Virgin Australia is making a bullish bet on the Boeing 737 MAX by doubling its initial order to eight jets before the first one has even taken wing.
The airline today confirmed it would add four more MAX 8 aircraft to the fleet from 2023 – a move which swells Virgin’s total 737 family fleet to an all-time high of 92 jets, larger than the years when former CEO John Borghetti first put Qantas in the competitive cross-hairs.
“Despite the challenges faced by our industry, demand for travel remains strong, and we’re responding with a focus on the long-term by increasing the efficiency and sustainability of our fleet with four additional Boeing MAX 8s joining our fleet from 2023,” noted Virgin Australia Group CEO Jayne Hrdlicka.
The first 737 MAX in Virgin livery is scheduled to be flying from February 2023, after winging its way from Boeing’s assembly centre at Renton, south of Seattle, to Virgin’s Brisbane hangars.
And the new jets will be crowned by a new business class seat – although this is tipped to be the same design that’s being trialled on two of the airline’s Boeing 737-800s already darting around Virgin’s domestic network.
Hrdlicka is full of praise for the comfortable and well-appointed seats, which add a leg-rest and storage pocket lacking in the current business class, as well as AC/USB power outlets and a handy holder for tablet and smartphones.
“Our customers love them, and our crew love them too,” Hrdlicka has previously told Executive Traveller, adding the airline remains on a growth trajectory “and the MAX 8 is a modern fuel-efficient replacement” for its workhorse 737-800s.
And she has no qualms about flying on the MAX, saying the exhaustive testing following two fatal crashes and a global grounding makes it “probably the safest aircraft in the world today.”
Virgin intends to roster the mid-sized jet on high-density domestic and short-range international routes, as well as routes facing "constraints due to slot availability limitations."
Sydney-Melbourne is perhaps the best example of this: in normal times, this corridor rates as one of the world's busiest domestic routes, with some 150 flights per day shuttling between the two cities, so larger aircraft trump smaller ones.
“It will do a great job for us transcontinental, it’ll do a great job for us in more traditional short-haul (than longer) international routes,” Hrdlicka has previously remarked.
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 next year, 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.