Following the recent break up of long time allies Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand – in my opinion the best airlines who fly the Pacific route – it’s become pertinent for allies of the airline to pick sides. Some will stick with whichever one they have Frequent Flyer status with (Virgin’s Velocity proving miles ahead of NZ’s Airpoints). Others will keep it patriotic. And fair enough, too, given you’re going to use the airline more for domestic routes than Trans-Tasman or even Pacific services. But what if you have the luxury of choice between the two?
Well, over the past 12 months or so, I’ve flown between Sydney and the USA in Premium Economy with both airlines. And here’s the rundown of how they compare.
In the Red Corner: Virgin Australia
I’m going to focus on my most recent trip with Virgin Australia for this article, taken from Los Angeles to Sydney in March 2018. You can read more about a trip I took in Premium Economy last year HERE.
Flying in seat 15H, which is in the front of the cabin and on the right side aisle of a 2-4-2 layout, the Premium Economy experience at LAX starts at check-in. No queue is the aim of the game here, and if you’re gold or platinum you can use the business class queue, otherwise you use the Silver/Premium Economy queue. Either way there’s nothing of a line to speak of. It’s pretty impressive and consistent of Virgin’s LAX service. The only catch is that you need to walk from Terminal 2 for check in, to Tom Bradley International Terminal next door for security and gate access. But it’s a small price to pay – plus you avoid all the madness of checking in at Tom Bradley, which is very welcome.
Once you make it through security, which is a lot quicker than it used to be, Platinum or Gold Velocity Passengers will have access one of two lounges, depending on your status. Sadly there’s no lounge access for Premium Economy flyers without status – that privilege is reserved for Business Class travellers. Boarding the flight, Premium passengers again get to enjoy their own lane, and avoid a lot of the traffic.
So let’s start with the in flight service. A champagne, water or OJ is provided once you sit down for your 14 and a half hour flight. The first thing that’s notable is the size of the cabin: it’s small. Comfy. Quiet. There’s only three rows, and you have access to two of your own bathrooms (though I did find Economy passengers to often be using them too, though there’s nothing special about them, only their convenience!). There’s a pantry as well where you can self serve yourself snacks and drinks – including alcohol (such as the Magic Stick red wine, which has been engineered to be best enjoyed in the skies) – with additional options for hot and cold food available on demand. You’ll find a warm chicken Stromboli among the hot foods on demand, and a great selection of teas.
Luke Mangan’s much talked about menu has also been recently updated, and you enjoy three options for dinner and breakfast – both of which you order slightly after take off; the latter on a menu, not unlike the card you’ll leave on your door at a hotel. I LOVE this feature. There’s something thrilling about feeling like you’re in a hotel in the sky.
Three options for your main are provided for both meals, with additional choices for starters, drinks and more. Want a warm muffin with your breakfast instead of a bread roll or a croissant? They’ve got you sorted. And all with a beautifully plated presentation, served on a table cloth, with full metal cutlery, salt, pepper and all the trimmings. Lux.
Dinner choices were the braised beef with red pepper sauce, potatoes and beans, teriyaki chicken with broccoli and rice or pasta in a mushroom cream sauce (which I enjoyed). These options are served with breads, salad or soup to start, and ice cream or cheese with grapes and crackers to finish it off. A testament to the quality of service, with my pasta dinner the steward went and got me some Business Class, scotch since they’d run out of the standard stuff in Premium Economy (an earlier drink, meanwhile, was served with pretzels and cashes).
As it stands, both Business Class and Premium Economy share a lot of the same wines and drinks. In a similar circumstance, they ran out of the omelette for Premium Passengers by the time they got to filling my breakfast order, so got me scrambled eggs from business class – with delicious leg ham, mushrooms and spinach. This was served with a warm banana nut muffin, greek yogurt with berries, tea and juice. I would have been happy with this in a restaurant, let alone in the sky.
You also enjoy one of Virgin’s brand new Amenities Packs, which have recently been upgraded in presentation (this is something you’re likely going to want to walk off the plane with), and include a tissue package, lip balm from hunter lab, pen, super comfy (and stripy!) socks, toothbrush with white glo toothpaste, ear plugs and eye mask. It’s a generous supply of high quality goods to say the least.
And what of the seats? They’re super comfortable, with great head rests and plenty of pitch (41” to be exact) and 9” recline. The pillows may not look like much, but they are excellent quality too. And as I was in a bulkhead seat, you get a fancy foot rest which you sit against the wall. Normally I would recommend against the bulkhead seat as you do lose a bit of leg room, and you can often get bumped by staff, being in a transitory space, but I had absolutely no issues in Premium Economy. You just have to keep anything off the ground during take off and landing, and sadly can’t enjoy your in flight entertainment during take off and landing, as the 10.6” touch screen comes up from the arm rest. On this, you enjoy the large amount of film and TV entertainment (which is the same through the aircraft – only the size of the screen changes) with noise cancelling headphones (that they also offer Economy X passengers), and you have a USB on the left side of your seat, and the all important AC plug below.
All in all, with excellent service, comfortable seats in a quiet cabin, and one of the best in-flight meal experiences in its class (I’d rate it even higher than my equivalent experience on Singapore Airlines), you just can’t fault the Virgin Premium experience.
In the Teal Corner: Air New Zealand
For Air New Zealand, I’m going to reflect on two legs – one from Auckland to Los Angeles, and the other from Los Angeles to Auckland. The reason for this was that on the first leg, I was able to enjoy the final days of Air New Zealand’s groundbreaking “SpaceSeat” back in 2017 – which was, without question, the most impressive Premium seat in the market. But on the flight back, I got the updated service that now runs across all their 777 aircraft. You’ll see a photo of the old cabins below. The new cabins are pictured above.
Before we board the plane, let’s talk about the check in at LAX. Like Virgin, Premium customers (or those with eligible frequent flyer cards) have access to their own line, but here you’ll be right in the middle of Tom Bradley, which is a bit of mayhem; but you move through it quickly. Those with lounge access (it isn’t inclusive in the ticket, but is accessible with the appropriate frequent flyer status) will have access to the Star Alliance lounge, which in my opinion is one of the best in the world – and easily the best at LAX. There’s a world first outdoor patio, a self serve Pho station, a cinema and more. You really need to experience it.
Let’s start by looking back at the SpaceSeat option. Firstly, you enjoy a 2-2-2 layout, as opposed to 2-4-2, which is what Air New Zealand now offer (as do Virgin Australia). Your name and a welcome message is on the massive movable screen when you sit down, as was a cold 500mL bottle of water. And a foot cushion was also provided to your seat, no matter where you were sitting. The seat offered so many different options, you had to watch a video explaining how it all worked! The seats reclined 45 degrees – so you weren’t to expect a flat bed – but there was ample space to stretch out comfortably, and the person next to you had plenty of room to get over you, if you were on the side aisle as I was. The middle seats seemed designed for couples, which was a nice touch. There were two reading lights, and a smart space to store your belongings, like your phone, which you could cover with part of the seat for safely. And of course there were plugs and USB provided for power.
They were rather genius and if they still were in service they would be the undisputed champions in the Premium space – but you can understand why the airline needed to fit more seats into the space. The new 2-4-2 layout is spread over five rows, so it’s a slightly larger cabin than Virgin’s. The leather seats are very comfortable – though I do prefer the Virgin seats which offer the same pitch and recline, though are 0.2” wider – and you’re provided with a massive pillow and blanket. I will say that the head rest is better on the new seats than it was on the SpaceSeat; on the latter, it could be moved up and down, but the flaps are immovable. Given the “pod” like seat, however, there were other places to rest your head. On the new seats, you could move the sides of the headrest. The headrests on Virgin can do both. Minimal recline, but the footrest adds a lot of comfort.
The Amenities pack has socks, a dental kit, lip balm, eye mask, earplugs and a pen! Comfortable noise cancelling headphones are also provided.
A hot towel is offered before take off, but there’s no beverage service – the cold NZ water proving enough. Menus are handed out and you’re provided three options for mains, and when they do serve champagne or orange juice shortly after take off, they’ll provide a specially designed coaster so the drink doesn’t move during turbulence. Genius.
The bathrooms for Premium Passengers are given a few extra features – such as disposable towels (the same material as the hot towels) which I hadn’t seen before. There was no extensive pantry like on the Virgin flight, however, though they were more than attentive to get you anything you needed, as you needed it.
There were three mains for the dinner service; the usual selection of beef, chicken or fish, well presented and very tasty. It’s a lengthy process however as the meals are handed out individually with drinks, sans the main and then the main comes later. Definitely skip the process if you enjoyed lounge access or had a meal prior to boarding, in favour of sleep. You can put on a do not disturb sign via the screen if you need to.
You’ll wake up to a hot towel about two hours before landing and then be provided first with a continental breakfast option: Granola or muesli with milk, fruit and yogurt with drink. Then out comes some hot breakfast eggs, which were pretty runny but tasty. A warm croissant with jam or marmalade is brought out in between the continental breakfast and the main. The food wasn’t quite as good as the latest Virgin Australia offering, but it was still of a very high standard.
And of course you enjoy a famous Air New Zealand lolly before landing.
The Final Verdict
If Air New Zealand hadn’t phased out their pods (or “SpaceSeats”) in favour of extra seating, they would have come out ahead of their friend-turned-competitor. But while there is certainly little to complain about in either Premium offering – I mean not too long ago this would have been called “Business Class” rather than “Premium Economy” – Virgin takes the cake on a variety of fronts. The smaller cabin is a big selling point, and the pantry ensures you can look after yourself rather than bothering the cabin crew, which I always feel like a pain doing, no matter the class I’m in. The seats are slightly better, and so is the food – but I digress some of that was skewed by the fact I enjoyed a Business Class meal as part of my experience. But the fact they were willing to do that is telling in of itself.
But all of this comparison would be null and void if you live in New Zealand – obviously you’d take the direct route, and the service is fantastic so this is hardly a bad thing. Australian passengers will have more of an option here, but the Air New Zealand service does require you to transit in Auckland. So it does make it an lengthier trip. But that’s never deterred me from flying with them. The lack of frequent flyer benefits given my Velocity membership, however, does mean I have had the decision made for me moving forward. And luckily for me, Virgin sits as top of its class – even if it’s only a slight victory.
And really the victors in all of this are the passengers; having service this good at the competitive Premium Economy price has made the experience of travelling across the Pacific all the much better. Here’s hoping that even as pure competitors rather than allies they continue to encourage the other to up their service. Competition usually only means good things for the customer.
The writer flew at his own expense, with upgrades kindly provided by the airlines.