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A new weapon has been rolled out in the battle for business class travellers on the Australia-US route.
It's not a seat that converts into a fully-flat bed: all airlines flying this competitive corridor already tick that box.
Nor is it the convenience of being able to step straight from your business class seat into the aisle, rather than awkwardly climbing over a slumbering seat mate: Virgin Australia, American Airlines and Delta Airlines all offer that through their 1-2-1 cabin layout.
The latest twist for high flyers is the inflight bar on Virgin Australia's upgraded Boeing 777-300ER jets, which fly from Sydney and Brisbane to Los Angeles, where passengers can enjoy wines, beers, spirits (including a 12-year-old Balvenie single malt), cocktails and snacks en route.
It's part of an extensive overhaul that has arguably seen Virgin Australia snatch the crown for the best business class experience across the Pacific.
This includes a superb new seat (above) that's wide, comfortable, well-appointed and stretches to just over two metres in bed mode, with an insanely large 18-inch video screen.
But it's the bar – which is exclusive to business class passengers – that really stands out among the crowd, providing a generous serve of jet-set glamour to the 14 hour trans-Pacific trek.
Virgin's original Boeing 777-300ER jets featured a bar in the same space (below), but it was more of a shelf stocked with drinks.
The new design brings Virgin Australia's highly-regarded crew into play as bartenders and hosts.
"We did a lot of work in creating a bar which could let the crew interact with passengers, serving them food and drinks" explains Matt Round, Chief Creative Officer for London-based design agency Tangerine, which worked with Virgin Australia to create the new bar.
"It makes a significant difference to the experience," Round (below) tells Australian Business Traveller on a tour of the refitted Boeing 777.
"We wanted to create a space where you can really break out from the flight and your seat, so we did lots of layouts trying to figure out how we could make that bar area as big as possible."
This process included creating several full-sized mockups of the bar, which cleverly flanks the Boeing's main entry/exit zone – a space where airlines can't put much else, and certainly not seats.
"It's bit of residual space, so why waste it?” Round argues.
"It's such a great opportunity when you have this tube of aluminium packed full of people, to make the experience wonderful."
The new bar features a countertop light box and other elements such as a backlit version of the airline's Flying Maiden logo and the 'leaf pattern ceiling' also seen in Virgin's domestic airport lounges.
In addition to raised stools around the bar itself, there's a secondary area of banquette seating at the wall in front of the secondary business class cabin.
But it's not just about the drinks: the bar serves a range of snacks throughout the flight, and you can even take your breakfast there – an option which has proven popular with many passengers.
Up and about
The bar really comes into its own a few hours into the flight, as passengers stretch their legs and take the chance to socialise with colleagues and other business class travellers.
It's nice to get out of your seat, no matter how comfortable a cocoon it may be.
Visiting the bar breaks up the usual 'sit, eat, movie and sleep' routine, gets your legs moving (not to mention your elbow), and also makes the flight seem much shorter.
During a recent flight I was curious to see how much noise made its way to business class passengers in the first row of seats past the bar.
Fortunately, dense sound-deadening curtains cut the companionable chatter to a murmur, which then vanishes when you slip on the supplied noise-cancelling headphones to watch a movie or listen to some music.
The mile-high bar club
As it happens, Virgin Australia is among only a handful of airlines to offer an inflight bar.
The Branson-branded sibling Virgin Atlantic – which sadly no longer flies to Australia – also boasts sky-high cocktail bars across its Boeing 747, Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A340 fleet.
Apart from the Virgin twins, bars are the exclusive domain of the spacious Airbus A380 superjumbo.
This includes the cocktail bar at the rear of Emirates' A380 upper deck (shown below); the bar/lounge area on Qatar Airways' superjumbo, with its sweeping sofa-style seating; and The Lobby nook on Etihad Airways' A380 with its semi-circular leather sofa, marquetry table and 32-inch screen with live TV.
Of course, inflight bars stretch back to those fondly-remembered days when flying was something special – albeit also something beyond the reach of most people.
Many airlines which flew the first Boeing 747 jumbo jet decked out the 'Queen of the Skies' with bars and lounges, most often in the plane's upstairs 'hump'.
This included the celebrated Captain Cook Lounge of the Qantas Boeing 747s (below), a 'restaurant in the sky' for Pan Am's first class flyers and a piano bar in American Airlines' jumbo fleet.
Which airline's inflight bars have you visited during your travels?
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