Without doubt it was the ultimate plane ride!
What could be better? Fourteen crew, 12 passengers and a fascinating chat with Virgin Australia chief executive John Borghetti over a sumptuous lunch designed and served by the celebrity chef Luke Mangan himself. The occasion?
Reveal of Virgin Australia’s new in-flight product offering to be launched in March, and the delivery flight of its latest A330 from Toulouse France.
Everything about this flight was different – very different. No long queues for check-in and security for us – we were VIPs.
Our small group of Australian media was checked-in at Singapore’s exclusive VIP terminal where you might run into Bill Gates or Bill Clinton.
Well they weren’t there but our gleaming new showroom condition 274-seat A330 was and we were summoned by a hostess and escorted on a private bus to our magic carpet for the day.
On board and the chilled French champagne arrived in seconds. This was going to be a good trip.
Being a delivery flight, we had four captains and two engineers to look after the technical side and eight flight attendants – one for each aircraft door – to attend our every whim. And there were lots of whims as we took on the role of VIPs with gusto.While a delightful and indulgent way to fly home there was a serious side to the trip.
The day before, Virgin had unveiled its latest weapons in the pitch battle for the hearts and backsides of Australian travellers. And this is a billion dollar battle! From March the airline will introduce what Mr Borghetti terms a business/first class suite on transcontinental routes from Perth as part of one of the most dramatic upgrades of cabin product ever seen by an Australian airline.
The new product which the airline claims is longer and wider than the one being introduced by Qantas in December will be fitted to its A330s and international Boeing 777s.
Virgin is also revamping its international Premium Economy increasing the seat pitch by 7cm to 104cm and will soon announce upgrades to economy class.
And the serious side to the trip continued on board despite the camaraderie and banter of a VIP delivery flight. Mr Borghetti joined me for lunch for a chat about the new product and the industry in general. Fascinating stuff.
Lunch is magnificent and we are served personally by Luke Mangan, who has created Virgin Australia’s menus. “The dishes are all from the menus we’re currently flying and are my favourites” said Mr Mangan.
Things kick off with a warm spiced Peking duck broth to “spike your appetite.” Mr Borghetti and I must have similar tastes. We both select the king prawns, with corn, smoked paprika and chives for first course followed by Barramundi fillet with bok choy, ginger soy and sesame dressing. Amazing flavours.
And one could say that the new in-flight product offering from Virgin Australia will also be amazing. “The new bed will widen the gap between Virgin and Qantas much more in our favour,” said Mr Borghetti. “It is virtually a first class style of product.” “The new suites will set a new standard in business class travel, not just in Australia but around the world,” said Mr Borghetti.
The configuration of the new suites will be 1-2-1 so every business passenger will have direct aisle access and the maximum of privacy. The suites bristle with business friendly features that will make the perfect office combined with what appears to be the perfect bed. To round that off – new menus and a turn down service will be introduced in March.
However it will not cost any more. “We have reduced fares significantly since we introduced business class in 2011.” Mr Borghetti also talks about the enhanced premium economy on the Boeing 777s used on international routes. “This product will be a business lite rather than premium economy,” said Mr Borghetti.
Also on the 777s Mr Borghetti explains that the airline will add extra legroom to the first few rows of economy for an economy plus styled product with further details to be announced soon. That announcement will be coupled with others related to the airline’s economy cabin.
The product upgrades are part of the airline’s overarching strategy to become the country’s airline of choice. “Our Virgin Vision to 2017 is to become Australia’s favourite airline group and the new products are central to this strategy as it will see Virgin Australia deliver the best premium travel experience in Australia.”
The suites will roll out in Virgin Australia’s Airbus A330 fleet in early 2015 with the first aircraft expected to be in service by March and the complete refit of the fleet to be finalised by August. The roll out of the new business class product for the Boeing 777 fleet will commence from November 2015 and be complete by early 2016.
All too soon the lights of Sydney are visible and our eight hour magic carpet ride is over. But the magic carpet for Australian travellers is about to get a whole lot better!
Geoffrey Thomas travelled as a guest of Virgin Australia and Singapore Airlines