Virgin Australia will begin upgrading its Boeing 737 fleet with new-look seats in business and economy class next week, with the first of the refreshed jets taking to the skies in December.
It’ll be followed by the rest of the Virgin 737 fleet in a steady stream through to late 2025, with work on the $110 million interior refresh being carried out in Melbourne.
Here’s a quick look at what passengers can expect:
- Wider business class seats with leg rests, foot rests and AC/USB sockets
- More comfortable ribbed economy seats with USB power
- Every seat will sport an inbuilt holder for tablets and smartphones
- Inflight WiFi across all 737 jets
These are the same seats as featured on Virgin’s newest Boeing 737 MAX jets, and there’s news on that front too.
Vigin Australia’s third 737 MAX is slated to arrive into the airline’s Brisbane hangars today, Friday November 24, with Virgin also signing on the dotted line for an additional six 737 MAX 8 jets on top of the current order of eight.
And Virgin is keen to get its next-gen jets flying: with three already being handed over, the remaining 11 will all be delivered by the end of 2024.
Those will be followed by 25 of the larger Boeing 737 MAX 10 jets, which will carry more passengers for around the same amount of fuel – albeit over a slightly shorter range - in the same two-class business/economy configuration beginning late 2025.
“Travel demand remains high and we continue to grow and renew our fleet, enabling us to deliver great value and choice in the market,” says Alistair Hartley, Virgin Australia's Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer.
One way the MAX jets will help cater to that demand will be their massive overhead luggage bins.
These adopt a more cavernous design allowing “capacity to stow up to 50% more carry-on baggage” – sufficient to accommodate one standard-sized carry-on bag for every passenger because those bags can now slide in on their side, rather than going in flat.
Even so, the airline says its carry-on luggage limits will not be increasing, and will remain pegged at the current 7kg of economy and up to two smaller items of 7kg each in business class.
The MAX series “will do a great job for us transcontinental (and) it’ll do a great job for us in more traditional short-haul international routes,” Virgin Australia Group CEO Jayne Hrdlicka has previously remarked.
In addition to key domestic routes, Virgin says the 737 MAX 8s will head for short-range overseas destinations including Bali, Fiji and Samoa.
Virgin Australia’s new business, economy seats
What can travellers expect from Virgin Australia’s new business class and economy class seats?
If you’ve flown on one of the two Virgin 737s which used to belong to Singapore Airlines’ regional arm SilkAir, these new seats won’t be new at all.
That’s because those two jets were used as a test-bed to assess these exact same seats from late 2021, meaning Virgin’s frequent flyers are likely to already have encountered them on the domestic network.
(One give-away that you are on an ex-SilkAir 737 is the former airline’s floral detailing which remains embossed on the bulkhead in front of business class).
However, those two Virgin 737 test-bed aircraft lacked any divider between the business and economy cabins – something which premium passengers were quick to notice and complain about, although economy passengers in the first row (row 3) loved the extra legroom.
This time around, Virgin says there will be “a new design cabin divider between business class and economy.”
“The new divider will allow for greater floor space in the economy cabin and the subsequent installation of between six and 12 additional economy seats,” the airline adds, which indicates a net gain of at least one economy row by slightly re-adjusting the mounting point of each row when the new seats are installed.
While the airline has yet to reveal what this ‘new design cabin divider’ will look like, we wouldn’t be surprised if this is the Boeing Sky Divider or similar, such as as this version fitted to the new Malaysia Airlines Boeing 737 MAX, which Executive Traveller toured this week.
The divider is a thin panel which hangs from the ceiling to delineate the business and economy cabins but doesn’t extend all the way to the floor.
The resultant swathe of space between the first row of economy and the rear of the business class cabin unlocks the most legroom of any seat on the plane.
Compare this to the current divider-free space between economy and business on the Virgin 737 MAX, as shown below.
Virgin Australia’s new business class seats
Virgin Australia’s new Boeing 737 MAX business class seat, which will eventually be rolled across all Virgin Boeing 737s, 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 five-inch recline – an extra two inches over Virgin’s standard economy 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.
Fully extended, the tray is quite stable and will provide ample real estate for even the largest laptop.
The Executive Traveller take: Virgin’s new business class seat is a sensible evolution of the current domestic and short-range international product.
Virgin Australia’s new economy class seats
Let’s be honest: there’s only so much you can do with an economy seat.
Cabin space is limited and airline budgets are limited, so as a result, legroom is limited.
But with Virgin’s Boeing 737 MAX economy seat 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.
(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’re sharing with 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.
On the Boeing 737 MAX and all future economy upgrades to the 737s, Virgin has provided a convenient USB-A socket to keep the battery on your tablet or phone topped up.
Another change coming to Virgin’s 737 economy cabin: a refinement of the current cabin configuration will also see one Economy X row replaced by a row of standard economy seating on all Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
The Executive Traveller take: with more comfort, legroom and convenience features than Virgin Australia’s regular economy seat, this new model is – like its business class counterpart – a sensible step forward for the airline.
Virgin Australia 737 MAX seat pitch, recline
Given the MAX’s intended international focus, comfort levels for those longer flights will be an important consideration for many travellers.
The good news is adjustments have been made to seat pitch and recline, though perhaps not as significantly as many may have hoped.
Economy X is the biggest overall winner, with those seats now sporting the same 5-inch recline as business class – up from the standard 3-inches seen across the wider economy cabin.
Seat pitch and recline on the Virgin Australia 737 MAX is as follows:
- 5-inch recline
- 38-inch seat pitch (one more than the current Boeing 737-800)
- 5-inch recline (an increase of 1-inch)
- 34-inch seat pitch
- 3-inch recline
- 30 to 31-inches seat pitch depending on row
The Executive Traveller take: while changes are indeed minimal, it’s not particularly surprising. After all, Virgin has stated it will include between six and 12 additional economy seats. That space has to come from somewhere.
Virgin 737 MAX vs Qantas A321neo
While the past two decades have seen Qantas and Virgin both flying the Boeing 737 as the backbone of their domestic inter-city networks, that all changes from the end of 2023, when Qantas will add the Airbus A220 – a game-changing jet capable of tackling inter-city as well as regional routes – with the Qantas Airbus A321XLR joining the fray from late 2024.
However, it appears the first Qantas A321XLRs won’t push that transformative envelope to include lie-flat beds in business class, with Qantas instead settling for an updated version of a premium economy-style recliner at the pointy end.
ET readers: what’s your take on Virgin Australia’s new-look business and economy seats? Share your thoughts in the Comments area below (NB: please keep those comments focussed on the seats, not on the 737 MAX as an aircraft or on its initial Cairns-Tokyo route.)