Recently Virgin Australia finally started flying the Sydney - Hong Kong route some 18 months after first announcing it. That creates a “Virgin branded” London to Sydney option for travellers on the route, via Virgin Atlantic’s long standing Heathrow to Hong Kong service. So how do the two Virgins compare?Team UK
I arrived at Heathrow’s venerable Terminal 3 check in just before 1900, which is a fairly quiet time with most Virgin and partner/owner Delta’s US flights already gone. Virgin’s dedicated check in area is one of the airport’s nicest, with a glass wall and high ceiling.
With my “Classic” fare seat selection is included, so I’d bagged 60K a week earlier. I usually order an Asian Vegetarian meal, but Virgin’s website was malfunctioning so I had to call their reservations team. Fortunately the check in process allowed me to confirm I had a vegan meal, not what I wanted but good enough.
Security was very busy with the late night bank of flights to India and South East Asia. However the security staff were working hard and the whole process took about five minutes. I headed for the Aspire Lounge. Terminal 3 has two pay lounge options. The No1 Lounge is a larger and arguably better designed, but I was feeling cheap so pocketed the £15 price difference.
Aspire gets some mixed reviews. It was my first visit and I have to say the staff were delightful. If size matters, then yes this is a fairly small lounge and it could get crowded. A number of tables were reserved by name for Philippine Airlines customers and their rather pushy representative, but there were spare seats dotted about. Food wise there is a hot buffet and free drinks (except for champagne), a small chill out area and a very quiet corner facing the apron. I opted for a small selection of olives, cheese, crackers and a Moretti. Then feeling a little peckish I went back for a slice of Quiche and some pasta in a creme sauce with bacon. It was perfectly tasty.
Wifi speed was fine, I managed to download some Amazon content to my I-phone without any problems.
Boarding started over an hour before departure, which with an 89% load factor helped smooth things out. I walked straight up to the gate and on board. Two Hong Kong Chinese Virgin flight attendants greeted passengers at the door, alternating language as required. The Dreamliner’s mood lighting created a dusk like atmosphere and the huge overhead bin easily took my wheelie bag. All up it what a relaxing way to board a packed out flight.
A bright red blanket, slightly thicker than standard airline issue, a pillow and headphones were set out on every seat. Slightly cringeworthy eighties and nineties classics played in the background punctuated by occasional announcements in English and Cantonese.
Departure was on time as enthusiastically announced by the cabin manager, who told us 239 passengers, ten cabin crew and two cockpit crew were onboard.
In the confines of an aircraft, I did enjoy their safety video https://youtu.be/8XNxZh9_YN0
Takeoff used just about every inch of the runway and initial climb was very shallow. Well, they’ve got to look after those rare working Rolls Royce engines after all…..
Service was quick and efficient, welcomed on a 2155 departure. Drinks were served within 20 minutes of take off, followed by the meal service in another 20 minutes, with trays cleared 20 minutes after that.
Surprisingly tasty food came on a tiny tray. My side salad was reasonably fresh, crackers and cream cheese and flavoursome main, followed by a tasty chocolate desert. You’ll notice a bottle of water, which was the only drink served. Compared to most airlines the number of drinks is sub par.
Here the Brits loose a few points. The passenger in front fully reclined their seat at takeoff and the crew didn’t ask him to put it up for the service. Result, red wine (revolting by the way) all over my lap. The wine was so bad it was no loss. Still no crew asked them to put their seat up for the service. When my meal came I complained and the crew did act. Then when the main meal service came, my seat mate who could not speak English had the same problem, physically it was impossible for her to eat. Again, no crew action. The crew member who served her handed the tray high then dashed off, I suspect well aware of the problem. No attempt to get her attention worked. Another crew member passed, didn’t see, it was only when I shouted out they couldn’t ignore her anymore. All pretty poor. Whilst the crew were affable and speedy - they really didn’t care.
Careful attention has gone into the cabin design. To my surprise the dark backed seats and soft mood lighting created a relaxing environment, literally easy on the eye. Knee room was ample and the narrow seat width wasn’t bad.
Vera, Virgin Atlantic’s inflight entertainment system offers around 100 TV series, 100 Movies plus various games. It was responsive and each show had a jaunty little prelude. I watched some Big Bang Theory and fell asleep listening to an Oprah interview and woke up seven hours later. Certainly the very comfortable Recaro seat, which cradles you when reclined, helped my restful night. Definitely bonus points here.
A hot breakfast was served an hour out of Hong Kong, ambitious timing that worked well and most passengers were still asleep. I didn’t get a photo and can’t recall the main. However there was a Greek Yogurt with honey which I mixed on a fruit bowl, that was nice.
We circled due to storms before docking at Hong Kong’s central pier. Team Australia
Transit security in Hong Kong was a breeze, I walked straight up. As there was only one other person behind me, it doesn’t look like too many people are using the Virgin hook up just yet. The terminal was busy, so much so finding anywhere to sit was a chore.
Virgin Australia use Satellite 2, so I made my way over by the very efficient transit railway. Satellite Two doesn’t have much by way of facilities, half a dozen shops and two food joints. It does however have a small outside viewing deck, where I enjoyed the hot and humid air.
HNA are one of Virgin Australia’s major shareholders. Their Hong Kong Airlines subsidiary is barred from flying to Australia because Cathay Pacific use all of the agreed capacity. Qantas on the other hand only really has a token presence, so Australia has un-used capacity under the air services treaty. Couple to that Virgin having too many A330s for domestic demand and a deal was done. Virgin’s Melbourne and Sydney flights are essentially flag of convenience services for Hong Kong Airlines.
Great news for in bound tourism as the passengers, who were mostly Hong Kong Chinese heading to Sydney. On a fairly full flight, no more than two dozen passenger’s appeared not to be of Chinese origin. In fact I only saw two other groups with an Australian passport as they were checked in the boarding queue.
I’d not been able to select a seat online. When I called Virgin Atlantic they gave me a Virgin Australia reference code for their website, but the website wouldn’t let me select a seat either. So I called Virgin Australia’s UK number and they allocated me 12K, a [second or third] row window seat. Perfect!
An attempt to board by rows was made, but it didn’t go well. Hong Kong Airlines staff were carrying out the ground handling and passports were checked in the queue. Virgin Atlantic hadn’t forwarded my details, so off to the desk I went. This meant I got to jump the queue as they sent me to the front of business class boarding. Secondary hand search checks were being carried out on the jetbridge which caused a long queue, again coming from the business class queue I walked on past to a separate each area.
Two flight attendants were greeting passengers, one from Virgin Australia and one from Hong Kong Airlines. My boarding pass erroneously stated I was travelling Premium, which caused confusion.
Maybe it was the comparison to Virgin Atlantic’s 787, but VA’s A330 created a spartan first impression. The A330 overhead bins are tiny! No easy on the eye lighting here, plain white (not even cream or patterned) plastic everywhere, clumsy metal screws projecting from the bulkheads and grey seats. Very dull, very Lufthansa A320.
Places Virgin Australia don’t fly showed on the monitors (oh yes, that virtual network), alongside naughties music, a decade or two more current than Virgin Atlantic at least.
A welcome amenity pack awaited containing eye masks, ear plugs and a pen for landing cards. It was unfortunate they’d forgotten to load these, but it was a nice thought. A 390ml bottle of water awaited too.
Then…… the seat belts sign went off. Bad news. The cockpit announced in stroppy tones and I quote exactly, “we have no idea when we’ll take off and will update you if we find out”. Well fu too. Someone get captain toddler a dummy, he’s getting soukie.
A high value customer was onboard with his family and boy did the crew fawn. None less than three separate times crew members came past to welcome him aboard and take dinner orders on the ground. Once in the air they weren’t delivered, but again, it was a nice thought.
The inflight entertainment was on, so I watched a movie, “Love Simon”.
The Supercars themed safety video was a miss with the Hong Kongers, I think it's a reference you need to know for it to make any sense https://youtu.be/hG0x0BLA3uM
About 1h 30min later the seat belts sign was switched back on and without comment the plane started going backwards with engines spooling up. No comment was made.
A sporty takeoff into the stormy night sky followed, with lots of twists and turns as we overflew the harbour.
Service dived straight into the meal, skipping the traditional pre dinner drink. As a sleeper on planes, this approach was quite appealing. However I know many people like to kick back with a drink. My vegetarian pasta, with green beans, mushrooms and “yellow substance” appeared. It tasted blander than it looks. However I must say the fruit was surprisingly fresh and tasty.
I didn’t deal with a single Virgin Australia flight attendant. My meal was delivered by the Hong Kong Airlines “cultural representative”. Always calling me by name, she made a direct line for me when the main service started to make sure I got a drink ahead of everyone else. This time the red wine was wonderful.
I dozed a little on this flight, but couldn’t really get comfortable. Water service was offered occasionally throughout the flight.
About two hours before landing, “Good morning Mr x, I hope you managed to get some rest” and so appeared my breakfast.
I think it was some kind of scrambled egg or omelette thing, but I can’t be sure. It was fine. “Mr x, coffee or tea”.
The outback at sunrise is always stunning to fly over.
We flew into Sydney over the Southern Highlands, landing on the main runway before taxing to Gate 51, right next to the customs hall.
“Good bye Mr X, thank you for flying with us” smiled the Hong Kong Airlines representative.
It took about 10 minutes to pass through before heading for the train.Return
Sydney’s international terminal was bustling as my taxi struggled to find a place to drop me off. By chance it did so right by the Virgin Australia check in desks at 0745. I walked straight up to a check in agent, this is Australia after all, so nothing so advanced as automatic check in machines for international travellers….. We enjoyed a joke about Virgin Atlantic requiring they ask for a named contact in case of emergency, but the supervisor seemed annoyed I’d slipped past her. Her demeanour was superior and frankly annoying.
My exit was quite speedy, Security was working hard despite the crowds and e-passport gates helped. Departures was like the monkey enclosure at a zoo, utter chaos. Queues at each food outlet were at least 6 or 7 deep and there wasn’t a seat in sight.
Buying lounge access at Sydney International was not straight forward. The Plaza Premium Lounge is now the Skyteam lounge. Passengers can buy entry but this is not encouraged. Finding it quite by chance, my simple question, “morning, is this the Plaza Premium Lounge”, invoked a two minute lecture from the second superior and frankly annoying member of service staff of the day. After I eventually thanked them, gathered my case and said I’d leave it, they did stop talking and let me in.
Inside it is nicely appointed, was quiet, with a descent buffet breakfast and probably one of the best morning views in the airport
Busing to the gate was chaotic, various corridors were shut off and no signposting put in. In fairness I did manage to cut through the rather bizarre attempts to board by row. This was not viable as no place to wait inside the terminal existed.
I do enjoy boarding a wide body via air stairs. Boarding was a breeze, as only one bus was needed for our 34% load factor.
An amenity pack (grey this time) containing a pen, eye shades and ear plugs, plus a bottle of water, headphones and a blanket awaited at each seat. I say each seat, unfortunately the seat next to mine was broken and everything had fallen onto the floor.
The aircraft had a few cosmetic maintenance issues, for example missing reading lights.
The IFE was already on. VA’s range of programme is limited, but does include quite a few episodes of each, ideal for binge watching.
Menu cards were handed out before take off.
Departure was held due to a shorter than normal flight time. Upon push back our taxi took a detour via the cross runway to clear the way for a Thai 747 returning with a medical emergency.
Our take off was to west, before heading north towards Townsville. As the captain had announced we would fly over Darwin I thought this odd, but it did give some lovely views of the Great Barrier Reef.
Lunch was served about 45 minutes after take off, followed by drinks.
The meal was tasty and I save my cake for later. I chose to take some of the halluomi and liven up the roll.
Perhaps disappointingly this was the last service we saw until the evening meal was served before landing, I felt in view of the light load it wouldn't have hurt the crew to do a few rounds.
The evening meal was served around 1h 45 minutes before landing. It tasted fine.
We circled for about half an hour before landing, passing through some fairly rough turbulence that had passengers shouting out. Transit in Hong Kong
With six hours to spare I decided to hit the town. So I passed through immigration and caught the MTR to Hong Kong Island.
With typhoon warnings, the weather was super hot and super humid. None the less I had a little ride on the legendary Star Ferry over to Kowloon and back.
Reaching the airport for about 2130, I headed for the Plaza Premium Lounge. In a stroke of luck it was full, so they sent me to the Plaza First Lounge for the same price.
Plaza Premium First is genuinely opulent. Feeling hungry I passed on the shower and massage heading, via my welcome drink at gift (a flask - please take whatever drinks you want with you), to the restaurant.
Having heard the buzz about Ultimate Burgers, I was tempted but passed as I really fancied beef bulgogi and champagne.
After a few glasses of champagne, regularly topped up, I then headed to the bar was a glass of red wine, some pastrami and cheese before heading to rest.Team UK
There’s not too much to say about this flight because I slept solidly for most of it, so can’t report very much.
The crew were mostly older, adding a welcome touch of experience. They were affable but not overbearing.
I snapped my breakfast, served about 1h 30 minutes out from London. It was very tasty. Mixing the fruit salad and yogurt was quite tasty.
With breakfast cleared hot towels and landing sweets were handed out, before an 0440 landing into Heathrow.Verdict:
Virgin Australia’s product is weaker than Virgin Atlantic, even a little rough around the edges in terms of comfort and design, but has plus points. The cabin crew seemed perkier and more enthusiastic.
Comfort, food and entertainment wise Virgin Atlantic has still got it. The VS Dreamliner cabin has a comfortable seat, nice design, descent food and ample entertainment - making a nice way to travel. Whilst friendly enough, the British crew effort seemed to have low morale. On both carriers the lack of regular drink runs or between meals is disappointing, with airlines such as British Airways and Delta making more effort. The Hong Kong Airlines representative shone though as a cut above.
Only one other person seemed to be using the VS/VA link, which is a shame. It's a nice way to travel. The 6 hour connection northbound is a long time, but it doesn't take much imagination to pop into town for a short time, so for me that was a bonus.