Flight Review: Virgin Australia’s Sydney to Los Angeles Premium Economy service may just be the best in market (VA1)

Though Qantas have just introduced a new Premium Economy seat and service to much excitement, Virgin Australia have been offering one of the best Premium Economy tickets in the market since last year.

Taking up an intimate cabin of only 3 rows and 24 seats, the cabin heralds back to the “Business Class” of the olden days – when the clear Economy / Business / First model was utilised by most wide body aircraft. Now, the “Premium” model seems to extend to just offering a bit of extra leg room (Delta I’m looking at you!) – and this is by no means what Virgin are offering.

We had the chance to fly on VA1 from Sydney to LAX last month, and here’s a taste of what we experienced in our “Premium” journey.

Airline: Virgin Australia
Route: Sydney to LAX (VA1)
Seat: 16E, Premium Economy (middle of the middle section in a 2-4-2 layout)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300
Flight Time: 13 hours 17 minutes flight time.
On Schedule? Yes

Frequent Flyer Service

Virgin Australia uses their own Velocity Frequent Flyer program.

Lounge Access & Departure Airport

Unless you’re a Gold or Platinum Velocity member, the Premium ticket doesn’t come with Lounge access inclusive. Though either way you’ll get priority boarding, priority baggage and your own queue at check in.

Velocity Gold and Platinum members will be able to access the Etihad Lounge at Sydney Airport, which is currently catering the Velocity members and Business Class passengers for the VA1 service. Though much of the space includes a formal table set up, it’s all self service for breakfast with poached eggs, baked beans, sausage, hash and tomatoes as the hot food options. Elsewhere you’ll find plenty of fruit, cereal, pastries and drinks. It’s a more than comfortable lounge and a great place to relax before you depart.

Meal Service

You’ll enjoy a champagne and/or an orange juice on arrival (I can only assume they’d combine them if you asked, it is Breakfast time after all!), along with a 600ml bottle of water on your seat. The first meal service is lunch and comes a couple of hours after take off. The service is Business Class quality, with full menu, a la carte service, with your choice of starters, mains and dessert.

The starter comes out first, a well presented chicken salad, with bread roll and butter, full cutlery, still or sparkling water, and clever salt and pepper containers. For the main I had a vegetarian tagine with cous cous, and desert was this cheesecake, seemingly inspired by the plane’s engine.

All the food was of excellent quality and well presented – with a table cloth and everything! – you really couldn’t ask for or expect more. It went so far as to smash any expectations I had for it. For breakfas – and this was clever – you were given a “wake up card”. which you filled out and handed to a flight attendant before you fell asleep. Not unlike a hotel room service you might leave on your door handle. You had three choices for your main: muesli, waffles and egg as well as a bunch of options to accompany it.

In between services, a self service pantry/bar with snacks and drinks was available, and a couple of hot items available on request. They also walked around with Weiss bars about three and a half hours before landing and I ordered a hot pizza around that time, too. About the size of a bagel, it was a good snack to keep the flight going.

Sadly, extensive turbulence cancelled breakfast (though they got as far as laying out the tablecloth). That’s the first time I’ve ever had a meal service cancelled on a long haul flight, so this is far from the norm. A pity, given the rarity also that I fly in cabins above economy. Quite thankful I had the pizza snack!

In Flight Entertainment

Though the Virgin entertainment is somewhat lacking in the TV department, they excel in their movie options. The Premium cabins come with massive noise cancellation headphones, which power up when plugged in. The seat in front of you has a 10.6 inch screen, which is necessary considering how far away the seat feels (#humblebrag)! The picture quality is excellent, and if you need to work, you have AC under the seat and USB connectivity through the screen as well.

Comfort

Though I generally don’t like sitting in the middle of the middle, I got lucky in that there were only two of us in the row for 4, and as the arm rest goes up in the middle seats (E and F), it actually ended up giving me quite a lot of room (the other seats have an immovable armrest between them).

I moved to 16F as such, and had no one either side of me. But with the amount of leg room you’re given in the first place, there’s not much worry about space regardless of the people around you.

Though I can’t compare to the new Qantas service, they say this is the best leg room in the market for Premium economy, and it’s hard to argue. I’ve never had this much legroom in the middle class before, and it was pretty wonderful. The 41” seat pitch and 9” recline was more than enough too (short of laying flat) – and given there are only 3 rows in the section, even if it’s full, you’re not going to have too many people to worry about. It’s quiet and comfortable.

If you’re sitting in the front row, too, you’ll get a special footrest that’s brought down after takeoff. You also get extra comfy pillows and blankets, and you get access to refresh with REN Skincare products and a luxury Mandarina Duck amenity kit which has an excellent eye-mask, among other goodies.

Service

From the time they provided a warm towel after takeoff, to them finally getting rid of the seatbelt sign about 15 minutes before landing, so a lucky few could use the bathrooms (even though there was still some minor turbulence), the service was excellent. They were quick to come look after you whenever you pushed the buzzer for service, and couldn’t have been nicer. It was a pity the bumpy ending but it did little to put a damper on what was an excellent flight.

About Your Arrival Airport: LAX

There’s no expedited access through customs at LAX, though a brisk walk to the customs area will ensure you’re at the front of the queue, especially when departing from the pointy end of the plane. As you’re flying Premium Economy, your bags will come out in the priority queue so you’ll get out quickly. If you’re transferring at LAX, and your bag is already tagged through with a partner airline (e.g. Delta or Virgin America), you are able to pick up and drop off your bags within the same terminal, before you walk or catch a shuttle to the terminal containing your flight.

The Verdict

Calling Virgin’s Premium Economy by its name feels like it’s undermining its value. This is, in many respects, better described as “Business Lite”. You don’t get the stand up bar, or the pod which lets you lay down flat – but in just about every other respect the service is the same. Though it seems economy service has suffered slightly by way of the upgrades to the Premium cabin, it’s worth noting that back in the day, premium passengers would receive the same meal options as the main cabin – and this has been enhanced to not just blow their old product out of the water, but deliver what may be the best Premium Economy offering in the market. No wonder Qantas have been making such a fuss about their new product; they know the bar has been set quite high.

For more details about the airline and to book yourself a flight, head to virginaustralia.com