Executive Traveller exclusive
- Plush business class seats finally get leg and foot rests, AC/USB sockets
- Slimline economy seats combine comfort with more legroom
- Every seat includes inbuilt holder for tablets and smartphones
Step on board a Virgin Australia flight these days and you could be helping to shape the airline’s next generation of business class and economy seats.
Two of Virgin’s almost 80-strong fleet of workhorse Boeing 737 jets have been outfitted with new seats which are decidedly different – and markedly better – than what the airline has flown for the past 10 years.
Virgin describes these as “prototypes” which showcase a range of features that could make their way onto future aircraft “as our fleet grows.”
This will include the Boeing 737 MAX, which Virgin Australia expects to begin flying by the middle of 2023 on domestic and short-range overseas flights.
(That doesn’t mean these exact seats will appear on the 25 factory-fresh 737 MAX jets, although that can’t be discounted – it’s more that passenger feedback from real-world experience with these seats will shape Virgin’s decision, which needs to be made soon due to the lead time in design, production and safety certification.)
What’s the story behind Virgin Australia’s new Boeing 737 seats?
The two Boeing 737s fitted with these concept seats were formerly flown by SilkAir, the regional arm of Singapore Airlines (one give-away is SilkAir’s floral detailing which remains embossed on the bulkhead in front of business class).
Rather than install the same seats as the rest of the Virgin Australia fleet, the airline opted for a fresh take – ironically, one that employs the same business and economy seats as SilkAir’s own Boeing 737 MAX jets (you can read our review of the SilkAir Boeing 737 MAX business class experience).
These gussied-up Boeing 737s are circulating around the Virgin Australia network, so they can appear on virtually any route at any time.
“We can’t wait for guests to experience the new interior for themselves if they’re lucky enough to fly on either of the two aircraft that have initially been fitted with the new design” says Paul Jones, Virgin Australia’s Group Chief Customer and Digital Officer.
You’ll immediately know if you end up on one of these ‘surprise and delight’ jets: the most obvious giveaway, at least for now, is the lack of that familiar dividing wall and purple perspex panel between business class and economy class (Executive Traveller understands this will be added in the coming months).
To put Virgin’s prototype seats to the test, Executive Traveller jumped onto a Virgin Australia flight from Sydney to Hamilton Island and back (yes, there and back on the same day – no beach-combing holiday on the sly for your hard-working correspondents), with one leg in business class and the other in economy.
Review: Virgin Australia’s new concept Boeing 737 business class
Virgin Australia’s new concept Boeing 737 business class seat is an overdue equaliser against that of Qantas’ Boeing 737 business class, and in some areas it even pulls ahead.
For starters, an extendable legrest and footrest swings up from the front of the seat (which is the MiQ model from Collins Aerospace). That’s been missing from Virgin Australia business class for way too long.
Combine this with a deeper recline – an extra seven inches over Virgin’s standard business class seat – and you’re pretty much set for a power nap after that too-early start or at the end of a long day.
(For an added cradling effect, the front of the seat angles up slightly as you recline – although if you’re of average height you may find the footrest sits better against your feet when the seat’s not reclined.)
Even if the passenger in front of you fully reclines their seat, it doesn’t overly encroach on ‘your’ space and there’s still enough room to keep working away on your laptop – although if your legrest is full extended, the top of your feet can catch on the base of the seat ahead.
The armrest at the aisle seats (1C, 1D, 2C and 2D) can be lowered for easier access by less mobile guests.
The seat has more of a ‘design' feel than its predecessor, and the padding and support of the ribbed upholstery hits the ‘just right’ spot between firm and soft, making it noticeably more comfortable than what you’ll be accustomed to – but this could also be because the seats are new, rather than having survived 10+ years of heavy-duty wear.
Another welcome win for Virgin’s premium passengers: AC and USB power sockets. Finally.
While a handful of Virgin’s Boeing 737s sport AC outlets tucked away at the front of their business class seats, these new seats make this less of an afterthought – and they pair that 240V port with a high-power USB-A socket so you can keep all your travel tech charged up.
As a bonus, the AC/USB outlets are where you need them – literally at your elbow – so there’s no fumbling around the front of the seat, AC plug in hand, trying to blindly slide those prongs into the socket.
You’ll find both power ports in a recess under the armrest – just flip up the lid, slot in your cables and start juicing up your gadgets.
That nook is plenty deep enough to stow knick-knacks ranging from reading glasses or sunglasses to an inflight amenity kit, notepads, books and tablets.
While Virgin Australia’s new business class seats still lack the personal video screen of their Qantas counterparts, many tech-toting travellers will prefer Virgin’s innovative approach of integrating a tablet or smartphone stand into the tray table.
In its half-open position, a metal flap swings firmly up – with a deliberately stiff movement – to keep your device confidently propped up at desired angle.
And there’s room in front for some snacks to nibble on while you watch your BYO entertainment.
Just make your selection from Virgin’s refreshed basket of business class snacks, which now features some healthy bites from Velocity partner Youfoodz.
Fully extended, the tray is quite stable and will provide ample real estate for even the largest laptop...
… and of course for your meal, such as this chicken katsu curry and rice (although the vegetarian option of a ‘Burrito unwrapped' power bowl with brown rice, sweet potato, corn and beans looked delicious too.)
The Executive Traveller take: it’s hard to find serious fault with Virgin Australia’s concept business class seat, and we hope the airline carries the best features across to whatever new seat it actually settles upon.
Review: Virgin Australia’s new concept Boeing 737 economy class
Let’s be honest: there’s only so much you can do with an economy seat. Cabin space is limited, airline budgets are limited, and as a result legroom is limited.
But with Virgin’s Boeing 737 economy ‘demonstrator’ just a few small changes sum to a better experience, beginning with a little more legroom.
This is due to the seat itself being slimmer, although that doesn’t come at the expense of comfort: the same ribbed design as in business class appears here, and the seat is no harder on your back than Virgin’s regular Boeing 737 economy pew.
It’s simply that considered design aligned with modern manufacturing and materials can trim the seat’s profile and free up extra space where it’s needed: at the knees and shins.
And until the divider between business and economy is installed, row 3 has insane legroom – more even than business class.
(Also slimmer: the armrest between the seats, which adds a smidge more room at your hips but makes it almost useless for resting your arm if you’ve a seat mate.)
The safety card and ‘buy on board’ menu have been relocated to a dedicated nook at the top of the setback, above the tray table, decluttering the mesh pocket at the bottom of the seat so that it’s yours to use as you see fit.
At the front of the safety card nook and above the latch for the tray table sits a clever plastic lip which folds out and acts as a perch for your tablet or smartphone, again playing to Virgin’s ‘BYO entertainment’ model.
What’s missing? The means to keep the battery on that tablet or phone topped up, especially on a long flight such as the 4-5 hour trek between the east and west coasts.
There are no shared AC outlets between the seats or even per-seat USB sockets.
However, look carefully: just to the right of that device holder is a black plastic bump, which is covered by a small adhesive square – and concealed under that lurks a USB power socket.
It’s not wired up or working – that’s why the socket is covered – but USB power outlets are a must-have for any modern economy seat, and there’s no way this won’t be on whatever seat Virgin Australia chooses the next time around.
With the tray table down and a bit of elbow room due to having the window on one side and an empty seat on the other, it was even possible to tap away on my 13-inch laptop – not a task you’d typically tackle in economy.
The Executive Traveller take: with more comfort, legroom and convenience features than Virgin Australia’s regular economy seat, this new model is a sensible step forward for the airline – now, about those USB sockets...
The author travelled as a guest of Virgin Australia.