Virgin calls it The Business. Already flying for a few months on the Aussie carrier's east coast to Perth long-haul domestic routes, this super-luxurious business class cabin has just been rolled out on the first of Virgin's Boeing 777-300ER jets running twice daily between Sydney and Los Angeles. With its own in-flight bar, ultra-comfy beds and a ridiculous amount of leg room, it's definitely a cut about standard business class. We put it to the test.
Step on board The Business and you'll see why it's getting such high praise: the first thing you see is a slick brand new in-flight bar, and then you walk down the aisle to one of the most comfortable seats (and beds) in the sky.
What Is It?
'The Business' is Virgin Australia's new 1-2-1 layout business class cabin being fitted to each of the five Boeing 777-300ER international long-haul jets flying from Sydney to LAX and Brisbane to LAX under the VA1/VA2 and VA7/VA8 routes respectively, as well as the VA29/VA30 Sydney to Abu Dhabi leg. The first jet, recently off the refit production line, came back into service barely a fortnight ago, and will fly every alternate day -- Virgin expects all these refits to be done by the third quarter of this year.
There are 37 individual suites in the newly refurbished cabin, arranged in a 1-2-1 layout and up in number from 33 in the old 2-3-2 design. Despite the larger number, there's a hell of a lot more room allotted to each set and accordingly each gets dedicated aisle access to either one of the 777's twin aisles. The seats are set out in a reverse herringbone layout, with aisle seats facing outwards towards the windows and the centre two seats facing inwards towards each other on a roughly 30 degree angle.
This way, everyone is facing forwards -- unlike some business class seating where rearwards is the norm. A large carbon fibre cocoon, which stretches around the seatback to provide more privacy, as well as dividers between centre seats, means that every business class passenger can sit in their seat and be completely isolated from all other passengers. And the seat, of course, reclines from upright to fully flat with the 80-inch length of a queen-size bed.
Everything is lit in Virgin's signature purple tones, which makes snapping photos hard but that does put you at ease when you're finally sitting. The seat has plenty of table-space and storage, too, with no less than five small compartments easily accessible within arm's reach of the seat. And each business seat has its own overhead storage bin, with guests allowed two 115cm, 7kg carry-on bags or rolling hard-side luggage -- that's where you'll keep your overnighter or your clutch of duty-free booze.
Oh, and there's a bar. In the middle of the business class cabin, there's a small bar that takes up the space of the centre two seats, with bulkheads on either side to separate it from the business seats themselves and to provide a little privacy. With seven seats in total and plenty of spare room to stand around, you could conceivably hold an impromptu business meeting or just catch up with your equally well-to-do friends if you get bored of watching movies by yourself or sleeping.
The seat itself is incredibly comfortable. A new design from BAE Aerospace, the seat is 21 inches wide -- although that is boosted to 28 inches when you lower the chair's left-hand armrest for a bit of extra room. Reclined to its fully flat mode it's 80 inches long (203cm), which is more than enough for the average non-basketballer to stretch out and enjoy a comfortable sleep. The noise-cancelling headphones are above average, there's always a bottle of water handy, and an amenity kit from Mandarina Duck and sized pyjamas from Julie Grbac round out the goodies that you get to take with you when you're off the plane.
The layout, too, is very well thought out. Although you don't get a great deal of storage space around the seat -- more on that later -- there are a bunch of different compartments, each of which has its own purpose. There's a slim magazine compartment near your head that an iPad or Surface tablet will fit into, there are two compartments near your right that fit passport, wallet, smartphone, and headphones -- with USB charging for one device -- and there's a bin near your feet that suits a blanket or another soft item like pyjamas.
And when you're ready to sleep after your meal or after getting some work done, the lie-flat bed is -- for a seat in the sky -- surprisingly comfortable. Virgin's cabin crew will come around and fit it with a soft, plush mattress pad and give you a duvet, and the two pillows on your seat are varied between soft and firm so at least one is appropriate for either side or back sleeping. It's definitely one of the better sleeps I've had while flying; I'd still always prefer, y'know, a real bed but this one is pretty damn good.
The big, 18-inch touchscreen looks great, and even if you're the kind of traveller like me that brings along a laptop or tablet loaded with TV and movies, you'll probably at least find yourself using the in-seat screen for flight stats along the way. The movie selection is generally good, and although choice is limited it's limited to mostly good movies. There's also a dedicated touchscreen for controlling your seat position, and a corded hand controller that you can navigate the IFE with if you're not in touchscreen-reaching distance.
The bar is a very nice place to wile away a few hours in the middle of your flight. It open up just after the first meal service has been completed -- the staff use it as a galley when getting ready for dinner -- and there's a good range of spirits on board to choose from, as well as surprisingly good Nespresso coffee. There are four sit-up seats at the bar, but more comfortable are the two leather-wrapped pews with an adjoining table just under the bulkhead; it's a nice place to lounge around and stretch your legs if needed.
What's Not Good?
Honestly, there's really not much to include in this list. If you're the kind of business traveller that hates getting out of their seat -- I'd prefer to have every one of my devices handy and nearby, for example -- the lack of a large single bin for near-seat storage, like you'd see on Etihad's A380's or even older 747 business class seats, might be a little frustrating. Because there's no large storage space, you'll have to get out of your seat and grab your laptop from the overhead once you're at cruising altitude.
If you're looking for that almost-first-class dining experience that you do get on competing carriers like Emirates and Etihad, with several different courses and multiple different options per course, you're not going to find that on Virgin. VA's business class dinner and breakfast service are very nice, but the choices are hearty Australian fare rather than anything gastronomically exciting. AusBT has an excellent run-down of the food available.
I had a delicious tomato soup and perfectly reasonable ocean trout main course, as well as a healthy serve of garlic bread, as well as a passionfruit tart, and matched wine. There's just no stand-out food option like Etihad's mezze plate to really grab your attention and distract you from the fact that you're still stuck in an aluminium tube 40,000 feet above the ocean for fifteen hours at a time. You'd be equally well served eating on the ground in Virgin's partner Air New Zealand lounge in Sydney.
The in-flight entertainment system is certainly easy to navigate, and the touchscreen itself is high resolution and is loaded with some great content -- especially recent movies like The Force Awakens -- but it's just a little bit lacking when it comes to TV and audio. There's not a great deal of Aussie content especially, and it'd be great to see a few days worth of ABC News or 7:30, or some episodes of Download This Show to kick back and relax with over the course of the flight.
The cabin crew are still getting used to the new layout, too. It's hardly a criticism, but if you're flying over the next couple of months you can expect all the tiny teething problems that come with a completely new plane. My particular flight didn't have any meal menus for the LA to Sydney flight, for example, because they'd gone walkabout somewhere along the way, while the bar didn't have a bottle of Baileys for a nightcap -- ultimate first world problems, I'm sure you'll all agree.
Should You Fly It?
I paid 45,000 points to upgrade from a flexible economy class ticket to Virgin Australia's The Business; you'll pay 90,000 for a return trip. A fresh Business Class reward ticket will cost you 94,000 points and around $110 in flight surcharges and taxes each way, or 113,000 points with no cash outlay. If you don't have an excess of Velocity points to spend, tickets can cost as little as $2341 in either direction from a few months out. Booking closer to your travel date, though, might cost upwards of $4500 per leg. It's not hugely expensive -- not first class expensive -- but it's not a bargain either.
With that in mind, I absolutely thought that my purchase was more than worthwhile. I feel like I got my money's worth and more. If I get the opportunity, I'll definitely do it again. If you're travelling on a Virgin Australia international flight in the future, do yourself a favour and just take a look at the price of a ticket in The Business. You might, like me, decide to treat yourself -- and you'll enjoy it if you do.