signs up about a new bigger lounge opening soon, but in the short term I expect things to get worse with Virgin desperately trying to lure people over from Qantas with lounge entry for Qantas Platinum and Gold frequent flyers, free lounge memberships, and status matches.
The food selection was mediocre as usual (I miss the pies in the Qantas Club that come out at about 17:00), but the drinks selection is good (beers included Beez Neez and Cascade Green as well as the usual culprits). I had a Crown Lager and some snacks. The flight was called at about 17:15; my colleague and I left The Lounge immediately but were still paged on the way to the gate. This has happened before and I don't understand why Virgin still can't announce their flights on time in the lounge. Turns out there was quite a long queue waiting to board the aircraft so thankfully we weren't holding anyone up.
On board it was a very full flight - the Premium Economy seats up the front had been converted to regular 3-3 seating and I didn't see an empty seat on the whole aircraft. Estimated flight time was announced as 5 hours 16 minutes, which is longer than normal.
After take-off the first service went through and I bought a soft drink, water and a chocolate muffin (they had run out of blueberry). Unfortunately this turned out to be the only service - the second service was aborted part way through. They claimed it was due to turbulence, but I think they had run out of food. I didn't see any substantial food being served to anyone - just snacks. One guy in the row in front of me survived the whole flight on a small pack of cheese and biscuits plus six cans of beer. Luckily I had been over-indulging all week so wasn't particularly hungry.
About two and half hours into the flight the seatbelt sign was turned on due to some mild turbulence and remained on for the next two hours. After a while people started ignoring the seatbelt sign, and the crew seemed quite tolerant of this situation. It certainly didn't seem justified to remain on for this length of time. As we started to descend into Perth the seatbelt light was switched off, only to come on again about three minutes later.
We arrived in Perth right on time - I think due to flying further south than normal across the Great Australian Bight and also staying at a lower altitude. My bags were amongst the first out and then I caught a bus home. I live close to the airport, so taking a taxi seems to result in angry taxi drivers. Apparently they don't like queuing for an hour to get an $8 fare. Hmmm.
Overall, Premium Economy is better than Blue Zone, but not by a lot. Other than getting a guaranteed empty seat next to you, there really aren't any useful benefits. Priority check-in is available for frequent flyers anyway, and I expect most people who travel in Premium Economy would have Lounge access already, either through a membership or Gold Velocity status. The current fare for Premium Economy on this route is $939, compared with Blue Zone which costs $45 plus the normal fare (typically under $300 total). I think Virgin should look at giving more for the money. Priority baggage would be useful, and it would be nice if some of the on-board extras were included in the price. Even if it was just non-alcoholic drinks and the Live2Air inflight entertainment system.