As Virgin Australia prepares to receive its first Boeing 737 MAX in the final quarter of calendar 2019, group executive for airlines Rob Sharp says decisions about the new aircraft will be made in the context of its “customer needs and network”.
While the initial 2012 order was for the MAX 8 variant, Virgin Australia has declined to break down its current 737 MAX order into the various sub-types such as the smaller MAX 7 or larger MAX 9 and MAX 10 for what it has said previously are competitive reasons.
Sharp said on Monday the MAX offered the airline the ability to decide on which was the best aircraft for its domestic and international network depending on market conditions.
“There are a number of variants of the MAX. They have different route dynamics and as we look at future route options, we can look at the variants that make sense for our customer needs and our network,” Sharp told delegates at the Routes Asia 2018 conference in Brisbane.
“We have set up internally our steering committees and all the effort that is needed to actually get ready for a new aircraft type.
“This new technology is actually very much suited for fuel efficiency. It’s new product on board so that will be a great addition to the fleet.”
With no orders for widebody aircraft, Virgin Australia has had to pull aircraft off some routes to expand its network, as it did with the start of A330-200 Melbourne-Hong Kong flights when some services between Perth and Australia’s east coast capitals were downgauged to 737-800s.
It will likely do so again later in 2018 when nonstop Sydney-Hong Kong flights commence with A330-200s.
The use of the A330-200 on services to Hong Kong and, eventually it was envisaged mainland China, has led to suggestions Virgin Australia would develop a sub-fleet of 737s with similarly appointed business class cabins to serve the Perth from the Australian east coast.
Sharp said the configuration of the MAX cabin, or layout of passenger accomodations (LOPA), was currently being worked through.
“The reality is that if we want to deploy A330 aircraft internationally, then clearly we will be looking at product east coast-west coast and newer aircraft would form part of that equation,” Sharp said.
“We are not at a point where that decision needs to be made. However, we have plans there if we want to action something quicker into the international arena.
“That will depend on opportunities as they come along.”
MAX order has a long history
The initial order for 23 737 MAXs made in July 2012 had the aircraft being delivered from 2019 to 2021. In August 2014, Virgin Australia brought forward first delivery to 2018.
The airline group then converted orders it held for 17 737-800s into 737 MAX 8 orders, lifting its total order book for the type to 40 frames, in August 2015.
Then in February 2017, Virgin Australia decided to postpone first delivery of Boeing’s next generation narrowbody to the final quarter of the the 2019 calendar year.
In addition to the MAX 8 (maximum 210 seats and 3,550nm range) and the MAX 200 (200 seats and 2,700nm range) which is based on the MAX 8 platform, the three other variants of the MAX comprise:-
The MAX family of aircraft features a new flightdeck, fly-by-wire spoilers and new technology winglets compared with the current model 737 NG. It is powered by two CFM International LEAP 1B 176cm fan diameter engines, compared with the CFM56 155cm fan diameter on the NG.
To accommodate the larger diameter engine, the MAX incorporates a taller nose wheel landing gear leg, while the engine nacelles’ trailing edges feature noise-reducing chevron shaping, as also seen on the 787.
At December 31 2017, the Virgin Australia group of airlines had 81 737-700/800 aircraft in service.
It is gradually equipping those 737s with inflight internet Wi-Fi, with 16 aircraft to have the technology available to passengers by June 2018, Sharp said. Meanwhile, all five Boeing 777-300ERs were expected to have had Wi-Fi equipment installed by June.
Sharp said the commercial launch of Virgin Australia’s Wi-Fi offering – passengers have been able to enjoy Wi-Fi for free during this trial phase, was “imminent”.
Hong Kong Airlines partnership has put traffic on Virgin Australia’s Melbourne-Hong Kong flight
Sharp said the performance of its Melbourne-Hong Kong had given Virgin Australia the confidence to mount a new nonstop flight from Sydney to the Special Administrative Region.
“Melbourne from Day One had traffic flows of at least 50 per cent of the traffic coming straight down from the China peninsular and Hong Kong into Australia,” he said.
“Normally for new routes, you rely on your point-of-sale strength and in this instance our partner Hong Kong Airlines really brought quite a lot of traffic through and they have been a great partner up there.”
Having managed to secure the necessary slots at the busy Hong Kong airport to launch the Sydney flight, Sharp said the airline was now working through the “very complex infrastructure aspects at Sydney Airport” in order to get the flights up and running by the middle of 2018.
“We are finalising those aspects and approvals through Hong Kong for being able to sell in the market. The usual logistics for a new route starting,” Sharp said.
Meanwhile, Sharp said the airline’s cargo division, which was established in 2015, was performing well.
“We have quite a few hundred clients, our business is growing and we are having very mature conversations with major players in the industry,” Sharp said.
“We are getting very good feedback in the way we support the customers.”
In other Virgin Australia news, the airline on Monday launched a new Brisbane-Alice Springs nonstop service due to commence on June 19 2018.
The twice-weekly flight, which will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays, will be operated by Alliance Airlines with Fokker 100 and Fokker 70 jets on behalf of Virgin Australia.
Brisbane will be the Virgin Australia’s third destination from Alice Springs alongside nonstop flights to Adelaide and Darwin and reflected the grown in the tourism market to the region.
— Brisbane Airport ✈️ (@BrisbaneAirport) March 19, 2018
Further, Sharp said the new Brisbane link would offer better international connections to Alice Springs from places such as New Zealand.
“We’ve got quite a lot of connections into Alice Springs but the Brisbane one has been a missing link,” Sharp said.
“The middle of Australia has a large tourist element and people aren’t always aware of the importance of the international network and international feed coming in through there and also the corporate support and government support that’s needed for Ayers Rock, Alice Springs in that central part of Australia.”
The flights have been scheduled as a morning departure from Brisbane, with VA1023 arriving at Alice Springs at 1305. After about 35 minutes on the ground, the reciprocal VA1026 takes off for Brisbane, touching down in the Brisbane capital at 1700.
In other network changes, Virgin Australia said it would upgauge its Brisbane-Rockhampton flights from Alliance Airlines-operated Fokker 100s to its own Boeing 737 equipment, which would add more than 300 seats per week.