I’ve previously written a fairly positive review of Virgin Australia’s Boeing 737 Business Class. But during COVID-19 it’s a very different experience.
As I discovered on a recent flight from Canberra to Brisbane, Virgin Australia Business class passengers are no longer receiving even close to the full Business class experience during COVID-19.
|Route||Canberra (CBR) to Brisbane (BNE)|
|Aircraft type||Boeing 737-800|
|Class of travel||Business|
|On-time performance||This flight arrived 5 minutes early|
A one-way Business Class seat on this flight would have cost $899. However, with Velocity Frequent Flyer redemptions now available again on some Virgin Australia domestic flights, I was able to redeem Velocity points for a seat. It cost 15,500 Velocity points + $50.01 in taxes & charges for a Business Reward seat.
The online check-in process took a little longer than usual as there were some additional health and contact tracing questions for COVID-19.
Once at the airport, I was able to use the priority check-in queue to drop off my luggage and was served promptly. As usual, it then took less than a minute to clear security at Canberra Airport, which has just installed new scanners.
Normally, Virgin Australia Business class guests are entitled to use the lounge before departure and upon arrival at the destination. However, all Virgin Australia Lounges have been closed since March. Even though Qantas has already started to reopen its lounges, there is currently no indication if or when Virgin will do the same.
Boarding began on time, with Business class, Platinum and Gold customers invited to board first via the priority boarding lane. Unlike Qantas, Virgin has not implemented staggered boarding by row number.
Also unlike Qantas, Virgin did not hand out face masks or hand sanitiser at the boarding gate. I’m told face masks were available upon request on board, but I didn’t see anybody ask for one and this was not well-publicised. None of the cabin crew wore face masks.
The Hard Product
As I’ve covered in a previous review, there are two rows of Business class on Virgin Australia’s Boeing 737s in a 2-2 configuration. The leather seats are wide and relatively comfortable, with good legroom. As this was a full flight, and being in the midst of a pandemic, I did appreciate the additional personal space provided in Business.
Virgin Australia does not offer seat-back in-flight entertainment, and the Samsung tablets have been removed from Business class. But the streaming entertainment via the Virgin Australia Entertainment App was working, and there was a reasonable selection of content available. I do enjoy Virgin’s “Upbeats” music playlists – if only the audio wouldn’t stop working when closing the App or locking your mobile device!
Although this aircraft was wifi-enabled, the system was switched off so in-flight internet was not available.
The Soft Product
The soft product is normally the highlight of the Virgin Australia Business class experience. Sadly, it was a real let-down on this flight.
Normally, a choice of drinks would be offered before and after takeoff and, given the 6pm departure time, dinner would be served. This did not happen.
After takeoff, the flight attendant handed out plastic cups of water along with sanitiser gel. The only other drinks available were Coke, Coke No Sugar and Sprite. No alcohol was available, and I couldn’t even get a soda water. I was told this was “due to coronavirus restrictions”.
Instead of a meal, the cabin crew walked through the cabin with a tray of sugary snack bars to choose from. I was hungry so asked for one of each. No other catering was available (not even for sale) and I believe the same thing was served in Economy class.
In fairness to Virgin Australia, they do advise customers on their website that catering is currently limited and the meal was described as a “snack” on my ticket. So, my expectations were appropriately low to begin with.
The cabin crew were friendly as always, and did their best with what they had to work with. But it was quite clear to me that this airline is in a serious cost-cutting phase. This is disappointing when it’s still charging full-price for tickets.
I understand the need to minimise contact between cabin crew and passengers, and I’m grateful that Virgin continues to fly despite being in voluntary administration. But blaming coronavirus for not providing service is starting to wear thin. Qantas has already reopened many of its lounges, resumed serving hot meals in Business class and reinstated bar service on flights departing after 9am. If Qantas can do it, why not Virgin?
One last thing… I did find it slightly amusing that they had to remind everyone before the safety demonstration to remove face masks before donning an oxygen mask in the event of a loss in cabin pressure. A sign of the times…
Disembarkation was done one row at a time, and we were met by army officers that checked everyone’s Queensland Border Declaration Passes. This didn’t add too much extra time, and bags appeared on the luggage carousel quickly.
Virgin Australia's COVID-19 Business Class Experience
I suspect that Virgin’s current financial woes, rather than government-mandated health restrictions, are behind Virgin’s decision to continue offering bare-bones Business class service in August 2020. Perhaps this cost-cutting strategy is currently working for Virgin, but I would have been furious if I had paid $899 for a Business class ticket on this flight. Virgin Australia’s new owner wants to move the airline downmarket; let’s hope this is not a sign of things to come.