Travelling in Virgin Australia's new business class? Expanding on our 'what you need to know' rundown on the seats and service, and following a few flights at the pointy end, we've put together this first-hand report on what you'll find in Virgin's new Boeing 737 business class.
Virgin Australia's Boeing 737 business class cabin covers the front two rows of the aircraft.
That's eight seats, spread over two rows in a simple 2+2 layout.
A half-height divider wall topped by a purple-tinted perspex screen delineates this premium cabin from the remaining 168 economy seats.
To emphasise the ‘exclusivity’ of the pointy end of the plane the business class cabin is now roped off from economy (using a clever cable with magnets at either end to quickly and easily attach to the metal divider wall, instead of hooks or velcro fasteners).
That cable and its "thou shalt not pass" psychology have a more practical purpose: keeping economy passengers from using the washroom (that's polite speak for 'toilet') at the very front of the cabin.
This loo is now exclusively for business class passengers. Travellers in economy have to make do with two toilets at the very rear of the plane.
(We reckon that's going to cause some issues on long flights – especially now that Virgin is serving free wine and beer to all economy passengers on flights between mainland capital cities which depart between 4pm and 7pm. The maths of two toilets for a full flight of 168 passengers, and many of those with full bladders, does not look good.)
If you're fortunate enough to be flying on one of Virgin Australia's factory-fresh Boeing 737s you'll be able to enjoy the attractive and spacious Boeing Sky Interior cabin.
This boasts more headroom, higher-capacity overhead luggage bins, softer LED lighting, larger window recesses (with extra elbow room against the wall if you're in a window seat) and a design which makes the cabin seem lighter and brighter.
Virgin Australia already has 12 new 737s in the fleet, with 15 more arriving through this year.
However, you're more likely to find yourself on one of the 44 older-but-refurbished 737s from the Virgin Blue days. These have had their premium economy seats replaced by the new business class recliners, and a bulkhead wall erected between row 1 and the door.
The refit doesn't extend to installing the Boeing Sky Interior cabin, of course, so the rest of the aircraft still looks a little tired compared to the new 737-800s.
If you've really drawn the short straw you'll end up flying on one of the 737s which Virgin leases rather than owns outright. Those don't get much of a make-over: they still have the original premium economy seats, which have just been re-covered in leather, as a short-term measure until the aircraft are retired from the fleet as each new 737-800 arrives from Boeing.
Despite the type of Boeing 737, Virgin Australia's new business class service remains the same.
This includes a coat-check service at the door, with your jacket hung and stowed in a closet.
Virgin says this will also include a free coat bag like those used on Sydney-Perth (and soon Melbourne-Perth) Coast to Coast flights, although on our two flights so far we haven't see evidence of this.
You've also got the option of hanging your jacket from the coat rail behind row 2...
... and if you're sitting in row 2, using the coat-hook attached to the seat in front of you.
(Surely it's slightly irritating for the person in row 1 to have you fiddling around, hooking and unhooking things almost next to their ear?)
Once your sitting and sorted, Virgin's new business class service kicks in.
The cabin supervisor on each flight is now personally in charge of business class passengers, with an extra flight attendant on deck to take up the slack in economy class. With only eight business class seats in the cabin this should make for exceptional service.
On morning flights you'll be offered a newspaper and an orange juice.
For evening flights, this changes to a half-decent 'mocktail' (that being about as decent as any faux cocktail can be).
On flights longer than three hours, a pillow and in-flight amenities kit will also be offered.
Virgin Australia's business class seats
So how about the all-new business class seats?
They're wide, plushly padded and covered in a subtly grained leather, with a generous recline...
... and despite the pleasing degree of comfort, the seat itself is quite slim.
That's useful, since the thickness of the seat takes away from the limited amount of space you can call your own on the plane.
And when it comes to space on a plane, legroom is perhaps top of the list.
Virgin Australia cites 38 inches of pitch (see our article explaining how seat pitch and legroom works) for all 737 business class seats.
After travelling in both the new and refurb'd aircraft, our tip is that seats in row 2 have the edge – especially if you're on the tall side.
In row 1 on a new 737, there's decent legroom but the presence of the bulkhead will prevent you from getting a good stretch.
Not a deal-breaker for a short flight, such as Sydney-Melbourne or Sydney-Brisbane, but for any trip over two hours and certainly an east-west flight you might find it a bother.
In row 1 on an upgraded 737 that newly-fitted bulkhead is slightly closer to the seats, which reduces legroom and stretching space.
Row 2, on the other hand, lets you stretch your feet out underneath the seat in front of you, so you actually get more legroom than the first row.
As a bonus, in row 2 you also have a large seatback pocket in front (row 1 just has the bare metal of the bulkhead) where you can stow your tablet, ebook reader or old-fashioned paper reading material.
And of course you can keep a small carry-on laptop bag at your feet for the duration of the flight, sliding it under the seat in front before take-off.
The seats also have a pleasing amount of elbow room, although the sides of the early-model Boeing 737s (shown below) are closer in than the newer 737s with Boeing Sky Interior.
The Boeing Sky Interior of the new 737s uses a more curved plastic molding for a more spacious feel, especially at shoulder and head height.
So that's the seats all sorted. What about the rest of your business class 'experience'?
All Virgin Australia business class flights now include a meal from a specially-prepared menu which is not available in economy class.
There are six 'timed' serving sessions: breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, dinner and supper. The airline promises there will always be “at least two choices”, with flights rotating through a total of six variations.
If you happen to want a more substantial meal rather than a snack serving, you can still choose any items for free from the for-purchase menu.
Here's one of the mid-morning snacks we've been served: a toasted ham and cheese croissant, with a fruit salad on the side.
Now this could be appallingly bad or even just forgetably pedestrian. Instead, the croissant was lightly toasted rather than sandwich-pressed to a dry crusty death.
The fruit salad tasted fresh and was only slightly chilled, so it was not just enjoyable but edible compared to the frozen-solid blocks of fruit that are often served in flight.
Here's one of the afternoon snacks: wedges of soft and hard cheeses, some fresh dark grapes, crispbread wafers, mixed fruit paste and a 'summer slice' of apricot, raspberry and lemon.
As you can see from these photos, the presentation of each meal is also a big step up from Virgin's former premium economy service.
We haven't scored any breakfast, lunch or dinner flights yet, but having flicked through Virgin Australia's inch-thick 'catering catalogue' showing the meal sets are in each rotation block, we doubt that travellers will quickly grow tired of the same chicken-or-beef choices.
What to do after you've had a bite to eat and a surprisingly drinkable coffee, accompanied by a sweet from the menu?
This remains one area where Qantas' 737s with individual per-seat video screens have the edge.
Virgin Australia has only these bulky ‘personal players’ preloaded with movies, TV shows and music.
These are just a short-term fix: beginning mid-year, Virgin Australia will move to a wifi-based in-flight entertainment system with programs beamed wirelessly to your own device or a Virgin-supplied iPad.
In the meantime you're stuck with these clunkers which seem as thick as the Bible and almost as old. You might just fit the machine on a half-folded-out tray table, but at an angle. (The iPhone 4 in this shot will give some scale of the thing.)
We've seen relatively little take-up of these on our flights. Most business travellers seem to bring their own reading material or tap away at their iPad or laptop.
If you're in the latter camp, you'll find the tray table large enough to fully accommodate a 13 inch notebook.
Don't forget to fully extend the tray table so that the edge sits on the armrest between seats – that'll anchor the table at both sides so it won't bounce around as you hammer the laptop's keys.
If you opt to borrow a digital player you'll also be offered a pair of in-ear headphones.
A Virgin spokesperson tells us these have been upgraded from the ones previously handed out for premium economy, but we couldn't pick any difference in their third-rate sound quality.
Although they're a rubber-tipped in-ear sort, the sound quality is well behind worse than the pair you'd get with an iPhone or even something you'd pick up in the airport.
So if there's a particular movie or TV show on the digital player that you want to watch, we suggest you reach for your own earbuds or other headphones.
But grab a pair of those Virgin-issued earbuds all the same: they're yours to keep, and while you'd toss away the earbuds the little zip-up pouch they come in is a handy take-home for corralling small things like your own iPhone earbuds, USB sticks, cables, and so on.
So that's our up-close look at travelling in Virgin Australia business class. We're very impressed at what we've seen so far: this is the long-overdue competition that Australia's business class travellers deserve.
What's your take? Share your thoughts with other Australian Business Traveller readers in the comments area below.