Virgin Australia's business class offering has come a long way in three years.
It's been just three short years since budget airline Virgin Blue morphed into the slickly modern Virgin Australia.
That transformation has been a spectacular and almost textbook turn-around in brand and positioning, with the formerly no-frills carrier becoming a true challenger for the Flying Kangaroo and ending a decade in which Qantas enjoyed an effective monopoly on Australia's business travel market.
Bringing much-needed competition to Australian skies is what Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti – himself a 36-year Qantas veteran before being spurned for the top job handed to Alan Joyce – singles out as the airline's biggest achievement to date.
“Australians now have another strong national carrier that competes across all key aviation markets,” Borghetti told High Flyer. “That's good for consumers, good for business and good for the country.”
Travellers seem to agree. The latest Roy Morgan Air Travel Survey reports that 31 per cent of domestic business travellers took their most recent flight with Virgin, while the same response for Qantas was down to 56 per cent.
But just how does the reinvented Virgin Australia stack up? Here's my subjective report card rating the airline across four key areas for business traveller.
Our mark: B-
Virgin Australia's domestic business class shows the airline is serious about chasing the corporate traveller.
For the most part there are no surprises: wide, comfortable seats and quality meals served at the pointy of its Boeing 737-800 jets, although without the video screens and USB sockets of Qantas business class.
It's on the east-west routes where Virgin stands out by offering international-grade seats that convert into an angled lie-flat bed.
That not only puts Virgin clearly ahead of Qantas on these routes, it's something US airlines are only now catching up to for their own New York/Los Angeles services.
Qantas intends to leapfrog Virgin Australia with the debut of its stunning Business Suites on the long transcontinental trek, but don't expect Virgin Australia to sit idly by.
In fact, if Virgin does releases a next-generation business class seat, it's desperately needed on the airline's Boeing 777 flights to the US.
Our mark: B-
Virgin's makeover of its airport lounges has been nothing short of spectacular, especially the Melbourne and Brisbane lounges. Melbourne in particular now seems more of a flagship lounge than even Sydney.
Sydney's fast-track 'premium entry' facility that lets passengers go straight from kerb to lounge through a private check-in zone is a boon to busy business travellers.
Melbourne is set to gain its own take on this – in the form of a 'premium exit' directly to the boarding gates – next month.
Unfortunately, the lounge's food offerings are uninspiring and rarely seem to change.
Frequent flyer scheme
Our mark: B
Virgin Australia's Velocity frequent flyer program may not boast the 10 million members of the Qantas loyalty scheme, but it beats the Red Roo in several areas.
That includes 'family pooling' for sharing points and status credits among family members, annual upgrade certificates for Platinum frequent flyers, and reciprocal membership in Hilton and IHG hotel loyalty schemes.
What needs improving? Making it easier to request upgrades and book points-based award seats online instead of dialling a call centre.
Our mark: C+
Virgin has stitched together a series of bespoke partnerships, from cornerstone investors such as Air New Zealand, Etihad and Singapore Airlines through to Delta, Virgin America and Airberlin.
But it's still rather patchwork and often inconsistent for recognition of frequent flyer status, compared to the structured benefits of a formal airline family such as Star Alliance.
Our mark: B
That's a solid result, especially when the old Virgin Blue would barely have rated at all.
How do you rate Virgin Australia for business travel?
David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.
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