Four months after Bain Capital officially took charge of Virgin Australia, and just shy of a year after the airline's collapse in April 2020, Virgin Australia is set to relaunch its domestic business class in the coming weeks after completing an "end-to-end review" of the service.
Following a slow recovery for domestic air travel, which took on a decidedly stop-start nature due to successive state border closures, Virgin expects to reach 70% of pre-COVID capacity by the Easter holidays.
That's also the target for its new business class experience taking wing, which the airline has described as being "more accessible" and with a focus on premium leisure flyers alongside "price-conscious corporates" and small-to-medium businesses.
One of the most visible changes will be to business class catering, with the current snack boxes dropped for what's reported to be plated meals with a fresh, contemporary theme.
And while Virgin has reopened most of its lounges, and revealed its new-look lounge design at Adelaide, business travellers and frequent flyers are still waiting on several other key details to drop.
1. The reopening of premium lounge entry
Virgin's Sydney and Brisbane lounges boasted a premium entry facility with its own security lane, so that business class passengers and Velocity Platinum frequent flyers could enjoy a fast track straight to the lounge.
But while Virgin's Sydney and Brisbane lounges reopened across November-December, those time-saving premium entry channels have remained shuttered – which means high flyers are shunted into the main terminal and security queues without even a handy 'premium' lane.
Virgin has said it would reopen premium lounge entry once demand increases, and we must surely be reaching that point now – especially with the peak holiday season around the corner.
2. The fate of The Club
Many Executive Traveller readers belong to Virgin's invitation-only The Club (and the Qantas Chairman's Lounge, for that matter) but have heard precious little on the fate of The Club – leading them to suspect its days are numbered, with the exclusive digs being an ill-fit against the airline's 'mid-market' position.
Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka has assured The Club members the airline will retain "a VIP program" boasting "the high touch services you know and have loved in the past," but the most visible perk – those exclusive and well-appointed Club lounges which serve as a haven from the hoi polloi – may still be for the chop.
"I know that the future of the Club Lounges is a very important issue," she told members in an email on February 18, but noted "given the state of play in the industry at the moment... we are not in a position to make calls on how much infrastructure is sensible to carry forward."
"Once we have a better sense of the future of business travel, we will have more clarity on outlook."
Despite Hrdlicka's email, all of The Club members whom Executive Traveller spoke with expressed pessimism over the program's future, especially that of the lounges.
However, there's also room for Virgin to throw a curve-ball here: could The Club lounges be rebranded as Business lounges?
In most airports – Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth – The Club lounges are co-sited with the main Virgin lounge (typically secreted behind a door marked 'Private'), and their expensive fitout was long ago paid for.
Rather than leave The Club lounges idle, or reopening them for a market segment from which the airline could see questionable return, they could become lounges for business class passengers, alongside The Club members (by dint of their Velocity VIP membership), with Velocity Platinums perhaps receiving a handful of Business lounge passes per year.
3. What's happening with WiFi?
Inflight Internet on Virgin aircraft has been switched off since April 2020, and as business travellers return to the skies, is it time for WiFi to do likewise?
Virgin Australia launched inflight WiFi in April 2017 – the same month as rival Qantas – and while Qantas pitched its service as being fast and free for every passenger, Virgin settled on a combination of free and paid access.
The basic WiFi connection was earmarked as "suitable for lightweight Web browsing, email and social media at around 1Mbps", the airline said at the time, although many travellers noted free speeds in the vicinity of 10Mbps.
For $12, passengers could reserve a fast connection for what the airline described as "higher-bandwidth applications such as video streaming and downloading large files or attachments."
But is there a place for WiFi – which is exceptionally expensive simply to have on tap, due to the need to reserve space and bandwidth on the satellite-based system – in an airline whose new north star is 'value'?
One option for Bain would be to restart the previous tiered plan, albeit with stricter speed limiting enforced on the free service.
Another would be to dial back the free service to cover only messaging apps – such as WeChat, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, along with the chat programs of Apple and Android devices – in line with several overseas carriers, among them Virgin's US partner Delta Air Lines, with full Internet access only available via the paid service (which could in turn be complimentary for business class passengers).
A third path forward: to simply leave WiFi disconnected, although this would obviously provide Qantas with another competitive edge.
For now, inflight WiFi might not be part of Bain's business class reboot.
Sarah Adam, Virgin's General Manager of Product and Customer Experience, tells Executive Traveller that WiFi "is still under review."
"We have to make sure that we are prioritising where our attention needs to be," which included "making sure that we're prioritising our catering on board and then running in parallel is some work around the inflight WiFi.
Asked if the review would be completed in time for WiFi to be part of Virgin's new business class package, Adam said she couldn't "commit to a timeframe on when we would think that would be back."
If you're a Virgin Australia business traveller or frequent flyer, what else do you hope to see in Virgin's business class relaunch? (Comments will be held for approval – please ensure yours are on topic and add value to the article and the conversation)