How much difference does a new name make? I've flown the Sydney - Canberra route quite a few times over the last few years, but last time it was in a red aircraft the airline was called Virgin Blue. Now the signs at the airport say Virgin Australia. What's more, an email sent a couple of days before trip tells me that the service is now called "Capital Connect" and we get newspapers and snacks on board. Just like the Qantas services, except that Virgin Australia is Officially In at the moment while Qantas is On The Nose, at least if you listen to the press and many on this board.
In times past I have preferred the professionalism of the Qantas services, but when I went to book my flights via our corporate provider I couldn't really muster up a reasonable justification for the higher Qantas fares on the way down. There was a better timing argument for the return, which will be on a QantasLink Dash-8 Q400. I was hoping to use my complimentary Qantas lounge access anyway, before it expires, just for the hell of it.
A couple of days before my flight I wanted to check my booking online, but the Virgin Australia website wouldn't let me. I phoned their call centre, to be told by "Princess" with a Philippine accent that we couldn't check in online with government bookings, which some of my colleagues disputed. Come the day before my flight and I tried anyway, managed to check in and select a seat, but then not be able to print the boarding pass in Chrome, nor access the booking in Firefox. At least, with a government booking, I apparently had access to their priority check in queue (who is sucking up to steal government contracts off Qantas?).
Woke up early, caught the train, waved goodbye to my tearful son (and poor wife who had to calm him) at Wolli Creek, then changed to another to the Domestic terminal. Strolled up to Terminal 2 and was waved over to a just occupied priority check-in desk, one of two. Boarding pass printed out I quickly passed through security, bought an aeroplane sticker book for little Alex from Kaboom!, a Herald for myself (weekly TV
guide), then strolled over to gate 32.
After families, the infirm, premium and priority passengers the rest of us were asked to board the E170. Virgin Australia are supposed to be getting rid of these, but I'm still scheduled to fly up to ROK in one in October. The ATRs will take over many of the flights between Sydney and Canberra in future. I wonder how popular these will be, considering that anecdotally many passengers prefer DJ
's and QF
's jets to the QantasLink Dash-8 turboprops, though my one experience of an ATR would suggest that their cabin is more comfortable than their Bombardier cousins. Whether the fact that the ATRs are slower will make any difference is uncertain considering that the jet schedules are actually longer than the Dash-8s to Canberra!
E190 in foreground, our E170 background
Legroom was fine
I initially sat in the wrong row (not the first time I've made that mistake), but moved apologetically upon discovering my mistake. A tiny young man with Hillsong hair introduced himself as Daren the cabin manager. Then the captain came over the PA to apologise for the delay in departure due to some technical issues. Technical issues??? But this wasn't a Qantas or Tiger flight!!! Quick, somebody call the media, the unions, anybody!
The cabin is almost full, I only see a couple of spaces in the front row of the eight red premium seats. The interior and exterior of the aircraft are still Virgin Blue, with the same old tired blue leather seats for the rest of us.
The Australian newspaper was distributed to anyone that wanted it. I'd be careful handing out News Corp material to certain people in Canberra if I were you Virgin Australia, or don't you expect Senator Conroy to fly with you?
The new Virgin Australia Luke Mangan menu has very few choices on it.
Karmarama juice sounds nice, but Pepsi haters will be disappointed
So we taxied out towards the main north-south runway and stopped and waited while a procession of flights landed and took off in front of us. It was quite a sight watching aircraft ranging from another DJ
E170 to a SQ
A380 pass in front of us. It was now half an hour from our departure time.
Newly painted Virgin Australia 737-800. Had a nice sight of their A330 taking off in front of a rainbow
Air Niugini 767? in between the V Australia 777 and Atlas Air 744 at the freight terminal
Virgin Australia 737-800 lands in front of a Singapore Airlines A380
Passionate Wings to Culture. Huh?
Eventually our turn arrived and we quickly launched into the air, turning south across Botany Bay, closer to the coastline than normal. Seatbelt lights were soon extinguished despite us still climbing at a steep angle. The announcement was made that we would be served a light refreshment but that "for our passengers travelling elsewhere on the Virgin Australia network please note that the service is only available on Capital Connect flights in and out of Canberra."
Enjoy the E170 shadow while you can
That pot of gold is very valuable right now
How is that sucking up to government going?
We pass through the clouds and are tracking down the coast, before making a south westerly turn in towards Canberra. Much of the landscape was obscured, but it's still pretty outside.
See the sea
Above the clouds
Finally, the service begins from the front, and possibly the back. They get to our row, then stop. Daren presses the call button. I think they've run out of hot water for their tea. A rolled up table mat/rubbish bag with cutlery is haded over, along with a cardboard box with a picture of Coffs Harbour's Big Banana on the front hides a big hunk of banana bread. Ah, bananas. That makes it premium food then? Is the Big Banana Australia's most expensive piece of real estate right now at $14 per kilogram? (though it's been getting cheaper lately) Bit blurry sorry
Why use Danish butter?
It was quite nice and well appreciated seeing as I missed out on breakfast.
I ask for juice, over the hot alternatives or water. A small bottle is given to me, along with a plastic cup containing ice. I begin eating, but the service is still stuck. Then the captain announces that we have begun our descent. No choice now but for them to toss the banana bread to the other passengers. They are still going when the captains switches on the seatbelt light and tells everyone to return to their seats.
Turning and descending
Nice idea feeding us, but poor execution. The actual flight time is around 25 minutes - there is no time for dawdling. How much time was wasted putting ice into cups? On Qantas they just give you the bottle on these flights.
Unbelievably, it looked like one of the premium passengers had been handed a video player to watch during the flight. What's the point?
We approached Canberra International Airport (though there are no scheduled international flights there) from the south, through brilliantly bright clouds and over a landscape only just emerging from the bleakness of winter. It was a surprisingly smooth descent (only a few bumps) for Canberra. As we taxied towards the terminal I could see a new Costco warehouse next to the existing Brand Depot. Pay $60 membership each year for a palette of cheap toilet paper? Umm, no thanks.
Turning off the runway
We were about five minutes late despite the long wait in Sydney. It just shows how much padding is required for Sydney Airport.
The new terminal still has the Canberra Airport facade in front. I noticed another DJ
E170 parked on the tarmac with stair access, but we were headed for the aerobridge. The Virgin Australia area was a little inconvenient to exit from, but the new Canberra airport is still quite attractive. Unbelievably there was no queue for the taxis. First time ever in Canberra for me.
So what do I think of the new Virgin Australia and its Capital Connect service? A bit try hard for me right now. Somehow the DJ
crew lacked the professionalism that is the hallmark of Qantas services that I've flown on in recent times. But I'm happy that Qantas now has a competitor to keep them honest. Give Virgin Australia a bit more time and they should improve. It will be interesting to see what effect flying the ATRs on the route has, but I would miss the jets, especially when those summer storms blow in.
I'll try to do a quick post the return leg here in a few days, as a matter of comparison.
[Edited 2011-08-22 06:54:57]