Hi Everyone. Welcome to my second trip report on Airliners.net.
My first one can be found here:
MH's New J: Where's The Malaysian Hospitality?
I apologize for the slightly worse photos. All the photos and videos for this TR were taken on my iPhone. My SLR had been thrown in the suitcase for this flight.
The video accompanying this TR can be found right here, and I encourage you all to watch it as well as reading this because it probably gives a better idea of what the lounge is really like.
It’s an exciting time for commercial aviation in Australia. Our flag carrier is pretty much in the sh*t, with recent union strikes (the ones that QF CEO Alan Joyce grounded the fleet over) only just coming to an end, the future is bleak for the flying Kangaroo. By it’s own admission, it is hemorrhaging money internationally and the only profitable arm of its operations are the loyal business flyers, and… Jetstar, it’s LCC subsidiary. Furthermore Qantas have an ageing fleet on their hands, with the ancient 747’s only just starting to be phased out, and not to mention domestic 767’s which Qantas have just elected to keep flying for another 10 years. Qantas is dropping routes like a bad rash, and magically Jetstar is picking up it’s big brothers left overs. Some analysts have called it the ‘jetstarification’ of our national carrier. I call it years of poor fleet management and unrealistic pricing.
Amidst all of this has come the relaunch of Virgin Australia (formally Virgin Blue), as a new full service carrier going directly after Qantas’s last profitable domestic market: the business crowd. Virgin Australia are the first full service carrier to genuinely stand a fighting chance against the Qantas behemoth since the collapse (read: murder) of Ansett. Virgin has a snazzy new livery, uniforms, aircraft, seats and lounges. Best of all, they seem to be undercutting Qantas on nearly every fareclass, and are offering a much fresher product. Being early days at Virgin Australia, everyone is still on their best behaviors and standards haven’t started to slip. Cabin crew are youthful and polished, and the lounges are clean, quiet and modern.
Photo © Allen Zhao
Photo © Mehdi Nazarinia - Mehdi Photos
So where does my flight come in? Well, I had to come back to Australia after spending the summer in Hong Kong and Shenzhen on a Chinese law program. My flight back was with Cathay in economy, on those foul and revolting shell seats that no one likes, and are impossible to sleep on. I wanted to be back in Hobart with my family, and Qantas only runs 2 flights to HBA these days, a early morning red-eye, and the last flight of the day. Not convenient with my Cathay arrival. Knowing that I was going to be exhausted, hungry and unrested after the Cathay flight, a shower and breakfast in a lounge would be exactly what was needed. I had a lot of Velocity miles left over from the Virgin Blue days, so I purchased a full fare economy ticket and used points to upgrade.
The upgrade procedure was… frustrating. With QF, all you need to do is go into the Frequent Flyer control panel of the site, and select which flight you’ve booked to upgrade. With Virgin, you have to call up the Velocity call center, which is only open during the week days, and at rather inconvenient hours. Either way, it happened, and I had been ticketed.
Virgin Australia at MEL are still operating all its domestic check in from the pokey area at T3 that was delegated to it when it was a small LCC. It’s a far cry from Qantas & Jetstars big open check-in halls at T1. As such, there were people everywhere, and lines for economy snaked everywhere. Thankfully though, the priority lane was clear. The attendant was friendly, and warm, and I was checked in quickly.
Unlike the Qantas club, Virgin’s lounge at MEL (simply titled ‘The Lounge’) is landside, before security.
The entrance to the lounge is impressive, and a large print of the virgin ‘lady’ adorns frosted glass behind the entrance desk. As soon as I entered, I was approached by a friendly member of staff (who didn’t even check my BP), and asked whether or not I’d been in the lounge before. I admitted to her it was my first time, and I was usually a QF flyer, which seemed to make the chipper woman even more excited. She led me over to her boss, who kindly introduced herself and offered to give me a tour around the lounge. Of course, I obliged, and the friendly woman took me around the lounge, found a seat for me and made sure I had everything I needed. We had a decent conversation about Virgin’s relaunch, and possible membership into Star Alliance. It was most definitely the best reception I had ever had coming into a lounge before.
My first priority was to have a shower. There is only one shower in the Virgin lounge (I think there may be 4 in QF’s MEL lounge), but it was no problem as no one else was using it. The room was nice with plenty of space and great amenities.
Another good point about the Virgin Lounge is they have an all day Barista service, unlike Qantas who only runs it at peak times. That means you can get a proper coffee at the Virgin Lounge all day, instead of having to revert to the ghetto ‘cappuccino maker’ in the QF lounge.
The breakfast selection is okay, mostly muesli, fruit and toasts, as well as a Popcake machine that churns out mysterious pancakes at the press of the button! A couple of fruitjuices are offered, as well as the generously stocked alcohol fridges behind the bars (believe it or not, some Australians WILL drink beer and wine in the morning… not me).
The lounge even offers some pretty good views
The old livery hasn't quite been eradicated yet.
Boarding was called on time, passengers with Children and disabilities called first, and then boarding was called by row. No separate call for business class however.
Two male FA’s welcomed pax on board. I had already preselected 2A, because the second row has slightly more leg room than the first.
Cabin & Seat
The aircraft is one of Virgin’s older 737-800’s, still in the old livery, which have been retrofitted with the new seats. The cabin looked worn, but the seats looked nice and new.
The J cabin is separated with a funky see-thru purple divider, and then the J cabin is roped off with a little cord instead of a curtain. It means that people in economy can see into business, and vice versa. Not sure if I was a fan, I think curtains make the whole experience seem a little more private and special.
The cabin only contains 8 business class seats, compared with Qantas’s 12 seats on their 738’s, but that doesn’t mean that they’re being filled necessarily, the load in J was 50% whilst being full in economy.
The seat was wide and legroom was great. It’s nicely padded, and with 38” of seat pitch it reclines more than Qantas 35” pitch Millennium seat. What the Virgin seat doesn’t have that QF’s seat does it an extendable leg rest. QF’s seat also has a reading light, and the seat backs have 2 pockets instead of Virgin’s one. To be honest, I much prefer the old style Qantas recliner. Virgin’s seat is comfortable enough on short haul journeys, under 3 hours, but Qantas’s millennium seat is easy to sleep on, and can be comfortable for long haul journeys as well. After all, Jetstars “business” class uses the QF millennium seats on flights to Japan & Singapore.
The purser came over and informed me that the breakfast was a ham & cheese croissant. Not really being a fan, I asked if there was a vegetarian option. Sure enough, he found a vegetarian meal, which was a Mediterranean wrap. It was yummy, and a perfect size for a one hour flight. Was served on a funky tray with cute salt and pepper shakers, as well as real metal cutlery (2 forks and 2 knives? A bit excessive for my wrap).
Service was no better or no worse than I’ve ever experienced with Qantas on the same route. The FA’s seemed happy to be there, and were good with coming around for drink refills.
Virgin’s full on assault against Qantas’ last profitable market is well and truly underway with little signs of relenting. Promotions like their status match, and free lounge entry to QF Premium Pax strikes at the heart of all that Qantas takes for granted. So is it enough to turn a Qantas devotee? Well, perhaps. Their new lounges in MEL are fantastic, much better than the crowded and tired Qantas club. Moreover their prices and schedule are more convenient (for me anyway).
The one benefit that Qantas has left though is a biggie. Behind Qantas stands the expansive One World empire, and access to a massive worldwide network. Behind Virgin stands a few strangely regulated interline agreements with Airlines such as Etihad, Delta and Air NZ. Many have heralded VA’s recent agreement with Singapore Airline as a massive step forward in becoming a more serious competitor on the Australian market, but even that agreement is fractured. For example, you can earn velocity points on a SQ operated flight, but not Silverkris miles on a VA flight. Strange.
There’s no doubt that Australia needs a local Star Alliance carrier since Ansett failed, but the hurdles that VA would have to conquer seem insurmountable. What would entry into Star Alliance mean for all the other virgins (Atlantic, America) and VA’s agreements with Etihad and Delta? Until all these questions are answered (no doubt some committee somewhere are discussing it), then VA’s future is unclear. There’s no doubt that it’s assault against Qantas is working, it is, but I’m not sold yet. The new product is impressive, no doubt, but access to the One World network is keeping me flying Qantas… for now.