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Virgin Australia looks to fleet flexibility with Boeing 737 MAX order

written by australianaviation.com.au | March 19, 2018

An artist's impression of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Virgin Australia livery. (Boeing)
An artist’s impression of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Virgin Australia livery. (Boeing)

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.
More than 90 per cent of Virgin Australia shares are held by five major shareholders. (Rob Finlayson)
Virgin Australia uses the A330-200 on its Hong Kong flights. (Rob Finlayson)

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:-

A Boeing 737 MAX 7 aircraft on a test flight. (Boeing)
The smallest member of the family the MAX 7, designed with a maximum seating capacity of 172 seats and 3,850nm range. (Boeing)

Boeing 737 MAX 9 on its first flight. (Boeing)
The 737 MAX 9  with a maximum 220 seats and 3,550nm range. (Boeing)

An artist's impression of the Boeing 737 MAX 10. (Boeing)
And the recently launched 737 MAX 10 with 230 maximum seats and 3,300nm of range. (Boeing)

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.
A summary of the Virgin Australia fleet at December 31 2017. (Virgin Australia)
A summary of the Virgin Australia fleet at December 31 2017. (Virgin Australia)
Wi-Fi update

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.


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.

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Comments (13)

  • Scott


    Great news, a few variants within the Max brand would allow flexibility and new products and layouts potentially for Trancon and Asia/Pacific with the larger floor space that the -9 and -10 offer.

  • Lechuga


    They should DEFINITELY get the -9 or -10
    Especially if they’re flying Mel-Syd near perfect aircraft for that run.
    Would come in handy on other runs too, East to West, trans Tasman etc. I think it’s the right plane for the job.

  • Darren


    Looking forward to a bigger and better VA fleet
    Maybe new and extra destinations for Virgin Australia to really compete with Qantas

  • Martin Doyle


    Thank goodness the route to Hong Kong, China has been successful because before that the company appeared to be losing money. HNA and the other Chinese partner have brought some stability to the share registry which has helped save the airline.
    So now let’s hope there might be a dividend cheque for all the mum-and-dad shareholders out there, dare I say sometime next year.

  • Craigy


    Seriously I couldn’t care less about what Virgin announces. Years ago Brett Godfrey announced that there was this big competition between Airbus and Boeing for their domestic aircraft needs. When Airbus was asked about this so called huge competition they said they were asked about pricing and that was it. Seems to me nothing has changed at Virgin. All bull and no substance

  • Rod Pickin


    I really feel sorry for VA, where they are now is because of what they did a while back, they are at the bottom of the hill with a steep climb ahead to get to the top. Look at the fleets they started, then have since disposed of some, or all of them. Senior staff too.They got the regions excited with new aircraft and services then opted out. Put all their eggs in the W.A mining boom with A330’s then whamo,gone. Now it is Hong Kong, possibly China, maybe the world who knows. I feel that at the obviously frequent howgozit analysis meetings at VA the expenditure results v revenue frighten the ,life out of the executive, or should, too many changes too soon all round. Sure fleet upgrades have to be on but on current published data, little or no flexibility within the fleet. Maybe a few less B737 whatever grade of but a few more A330 or similar, some accurate type scheduling linking regional/pacific services with S.E. Asia but whatever the decision, stick to it. If the market research is correct, it will work and pay. Come on VA, you need to change, your staff want you to win and so do we!

  • Terry Crouther


    I wish virgin australia would launch into Toowoomba(Wellcamp airport). We are been ripped off big time. Most of the time it is $200.00 or more oneway to Sydney and the same for Sydney to Toowoomba. The Qantaslink Dash-8 Q400 is a good aircraft but the route needs bigger aircraft and more competition. The Qantaslink B717 would go down a treat. Or a Virgin Australia F100. We also have airnorth direct to cairns, townsville and Melbourne, oneway flights are around $200.00 each way as well. But if you get a special, its a bargain. But specials are few and far between because of the small aircraft that operate out of a fully capable international airport. Congratulations to Alice Springs on getting some well overdue competition and hopefully when virgin australia starts getting new plans they start to give qantas a run on more regional flights.

  • Ben


    @ Craigy while I respect your opinion, your post does seem a little harsh.
    It’s an announcement. It’s positive news. It’s new aircraft and new destinations. They have had a lot of upheaval in the last 5-8 years, but now look set (finally, I admit) to be returning to profitability and a renewed phase of growth.
    Qantas went through a similar upheaval, went through a massive loss and then returned to profit. Virgin has taken longer to do this, but consider the difference between the two:
    Virgin has basically transformed itself from a LCC into just about a full service legacy carrier within 10 years. In that time it’s formed partnerships with other airlines, established a regional network, bought an LCC offshoot (Tigerair). Throughout that transformation it’s had to fine tune a few things including it’s fleet. Despite the criticism the fleet has received, they were at no stage in the mess that Ansett ended up in. Virgin could try and be all things to all people, but it has to hedge it’s bets and think strategically. Sometimes that doesn’t work, sometimes they have to try different ideas. Despite JB having his detractors, they will return to profit.
    When Qantas was going through shut downs and losses AJ had similar detractors. However have a look at Qantas’ situation when Virgin began it’s transition: They were a full service national airline, an iconic brand, they were a member of a major alliance, they had an established international, domestic, regional and LCC network. If their business model was so sound, why did they have to go through so many losses and a shutdown. 5-8 years later, they’re still in the same position, albeit a profitable one. However if they were doing things correctly to start with, there’s no reason why a transformation should be required. Qantas has transformed itself from a full service carrier into a full service carrier 🙂
    Virgin transformed itself from a LCC into a full service carrier. It’s still establishing or fine tuning a regional network, LCC network international network and partnerships with other airlines, but Qantas has always had all of these things at it’s fingertips.
    I personally think under those circumstances, Virgin is doing a great job.
    My point is that neither Virgin or Qantas can be absolutely perfect, but both are now in a position to properly and sustainably compete with each other and make a profit. This can only be good news for the flying public and the future growth of Australia’s airline networks.

  • Scott


    “I couldn’t care what Virgin announces” umm yes you do and you negatively comment on everything they do.

  • James


    @ Scott and Ben.
    Well said.

  • Tony Sayer


    Virgin’s withdrawal of A330s on the Perth to East Coast will confirm my choice of Qantas on this run. 4 or 5 hours in a 3-3 narrow body aircraft – with up to 200 pax – is too long for me.

  • Ben


    @ Tony Sayer. Not all Qantas transcontinental flights will be in an A330. A fair few will still be in 737s too. Although admittedly you can narrow down which aircraft you’re flying on when you book.
    While wide body aircraft do have a more spacious feel, I don’t know that the overall comfort level is really that different between the 737 and A330. I’ve taken several cross country/long distance domestic flights over the years with both airlines on both aircraft types.
    The worst experience was being in the middle seat of a Virgin 737 on a PER-SYD midnight departure red eye special. However I would have had the same experience on the competing QF flight. That flight is hell in the air, no matter which airline you fly. This was a fair few years ago, so even if the competing flight was on an A330, I still would have had the same experience in an A330 in the middle block of seats with no aisle access. According to seat guru the Qantas A330 economy seat is only half an inch wider than the Virgin 737, with the same pitch. Practically the same comfort/space levels and invariably I’d be paying more to fly with QF.
    Day time cross country flights are fine with either airline. I mistakenly thought by booking the red eye flight I was doing the right thing. ‘I’ll save on a nights accommodation and be able to sleep on the plane.’ I thought. Never again.
    4-5 hour flights in the 737 are fine for me, although that’s about my limit, any longer and a wide body aircraft is appreciated.
    Although as I’ve said the overall comfort factors on a wide body aircraft are probably not too different from a 737. There’s negligible difference between seat widths and pitches in economy, no matter what you fly.

  • franz chong


    I personally would not worry about what kind of plane you get on.granted business travellers notice everything but for the rest of us a smaller plane and more flexibility is all we ask for.It has been ages since I last flew on a Qantas A330 and that was from Adelaide to Singapore.Other than that I have been on their long gone 767’s Sydney to Adelaide connecting from International flights which was pleasant enough,Tried doing the same trips on smaller 737’s was a shock to me either carrier(QF OR VA)unless I got a seat row 21 or above.

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