- Wider business class seats finally get leg and foot rests, AC/USB sockets
- Slimline economy offer more comfort and legroom, USB power
- Every seat includes inbuilt holder for tablets and smartphones
Virgin Australia is promising passengers a better experience when travelling on its Boeing 737 MAX jet regardless of which seat they’re in, with new business and economy seats offering greater comfort and convenience.
But those seats won’t be limited to the 737 MAX – a tip-to-tail refresh of Virgin’s current 737 fleet (including the older 737-700 series) will make these business and economy seats standard across all Virgin Australia jets.
The airline says this $110m overhaul “will commence later this year, with the work set to be complete in the next two years, subject to operational requirements.”
The upgrade will also see WiFi fitted to the "majority of aircraft", Virgin says – there’ll be free WiFi for business class passengers, Velocity Platinum frequent flyers and members of the invitation-only Beyond program, with a small fee for all other travellers.
However, one unique feature of the MAX which won’t be added to the 737s will be the MAX’s massive overhead luggage bins.
These adopt a more cavernous design allowing “capacity to stow up to 50 per cent 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 new seats were officially revealed during a media event and walk-though at Virgin’s Brisbane hangar base of the first factory-fresh 737 MAX, which arrived last month and will take over the Cairns-Tokyo route as of July 30 after appearing on a number of domestic routes in the coming weeks “to allow time for crew familiarisation and to obtain routine regulatory approvals.”
Virgin has signed up for eight of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets; these will be followed by 25 of the larger MAX 10 jets from late 2024.
Speaking with Executive Traveller on the sidelines of the launch event, a Virgin spokesperson says five to six more MAX 8 will be delivered by the end of this year, with the remainder to be handed over by the end of Q1 2024.
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, although the initial tranche of MAX 8s are expected to dominate overseas hops to the likes of Bali and Fiji.
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).
“In 2021 we introduced a prototype cabin interior on two Boeing 737-800 aircraft” explains Virgin Australia Group Chief Customer and Digital Officer, Paul Jones.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve been able to obtain feedback from our guests, which enables us to enhance our entire Boeing fleet with the features that are most important to them. We’ve always said that we are a business that listens to its customers, and this is a testament to that.”
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.”
While not yet installed on the 737 MAX, Executive Traveller understands the ‘new design cabin divider’ will be added by the end of this year or early next. The airline has yet to reveal exactly what it will look like.
Virgin Australia’s new 737 MAX business class
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.
“If you look at the business community, what matters most to them outside of network schedule is in-seat power and in-flight Wi-Fi, so I’m really excited that will feature on the majority of our fleet” says Virgin exec Jones.
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: anyone who expected Virgin to install lie-flat beds on its MAX jets needs to stop living in dreamland. Virgin’s new business class seat is a sensible evolution of the current domestic and short-range international product.
Virgin Australia’s new 737 MAX 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 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’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.
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.)