Perth - Sydney
- comfortable recliner seats
- superb food and wine list
- last-generation entertainment
- two middle seats in Business
- fabulous Virgin service
- Luke Mangan's "The Australian" cocktail
After spending a fair part of the inaugural Virgin Australia A330 flight to Perth talking to passengers and staff about the new service, we returned two days on later Virgin Australia's daily A330 service to Sydney, which departs Perth at 1300 and arrives in Sydney at 1900. (The service will go thrice-daily from July, Virgin Australia tells us.)
After a couple of days of operations, and without the glitz of an inaugural flight, we were interested to see whether the levels of service would be maintained -- and how the business class recliner seats measure up to the competition.
There's no curbside check-in at Perth, unlike the excellent offering at Sydney, but we were checked in speedily and pleasantly by a Virgin Australia staff member in the Premium line. (If you're new to the route, don't forget that Perth's domestic and international terminals are unwalkable kilometres apart.)
Surprisingly, the boarding pass is a low-cost carrier style receipt printout, unlike the regular boarding pass given out on the Sydney flight, and it felt a little low-rent as a result. But that's hardly the most important part of a flight.
More importantly, the purple P for Priority luggage markers (and this is Virgin Australia's first route using them) ensured our bags made it off the plane first.
The Perth lounge, immediately past security, has had an interim refresh with the new Virgin Australia branding, but isn't yet the same Tim Greer-designed concept as seen in the all-new Melbourne lounge.
A refresh can't come soon enough for business travellers passing through Perth Airport, because the Virgin lounge falls a little behind the Qantas Club lounge in its current state.
Food options are pretty limited, with a make-your-own sandwich bar and assorted nibbles. Clearly, it needs a bit of sprucing up to match the airline's new new focus.
The barista coffee, though, was good (and the barista himself very friendly), and we appreciated the all-day barista, compared with Qantas' limited morning barista service from 6am-9.30am. The wine options were numerous and interesting, and there was a full fridge of beer too.
The main lounge area has comfy chairs, a dining area with tables, plus two intimate sofa areas for groups of around four people. There's also a large table with power points (and a Duracell contact charging point -- pick up adapters for your phone from the front desk) for charging laptops and doing some work. Though it's about time that airlines realised that people do use laptops on their knees while sitting on an armchair or sofa.
Round the back, you'll find four Dell computers in the business centre, plus two small six-person meeting rooms that can combine to form one larger boardroom.
Gate 17 was just up the escalator from the Lounge, and a purple Premium line for Velocity top-tier members and Business class passengers whisked us on board.
Having flown on Virgin Australia's first A330, named Cable Beach -- the one Australian Business Traveller had a good look at during a walkthrough on launch day in Sydney earlier in May -- we flew back on the airline's other ex-Emirates plane, called Cottesloe Beach.
(All of the Virgin Australia fleet will be named after iconic Australian beaches.) The only difference between the two we could spot was the name -- everything else was just the same as our initial flight review.
During boarding, the crew came round offering champagne -- a 1999 vintage Lanson Gold Label Brut -- juices or water. The champers is a relatively high-class drop for a business class wine list, and Virgin Australia isn't stingy with it: the crew spotted our empty glass passing through the cabin and brought a top-up along.
At the end of the flight, our priority baggage -- and other business class passengers' luggage -- was first off the belt barely a minute after we reached the carousel.
Takeoff was on time and shortly afterwards the crew came round to hand out a Bulgari amenity kit (containing a cotton eye mask, lip balm and moisturiser from Bulgari, a toothbrush plus toothpaste, and some earplugs) and take the first drink and starter choices.
(Keep reading for details of the extensive lunch service and wine list...)
Lunch finished just over an hour out of Sydney, with crew passing smoothly through the cabin to offer refills of coffee, wine, port and anything else from the list. About 45 minutes before landing, the crew offered a round of Luke Mangan's signature "The Australian" cocktail,
Virgin Australia picked up its A330s from Emirates, and the seats have been refurbished but are still the old models. So they don't have the latest bells and whistles, although they're pretty comfortable. Check out our full seat guide to these recliners for more details.
With 62 inches of pitch -- the space between your seat and the one in front -- the cabin's remarkably spacious. It's easy enough to step over an aisle passenger if you're in the window seats or one of the three middle-of-three seats in the centre section, even if the seat's reclined.
The seat is controlled by a panel on the armrest, which has options for recline, legrest angle, legrest extension and lumbar support, plus a reading light switch.
It's covered in a soft, dark green leather surrounded by white plastic that's a great improvment over the odd purple-and-pink fabric that Emirates had on the seats when the planes were with their old owner.
A downside of the seat is the lack of storage areas, which means that your hand luggage needs to go into the overhead bins unless it will fit into the seatback pocket in front of you, which is already mostly full with amenity kit, noise-cancelling headphones, water bottle and various bits of safety and airline literature.
The other problem -- more significant in our minds -- is the lack of at-seat power points. While the flights are only 4 hours westbound and three and a half eastbound, that's enough to drain the battery of an iPhone or iPad on maximum brightness with regular use. Qantas offers at-seat power on many of its Perth flights, even in Economy on some planes, so the lack of power on Virgin Australia's flights is a real missed trick.
The 1pm eastbound flight is something of a gourmet affair, with a three-course menu and an impressive wine list. (Morning flights and night flights are less intensive in terms of meal duration, but the menu looks delicious.)
We started with an off-dry 2008 Riesling from Patina Wines of Orange in New South Wales, which was aromatic and had just a whiff of the archetypal Riesling jetfuel nose -- appropriately enough as we sped through the sky.
The wine was served in a very cleverly thought-through glass: stemless, tapered and elegant, it's also deeply practical and nigh on impossible to overturn. (We tried.)
It's accompanied by a warm ramekin of spiced nuts, but the nuts didn't really go with the wine. (Nor with our white shirt. You've been warned...)
After ten minutes or so, the crew returned -- still addressing us by name -- and explained the main course options. A particularly classy touch was the option to have the meal's mesclun salad dressed or undressed, and even classier was the way the crew hand mixed the balsamic vinaigrette dressing for the salad on the trolley.
At that point, we chose to move on to the Chalkers Crossing 09 Tumbarumba Sauvignon Blanc, which was French in style -- nothing like the ubiquitous New Zealand savvy on airline lists, and a very pleasant sipping wine. Sparkling (Perrier) or still (Fiji) water was also poured.
Twenty minutes later, the lunch service, elegantly presented from the trolley, arrived. The starter was dressed for us, with the crew asking whether we'd like more dressing during the presentation. Top marks.
The starter consisted of a generous helping of bocconcini (mini fresh mozzarella balls), artichoke hearts, black kalamata-style olives, spinach leaves, and roast capsicum peppers in a basil and olive oil dressing. Fresh, delicious and perfect with the O'Leary Walker Adelaide Hills 08 Pinot Noir.
Warm bread -- herbed ciabatta style or wholemeal roll -- was served at the same time, with butter, peppery Luke Mangan extra virgin olive oil, and a cumin-focussed dukkah.
And in a seriously kudos-worthy move, Virgin Australia had the red at the perfect room temperature. We travel a lot, and most airlines put the red and white in the same refrigerated locker. The Pinot itself was on the plummy, jammy scale of Pinots -- no earthy mouthfeel here -- and very moreish.
During the starter course, the crew passed unobtrusively through the cabin to refresh water and wine, and to offer more bread.
The crew individually asked each passenger whether they were ready for the main plate, and then the gnocchi -- with a chunky tomato sauce, shaved Parmesan and green olives, with shredded basil on top -- was presented from a tray with the mesclun salad.
Although the gnocchi themselves were a little bit browned on one side and a little more firm than you'd find in a restaurant -- slightly too long in the aircraft oven? -- the main course was delicious. The salad was fresh and crisp too, with an interesting leaf mix and a perfectly serviceable vinaigrette.
The main course was finished as we crossed the South Australian coast, and the chic purple tray was cleared, leaving the water and wine glasses behind.
Perhaps ten minutes later, the elegant dessert and cheese trolley (smaller and less industrial than the regular trolleys, and which reminded us of Lufthansa's international first class dessert trolley) rolled out of the galley kitchen.
With a choice of a raspberry and passionfruit mousse or a three-cheese board, we opted for the cheese -- not least because the wonderful, raisiny Morris Wines Rutherglen tawny port (fine, it's not from Porto, so it can't be called Port, but it's streets ahead of most Portuguese ports) was on offer. (Our seatmate called the port "obscenely indulgent".)
The three Australian cheeses were presented at the perfect temperature. From Gippland, the Brie was gooey in the middle and the cheddar was flavourful. But the star of the cheese plate -- which came with wafer-thin crackers, dried apricots and walnuts -- was the Roquefort-style Roaring 40s Tasmanian blue. (There's a Virgin Blue joke in there somewhere...) It was exceptional, especially with the port.
After about fifteen minutes of enjoying the cheese, the crew came round with the tea and coffee trolley, on the same chic mini-trolley that brought round the desserts. Also on offer was Baileys and Cointreau if you hadn't had enough of the hard stuff.
Overall, lunch was truly excellent, with the only less-than-perfect part the slightly browned gnocchi. But it's the service that really made it world-class: confident and personable crew who've been on special wine courses so they know what to recommend with each dish, a relaxed yet elegant individualised service, the right hardware and processes to make it flow, and a superb choice of dishes.
(For completeness, we also tried a glass of the robust and flavourful Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre from Barossa Valley vineyard Kalleske. As fans of a good hot climate red, this one's a keeper.)
Entertainment & Service
Overall, cabin crew on the flight struck a fantastic note of service, addressing everyone by name as we were getting settled and throughout the flight. Jackets and coats were whisked efficiently away to hang in a closet for the flight (and later returned in a protective suit hanger).
Service was conducted with smiles, and the crew passed frequently through the cabin to collect empty glasses and plates, and to check whether passengers needed anything.
Of course, there were several senior Virgin Australia product managers and crew trainers on board who we'd met on the inaugural flight on Thursday. So it'll be interesting to see whether the cabin crew maintain their currently admirable level of service once the management focus has moved onto the next new thing.
A downside to the new planes for some travellers will be the last-generation inflight entertainment, which runs on a loop system over a dozen or so channels. So you're not able to pause whatever you're watching, and if you want to watch something else you're likely to end up in the middle of whatever's currently playing.
Virgin Australia spokespeople tell us that a master plan for in-flight entertainment across the airline will be in place later this year. We certainly hope so, because the current options are disappointing compared with Qantas' on-demand audio and video on 747s and A330s.
The writer travelled as a guest of Virgin Australia.