Just over 12 years after Virgin Australia began challenging Qantas for a hefty slice of the domestic business travel market with a fleet of international-grade Airbus A330, the airline’s last twin-aisle jet sporting the once-flagship business class seats has flown into the sunset.
Carrying the name Manly Beach, it was the final member of a six-strong A330 fleet which initially darted between the east coast capitals and Perth before taking on Virgin’s short-lived Sydney-Hong Kong and Melbourne-Hong Kong routes.
But this past weekend saw the storied A330 head from Perth to Kuala Lumpur and then onwards to the Oman capital of Muscat, with reports the lease is to be picked up by another airline.
It follows its siblings in a steady exit since Virgin’s new owner Bain Capital scuppered all A330 and Boeing 777 jets in August 2020 as part of a sweeping ‘rescue, rightsize and reboot’ plan after the airline’s collapse into administration facing debts of $6.8 billion and a travel market gutted by the global pandemic.
The final departure call for the Manly Beach closes a well-thumbed chapter on the aerial dogfight between Qantas and Virgin for the hearts and wallets of Australia’s business travellers – a hard-fought contest which made premium passengers the winners.
That chapter opened in May 2011, when the rebranding of Virgin Blue as Virgin Australia sparked a turf war between challenger and incumbent.
Almost a decade on from its debut as a low-cost carrier, and with 36-year Qantas veteran and executive John Borghetti at the helm, Virgin changed course to go head-to-head with the Flying Kangaroo when it came to Qantas’ monopoly on the Australian corporate travel market, and especially the motherlode of high flyers shuttling between the east coast capitals and Australia's resource-rich west.
Spearheading this were the airline’s first Airbus A330s, previously leased to Emirates and now carrying not only Virgin’s new livery but plush lay-back international grade business class recliners boasting twice the legroom of Qantas’ own A330s.
Marketed under a new Coast to Coast brand, business travellers also enjoy limousine transfers, a coat-check service, amenity kits and premium inflight meals from Aussie chef Luke Mangan.
The following month, in response to Virgin's east-west assault, Qantas rolled out the big guns by rostering one of its international Boeing 747 jets – with not only one hundred extra seats but angled flat-beds in business class – onto the Sydney-Perth route.
It was a four-hour sprint for the mighty jumbo which was typically bound for Asia, Europe or the USA, but within months Qantas pulled the gas-guzzling jumbos off the transcon trek, leaving it to a melange of Airbus A330s and Boeing 767s with ranks of close-quartered domestic-grade business class recliners.
Yet by January 2012, barely six months into the pitched Qantas-vs-Virgin battle, average business class fares across all domestic routes had tumbled by 27%.
April 2012 saw Virgin pick up the keys delivery of the first of six new Airbus A330s boasting angled-flatbed business class seats.
With extra storage for carry-on kit, large video-on-demand screens plus AC and USB sockets for every passenger, they propelled the Virgin Australia Coast to Coast business proposition well ahead of Qantas’ best domestic efforts.
“I don’t know of another airline that has a product of this standard in a domestic service anywhere in the world,” Borghetti remarks.
“It costs you the same to design something well as it does to design something that’s not nice, so why not design something that’s nice?”
Expectations were high that Qantas would seek to not only catch up to Virgin’s A330 business class but leapfrog it.
But the arrival of a factory-fresh A330 from Airbus’ Toulouse assembly line to the hangars at Mascot in November 2012 is greeted with dismay when it’s revealed to have the same business class seat as its predecessors.
The only concession to improved passenger comfort is a plastic shroud covering the middle seat, to provide what the airline calls an ‘inflight workspace’ for the shared use of passengers on either side.
Stung by the criticism, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce pledges at the airline's then-annual Christmas drinks with media – in what appears to be an off the cuff remark, made without any accompanying PR fanfare – that an all-new A330 business class is on the way, tipping the possibility of fully lie-flat beds.
Two months later, in February 2013, Joyce confirms Qantas will upgrade its entire fleet of domestic and international Airbus A330s with lie-flat business class from the end of 2014.
“They’ll be the best domestic product anywhere in the world,” Joyce promises, “and they leapfrog anything our competitor’s doing.”
That business class seat breaks cover in August 2013 as the Qantas Business Suite: a 1-2-1 layout gives every traveller direct aisle access, while the seats can adopt in a reclined position for taxi and take-off before going into fully-flat mode.
Creature comforts include extra-large video screens, a spacious side table plus a nook for stowing tablets, laptops and magazines, and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Modified, redressed and finessed by designers in the journey from drawing board to departure gate, the Business Suite is officially unveiled in October 2014, ahead of a domestic debut in December 2014 (and with flights to Asia to follow from early 2015).
It becomes the foundation of Qantas flagship business class for the next decade, with a revised version adorning the business class cabin of Qantas’ Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Airbus A380 superjumbos.
But Virgin boss Borghetti has never been one to sleep at the wheel: in September 2014, one month before Qantas pulls back the curtain on its Business Suite, he counters with his own premium cabin power-play for the A330s and the US-bound Boeing 777s.
To be sold simply as ‘The Business’, Borghetti touts the seat as being more of a “business first’’ offering rather than a conventional business class seat.
Dressed in striking charcoal with brushed aluminium trim and inspired by luxury automotive interiors (at one stage car nut Borgetti drags his designers into a parking lot to pore over a Porsche), the pointy-end pew is generously proportioned: the 28"-wide seat converts to a 2m long flat bed, flanked by a long bench for storage, and every passenger is just one step away from the aisle.
If the swish seats and upmarket Luke Mangan meals weren’t enough, when the upgraded A330s take wing in September 2014 they include a custom Nespresso machine capable of serving real coffee above the clouds, while the Boeing 777 goes one step further with an inflight bar.
(If you’ve been keeping count, it was barely four years – from May 2011 to September 2015 – that, fuelled by fierce competition, Australia could arguably lay claim to the world’s best domestic business class.)
Virgin Australia’s A330s carried their last passengers in April 2020, shortly before the airline moved into administration and emerged as a 737-only operation.
Although Virgin plans to upgrade its 737 fleet with the more modern business class seat seen on its new 737 MAX jets, there’s less certainly that twin-aisle jets will return to the fold – especially as Virgin’s international partnerships continue to grow, with United Airlines now covering the US routes once flown by Virgin’s 777s.
For its part, Qantas continues to fly those Business Suite-equipped A330s on the east-west corridor, where it can press a clear advantage over its rival, and from 2027-2028 will replace the workhorse A330s with a fresh tranche of two dozen Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 jets, each of which are expected to carry the same business class as their long-range counterparts.