Note to Virgin Blue: I don't need a wheelchair, but I would like a towel. The Four Airlines challenge continues.
The flight: Virgin Blue DJ219 Melbourne-Adelaide
The cost: $72.50
The airside experience: Virgin Blue's kiosk barcode reader is even worse than Jetstar's — it flat-out refuses to work at all. And attempting to use my Velocity card or booking number simply tells me that I have a "special services request" and can't check in. I wonder if this is code for "you can't check in this early", but the explanation turns out to be stupider than that.
"You're down as a meet and greet," the service desk woman tells me. "That's ridiculous," I respond, brusquely but accurately. Quite aside from my evidently able-bodied state, the system shouldn't accept a booking for a disabled user with no checked luggage, I'd have thought. Perhaps my surname has spurred an oops-what-if-it's-Nic-or-Antonia moment? She quickly and cheerfully checks me in though, and I wait until the 2-hour time limit that applies to single pass entry to Virgin's "the Lounge" goes by.
I spend that time in a largely futile attempt to get my Vodafone 3G dongle to work. My experience as a Vodafone user has been that the service has got crappier over time, and today is particularly unimpressive — it wouldn't work in Sydney, and it takes four tries in Melbourne. In an airport. I think it's time to look into cancelling my contract — despite Vodafone's apparent price advantage, I don't need this hassle on a daily basis.
One of the features I was looking forward to testing in the Lounge (which costs $30 for a single visit if you pay in advance online) was the showers — not least because the hassles associated with Project Cleanup mean showering at home is a major drama. So I'm more than a little annoyed when the dude on the Lounge counter explains that the towels haven't been delivered yet, which means no shower for me. He promises to come and find me if they get delivered, but that doesn't happen. Pretty damn sloppy.
That aside, the Lounge is rather similar to what I'm used to in the Qantas Club. There's perhaps a little less choice in food, but the complimentary Wi-Fi works well.
One other disadvantage is that the Lounge isn't airside, so you have to clear security after your flight is called. Despite that, I get to the gate and boarding (which is a tad chaotic) hasn't started yet. We manage to take off on time though.
The onboard experience: Virgin Blue crew can be so jovial you want to throttle them, but today's staff are pretty good: friendly but not overdosing on cheerfulness. Indeed, I don't recall a single joke during any of the on-board announcements, which marks a first for me when flying Virgin Blue.
The seat on the 737-700 is just as cramped as on my Jetstar flight, but there's one key difference: the tray table slides out, making it much easier to use my notebook. The on-board food menu is also disturbingly similar, right down to the pricing: this time around I don't have anything more adventurous than a Diet Coke, which is going to taste the same no matter where you try it.
One of Virgin Blue's more unique onboard offerings is live2air, which (for a $4.90 fee) lets you watch Foxtel channels throughout the flight. Save for one satellite dropout just before we land, this works pretty well, and it offers an opportunity to watch the Liberal Party self-flagellating that I might miss otherwise. One inevitable disadvantage is that, unlike other in-flight entertainment systems, nothing gets paused during announcements and you won't be guaranteed viewing of a show from beginning to end. With that said, across 25 channels you can probably find something.
Overall: The combination of late-ish boarding, the towel debacle and the lack of a promised magazine in my seat pocket makes Virgin Blue feel a tad sloppy. But the journey runs efficiently enough, and I could easily work on this plane if I had to. I have a feeling that might not be the case on my next, Tiger-powered leg to Hobart.