Trip report: what the Qantas spy would have gleaned from Virgin’s A330 business class service

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As hard as I tried, I could not identify the Qantas “spy” on Virgin Australia’s first Airbus A330 flights, although I have my suspicious (I’m looking at you, woman in the gray suit). Failing a firsthand conversation with the spy (or spies–Qantas dispatched managers to economy and business class), here is what I think the spy would have gleaned.

Qantas is in trouble.

I casually spoke to a number of business passengers and they all had the same first comment: Virgin’s soft service is better than Qantas’. Yes, the crew were acclimatising to their new service and occasionally fumbled to find a snack in a cart or to display a bottle with the label facing outward, but that did not bother anyone.

Nor did the passengers comment on Qantas having a wider variety of in-flight entertainment, more comprehensive frequent flyer earning opportunities, and a larger network. No one was in a middle seat, so opinions on the unpopular middle class seat could not be gathered. For the passengers, it came down to the soft service (prices are almost the same) and they said Virgin’s was refreshing and friendly while Qantas often seemed to lack care.

Why the spy would not have gleamed is that no one I spoke to represented a large corporate contract with concerns about having a larger network and more frequent flyer programme opportunities, and thus likely to favour Qantas for now. But with Virgin only wanting to double its corporate market share to 20%, it does not need to win every current Qantas customer.

Qantas has maintained that is has not lost any of its top 50 clients to Virgin Australia, a statement that perplexes Liz Savage, Virgin’s chief commercial officer. “I’ll leave them to comment on how they justify that statement,” she said onboard yesterday’s Perth-Sydney flight.

“We’re very pleased with the progress so far and the results, particularly with the accounts like the AFL…which wasn’t with us beforehand,” she said of increasing Virgin’s corporate market share. “There have been other wins, which is fantastic.”

The most lucrative of the corporate contracts are for business class seats. I was a paying economy class punter on the Sydney-Perth flight and received a complimentary business ticket for the return, so here is my take on Thursday’s DJ560 business class service.

The Perth lounge was sufficient, but the Sydney lounge–which I was invited to try earlier in the day–was excellent, featuring different vibes and furniture depending if you want to work and relax individually or with others. There is ample food, bar, and barista service. The kerbside lounge entry has its own security screening that permits passengers to bypass the main terminal, which makes for the smoothest and most pleasant airport arrival I’ve ever experienced. It was nice to completely bypass the departure area’s hubbub.

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After boarding through priority lanes, the business class crew were attentive, polite, and helpful, including taking coats and garment bags. Standard pre-departure drinks of water, orange juice, and sparkling wine, were offered, followed by personal delivery of a menu (above) and amenity kit (left). All in, a very relaxing process.

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After take off, following a departure less than five minutes late, drink and then meal orders were taken. An assortment of whites, reds, beers, and non-alcoholic drinks were available. I had the Burragum Billy organic lager, which like other drinks was complemented by warm nuts in a herb seasoning (right). That seasoning is the only part I disliked of the service: it was oily, the seasoning easily flecked off on to the seat and my clothes, and left a yellow residue on my fingers. Although easily washed off, it would not have been easy to switch between munching and doing work without spreading the seasoning.

The eastbound trans-con services are designed to have a long three-course meal that takes up most of the 3.5/4 hour flight. Westbound flights have a shorter main meal service and then a snack prior to landing.

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The main meal service had two entree options and then three main options. For my entree I opted for the artichoke salad (right), which was served on a tray (purple–stylish) over a white tablecloth. Service delivery was from a galley cart covered in white linen. The crew put the dressing on right before serving the dish, eliminating soggy food.

Following entree delivery was a breadbasket selection of a wholemeal roll and then a herbed sourdough. The wholemeal roll had a nice bite to it while the herbed sourdough roll tasted bland. Butter, olive oil, salt and paper, and dukkah were already on the tray.

After the entree dish was cleared, the crew brought out on a tray each passenger’s main dish and accompanying mesclun salad, hand-transferring the dishes to my tray. Service flow was smooth and not rushed. Both the entree and my main dish, gnocchi, were light yet filling. The crew kept drinks flowing.

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Desert options–raspberry and passionfruit mouse or cheese, crackers, walnuts, and apricots–were served from a linen-covered trolley. A desert wine and tea/coffee selection followed. Those in the habit of flipping dishes and cutlery over would have noticed Vs engraved on cutlery and imprinted on dishes. (It seems Virgin Australia elected not to use V Australia’s “Look, a flying saucer” motto on its tea cup. Perhaps that is part of growing up.) By this point less than an hour remained in flight, during which the crew still offered to re-fill drinks and I tried out the other parts of the business cabin.

The IFE, which according to Flightglobal’s ACAS database is Panasonic’s 2000-eX Hybrid IFE system inherited from Emirates, the former operator of the aircraft, had a limited offering with only a dozen or so channels of movie, TV shows, and other screen content as well as an audio selection.

For those wanting to watch their own IFE or do work, there are no powerports in business, unlike Qantas’ newer A330s and much-derided old Boeing 767s.

The Contour business class seat was in use with Emirates but has been re-upholstered. Its mechanical movement functioned fine. Although it is not a lie-flat seat, it does offer a generous recline. (Read more here and here about how Virgin’s seat stacks up to the various seats Qantas offers on the route.)

DJ560 garment bag.JPGThe Bvlgari amenity kit (nice, but necessary on a 3 or 4 hour flight?) came in a compact black case featuring a magnetic holder. Inside were Bvlgari-branded lotion and cologne, a toothbrush with Colgate toothpaste, earplugs, and then a large and soft sleep mask with an adjustable velcro closure–no more awkward lines on your hair and face from where elastic bands were. I did not see any passengers on my flight use the pillow and blanket, the latter of which was a soft fleece and perhaps thin, but the cabin was warm enough.

Upon arrival back in Sydney, coats were returned in Virgin Australia garment bags, which Virgin invited us to keep, an offer I took them up on. I trudged through the Qantas terminal with it, deciding if I could not find the Qantas spies, I would let them find me.

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2 Responses to Trip report: what the Qantas spy would have gleaned from Virgin’s A330 business class service

  1. Andrew June 1, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    “For those wanting to watch their own IFE or do work, there are no powerports in business, unlike Qantas’ newer A330s and much-derided old Boeing 767s.”

    Isn’t that a fairly major oversight by VA, or are most business types happy to use their internal battery for the duration of the flight?

  2. Will Horton July 2, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    Perhaps. When Virgin leased the aircraft, which were previously in service with Emirates, Virgin simply re-upholstered the seats. They have been pressed for time and so did not put in a better hard product. Virgin has said it will retrofit the aircraft early next year with a new biz seat, although it has not said anything about powerports.

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