Virgin Australia is to start flying its first business class seats across the Tasman on February 28, with the old formerly red Eurobusiness-style premium economy seats from the age of Virgin Blue and Pacific Blue to be replaced by the 2011-era Virgin Australia recliner seats.
Flights between Auckland and Sydney will be the first to see the new recliners, with the airline’s other trans-Tasman routes following suit over the next month as the Boeing 737-800 aircraft are refitted.
Passengers will remain in what is effectively a 2-2 seat configuration, since the old premium economy seats featured a fold-down table in the middle seat of three. However, wider seats, greater recline and 38-inch pitch will be a significant improvement on the 10 aircraft due to be refitted by the completion date of March 31.
The soft product is also being boosted. Virgin plans “comfort packs with luxurious blankets, pillows, and International-style amenity kits including Australian organic cosmetics by GROWN for flights over three hours”. Also newly on offer: “an exclusive Luke Mangan gourmet full service dining experience,” featuring “premium Australian wines, beers, and spirit selection” and “gourmet tea selection from Madame Flavour”.
Virgin chief commercial officer Judith Crompton said: “With Virgin Australia’s renowned Business Class making its inaugural flight across the Tasman tomorrow, this is a significant milestone for Virgin Australia. The trans-Tasman and Pacific Island routes remain a very strong focus for us and importantly, customers travelling in these markets now have more choice when it comes to business and premium leisure travel.”
Interestingly, Crompton also stated: “The enhancement also allows us to offer a consistent customer proposition in conjunction with our alliance partner Air New Zealand.”
In fact, since Auckland is the only Air NZ port with trans-Tasman services on widebody aircraft – the only aircraft on which the airline offers business class products – Virgin is actually eclipsing its trans-Tasman alliance partner and quarter owner on flights to other New Zealand destinations.
Air NZ’s top offering on its Airbus A320 shorthaul international fleet is Works Deluxe, a Eurobusiness product offering what is essentially an economy product with a middle seat free. Works Deluxe is the top offering of the four “seats to suit” fare families, followed by The Works, Seat + Bag and Seat Only. Apart from the (in fairness relatively comfortable and spacious) economy seats, the economy style Works Deluxe meals are a world apart from Virgin Australia’s inflight food, and there is no divider separating the all-economy Air NZ cabin.
The question is raised, therefore, about whether this product gap between the otherwise closely aligned partners will continue. To replace its existing fleet of trans-Tasman and Pacific Islands Airbus A320s, Air NZ has thirteen A320neo family narrowbodies on order for 2017, of which three are currently intended to be the stretched A321.
Does the trans-tasman move by Virgin — on whose board Air NZ sits — signify a shift in Air NZ’s seats to suit product thinking?