Virgin Australia plans to temporarily suspend flying between Sydney and Abu Dhabi either side of Christmas while its fleet of five Boeing 777-300ERs are fitted with new business class seats and a refreshed premium economy cabin.
The cabin upgrades are expected to be completed in two stages, with the first between October and December and again between February and April, according to notices issued to travel agents in June.
While the reconfiguration takes place, Virgin will drop its three times a week VA29 Sydney-Abu Dhabi and reciprocal VA30 Abu Dhabi-Sydney operation, with affected passengers rebooked on alliance partner Etihad Airways’ services on the city pair.
And as Etihad does not have a premium economy cabin, passengers booked in that class will have the option to upgrade to business class for $1,000 per one-way sector, or receive a $390 refund to travel in economy.
Travel agents were also told Virgin has cancelled two Los Angeles-Brisbane flights due to the scheduled upgrade of the 777s, with VA8 not operating on October 26 and February 1, the notice said. Affected passengers would be accommodated on other services via Sydney, or able to change their travel dates, for no charge.
It is not uncommon for the Abu Dhabi route to be dropped in recent years, including as recently as between February and April 2015, when Virgin has had to take its 777s out for scheduled heavy maintenance.
On Monday, Virgin released some pictures of its new premium economy cabin on board the 777. The airline is reducing the number of premium economy seats on the big Boeing twin to 24 seats, from 40 currently, and removing the existing bar for passengers seated in the cabin between business and economy.
A Virgin spokesperson told Australian Aviation the existing Recaro seats featured in premium economy will be completely reskinned with new upholstery. The seat pitch will increase to 41 inches, from 38 inches currently. And passengers will be able to charge their devices with a USB outlet at each seat, and receive amenity kits with REN Skincare products.
While the premium economy bar will be removed, passengers will have access to a self-serve “larder” for food and drinks throughout the flight. And Virgin has promised premium economy travellers will have a “plated meal service inspired by business class”, with wines from the business class selection.
Virgin Australia chief customer officer Mark Hassell said the airline would offer the best premium economy experience between Australia and the US.
“We understand that Premium Economy guests want to arrive at their destination feeling refreshed and taken care of,” Hassell said in a statement.
“We have therefore designed a more spacious and comfortable Premium Economy cabin and product, with a service that many other airlines reserve for their business class.
“The Premium Economy cabin itself will be more spacious and comfortable, with more legroom than any other Australian airline and new cushioned seating to make the journey more restful.”
Virgin launched its new business class seats for its Airbus A330-200 and Boeing 777-300ER widebodies in August 2014, which feature direct aisle access for every passenger in a reverse herringbone layout.
The Tangerine London-designed and B/E Aerospace-manufactured seats were due to be fitted on the 777 fleet at the same time the premium economy cabin was reconfigured.
Virgin chief executive John Borghetti also flagged an “economy plus” product for its international routes at the August 2014 business class seat reveal event in Singapore. However, no details have been released.
While Virgin’s 777 premium economy cabin was shrinking, the business class cabin was increasing from 33 seats currently in a 2-3-2 layout to 37 seats in a 1-2-1 layout.
Virgin had hoped to have the first of its six A330-200s, which operate between Perth and Australia’s east coast capitals, flying with the new business class by March. However, Borghetti indicated in February the rollout had been pushed back to mid-year.
That has given Qantas a significant head start in the battle at the pointy end of the aircraft, given Qantas rolled out its own new Thompson Vantage XL-designed business class seat on domestic Airbus A330 routes in December 2014. Moreover, the first international service took off in January and currently Qantas had seven of its 29 A330s fitted with the new seats.