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heleno Mar 1, 09 1:33 pm

SYD->LAX on V Australia's first flight! Review (long)
 
I was on their inaugural flight from Sydney to LAX on 27 February, 2009, after having flown in the day before from Seattle on Qantas to do that.

Qantas has a worthy competitor here. They're different in tone though, and which one you prefer, I think, depends a lot on YOU. At this point, I can't unilaterally endorse one over the other as non-stop Australia-USA airline of choice for all passengers. I do think that most passengers would have a definite preference, though, depending on their personal likes and dislikes. Roughly speaking, if you prefer Qantas domestically, you'll probably still prefer Qantas. If you're a Virgin Blue type, you'll probably prefer V Australia (aka Virgin Australia, as they referred to it at least once over the onboard PA system ;-).

)) Overview comparison

Qantas has corporate-like efficiency that has tended to remind me of SAS or Lufthansa (for those who know those airlines), the roominess of the 747 or A380, and still sets a pretty high bar for the service you can expect even in economy. Plus, it has that kangaroo that many Aussies are just attached to. Qantas has an established FF program with lots of alliances, and codeshares with airlines to more destinations than does V Australia.

V Australia has the "cool" factor common to all Virgin Group airlines, new state of the art aircraft, very enthusiastic if as-yet-inexperienced FA's and perhaps a touch more comfortable seating. An added plus to some is that it's not Qantas -- whose safety record of late hasn't been quite as good as in the past. Virgin Blue's Velocity FF members can earn points on it. Unfortunatley for those living outside NZ or Oz, Velocity is only available to those with an NZ or Oz address, and I haven't seen any other airline alliances or partnerships documented. Apparently the connections between various Virgin airlines are a bit sensitive in America for reasons I don't fully understand, and this is complicating the establishment of FF partnerships.

)) Check-in

It was a zoo, honestly. But a fun one, with displays set up advertising California tourism, complete with bongo players, roller bladers and folks dressed in LA Dodgers baseball uniforms. They were giving away tourism brochures, 4-color ballpoint pens and California maps. There was a press conference area with various officials, and lots of VA staff gathering in groups to have their pictures taken. Check-in lines for economy were long. I think the staff are still getting the hang of the check-in process and computer system. At one point, the check-in computer system went down, causing a bit of a delay. People were still checking in at nearly 2:30pm for the 3pm flight! It's thus not surprising that the flight left about half an hour late (I turned off my cell phone around 3:15pm, and it was a while later before we left.)

)) On-time performance

Both my departure to Sydney from LA on Tuesday, 24 Feb (Qantas) and my departure to LA from Sydney on Friday, 27 Feb (VA) were subject to delays of about 30 minutes, so neither airline gets a ding for that. Qantas' was due to the prior aircraft leaving the gate late, and VA's seemed to be due to it just taking a long time to load the plane with all the media circus and first-trip shakedown stuff going on.

I'd love to tell you about timeliness of arrivals, but I was in a bit of a fog both times and can't. Both arrived around their published ETAs. The VA arrival into LAX was slightly delayed due to arrival festivities (being sprayed with water by fire trucks that had to get into the proper position to do so), but I think we still arrived ahead of schedule.

)) In-flight service

The FA's on the inaugural VA 001 flight were run ragged, due to a few things. Many extra duties were required (handing out T-shirts to the unwashed masses, gift bags to those at the pointy end, champagne for toasts). The plane is new, resulting in a few glitches like isolated hung seatback entertainment consoles and mood lighting in one cabin not being in sync with the rest of the plane for a while. And the service is new enough that there are still a few kinks, such as no coffee available on that flight due to the supplier having loaded "the wrong kind of coffee", whatever that might mean! I don't think I saw ONE of them taking a break over the entire 12 hour flight, so kudos to them for doing a credible job under demanding, somewhat high-pressure circumstances. When your CEO, a Knight and the media are all on your flight, forming opinions of how you're doing, it can't be easy.

The inexperience factor was occasionally apparent. One FA insisted to me that I needed to fill out two forms for US customs, even as a US citizen (only non-citizens require the second), but I'm guessing that they'll figure it out soon enough. And the newness also brings the kind of enthusiasm not often found in cabin crews of more established airlines. All of the V Australia employees I spoke with on the flight were very, very excited to be there.

Amenities provided included headphones, nice big fleece blanket, nice thick pillow and I think an eyeshade (which I didn't use). The pax next to me asked for, and was provided with, socks (rather bright purple!). In the morning, I saw hot towels being handed out to those in Premium Economy, but as far as I know, we didn't get them in Economy class. I don't know whether that was just due to lack of time because of everything else going on, or whether that was intentional. If intentional, c'mon, VA, that amenity costs a whole what, $100 to provide for the entire plane? And Qantas already does it. It's civilized, and for me, my first hot towel years ago was a key international travel rite of passage. I mean, really, if you've never been given one before, you even have to figure out WHAT IT IS FOR. You're going after the youth market, and they may be taking their first international trips. Please consider providing hot towels to economy pax, too.

)) Seating

I enjoyed my seat in the first of 3 economy-class cabins. Great seat width, at 5'6" my knees never touched the seat in front of me even when it was reclined and I had plenty of space to stretch my legs out under the seat in front of me, and the 32 degree seat pitch when reclined was generous enough although it's difficult not to be a bit envious of those in Premium Economy with their 38 degree seat pitch.

)) In-flight entertainment

V Australia uses the Virgin Red system also in use by Virgin America, though with a few different options. Know another airline that offers the addictive Bejeweled 2 video game on its seatback entertainment units? That made 2 hours go by in the blink of an eye, once I was able to get into it (apparently many pax were trying out the games portion of the system at the same time, which made for some glitches). It also features other Virgin Red entertainment system standards like seat-to-seat texting via a keyboard on the other side of the entertainment system remote control, a text chat room shared by the entire plane, a CD library, lots of movies and TV shows on-demand, etc. Note that the in-flight menu is available on the Virgin Red system as well. Like Qantas, all entertainment is through the seatback screen. The safety video plays on the main cabin screens, though. Watch for an animated Sir Richard in it.

I debated where to put this next comment, and decided that "entertainment" was as good as any. The loo is rather spacious and features a full-length mirror, fitting the V Australia approach of "fly like a rock star" (of course, wouldn't a rock star want to check EVERY detail before emerging from the loo?).

)) Cabin lighting and power

The "mood lighting" was fun, although the oft-mentioned stars in the ceiling are apparently a treat reserved only for those in business class. For those who haven't travelled Virgin America or another airline that has it, the lighting in the plane isn't just plain white. The ceiling lighting and the lighting along the side walls of the plane is colored. The ceiling is usually pale or deep blue, and the top edge of the side walls of the plane was usually pink or pinkish-purple, changing to gold in the morning, presumably to represent dawn. Just a guess here, but some might find the unusual lighting distracting and/or not to their taste. I liked it.

For reading purposes, there are both the usual per-seat overhead lights and separate USB-powered reading lights that plug into a full-size USB port on the seatback (to minimize distraction to nearby pax at night, since the overhead lights seem to either have a wider beam than most, or perhaps are just brighter than most). Yes, you can charge USB devices with this port, too, if you BYO cable. Onboard literature also claimed that you could plug in an MP3 player that has a USB adapter, too (not sure why you'd do this -- to play it through the supplied headphones, maybe?). Most seats in economy don't have power points, although staff will charge your computers, etc. for you in the back, and seem to be able to handle both US and Aussie power cords. Premium economy and business class seats do have power points. Bulkhead seat 20H seems to have an armrest power point; other bulkhead seats might as well. If you're bringing your own headphones (the supplied ones are noise-cancelling for business class, but not for economy), note that VA's headphone port is the traditional two-pronger rather than the 1/4" jack that I've seen on newer Airbuses.

)) Bringing baby

Bassinet hooks on the VA 777 aircraft are found in front of the row 20 bulkhead seats in economy, and may be available elsewhere as well, although I did hear for sure that not all bulkhead seats have them. They provide harnesses so that an infant can be seated on a parent's lap for takeoff and landing.

)) Food

Food in VA economy class goes one better than Qantas. Dinner was a small salad, sharp cheese and crackers, your choice of beef/chicken/lasagne, breadroll and lamington for dessert. I had the chicken with green beans and rice pilaf. Breakfast was yogurt, orange juice, a muesli bar and your choice of a fritata or belgian waffle with candied peaches and walnuts. I prefer to stay away from too much egg and cheese, and was DELIGHTED to find a hot breakfast that wasn't egg-based for the first time in a long while. VA, could you make that waffle just a bit bigger? Please? It was delicious and I'd like more of it. Pics will be on airlinemeals.net if that site is ever updated again this century.

For between-meals snacks, some shelves on the wall between the last 2 (of 3) VA economy-class cabins hold bagged chips/savories and canned beverages including beer. The Qantas snack bags have greater variety and some healthier choices, but I think they're somewhat wasteful (who really NEEDS 5 snacks a day?) so I didn't mind that VA was less generous in that area. VA would do well to lay in a supply of fresh fruits to offer guests who want a slightly healthier snack, though, especially because healthy eating is a trend (they could even cross-promote Virgin's new Aussie gym brand).

)) Reading materials

In-flight reading material on VA is sparse, limited to the in-flight magazine describing entertainment options. I assume that there will be a regular in-flight magazine eventually and that perhaps it just wasn't ready on 27 Feb. But I still can't give the edge to Qantas here, because my row on Qantas this past week didn't have any copies of the Qantas magazine in the seatbacks at all.

)) Extras

There were also irreplaceable ammenities on the inaugural flight, like "V1P" (very first passenger) T-shirts with the V Australia logo, a launch flight commemorative certificate, and the chance to shake hands with the new airline's CEO and Sir Richard.

And the kiss on the cheek from Sir Richard when I said I'd flown to Australia from the US the day before, just to get on that flight? As they say on a certain credit card's commercials: PRICELESS.

)) Passenger load

I was surprised to discover onboard that there were a SUBSTANTIAL number of non-revenue or very discounted employee fare pax on VA 001 flight #1. I believe someone mentioned onboard that there were 80 Virgin Group employees onboard, who were there for fun, not travelling on airline business. PLUS those who were on airline business. PLUS the media. The plane only seats about 360 people, and there were scattered empty seats (maybe 20 or 30 of them, mostly toward the rear of the plane). I wonder if the flight from LAX to Sydney was more full; the exchange rate right now is VERY favorable to the US dollar, and unfavorable to AUD, which might account for the lower-than-I-expected number of people travelling from Sydney to LAX.

)) Final comments

If you like to fly and like travel, there are worse things to do than go on an airline's first flight. I'd never considered something like this before, but something about this particular route and airline just made it seem like a fun thing to do, and it ended up being even more fun and more memorable than I expected it would be. I'll likely do it again when I hear of a new airline launching an international route of interest to me. (And I might join V Australia for another one, when they begin flying from Australia to Johannesburg. I've never been to S. Africa.)

Attention US residents: the USD/AUD exchange rate is better than it's been in 5 years, flights are cheap, and Australian hotels are offering deals to lure travellers, so *NOW* is the time to take that trip to Australia.

VA is still working a few kinks out, but if you like the vibe of airlines like Virgin Blue and Virgin America, V Australia is likely to be the airline you'd like best when flying between the US and Australia because it's more of the same, taken to a slightly higher level. It would probably also be your preference if you like Southwest here in the US; there's the same informality and casual humor that resonates really well with us West Coast folks.

If you're a corporate-airline type who likes the familiarity of the Continental, Delta, US Air, etc. experiences, and aren't so much into new things, you might still prefer to stick with United or Qantas on your trips across the Pacific. And if you like the folksiness of Hawaiian, the relative glitz of VA might be too much for you. But if you want the trendiest, "hippest" non-stop flight experience between Australia and the US, V Australia is it, for sure. I can't compare it to other Virgin Group international carriers, because I haven't yet tried Virgin Atlantic or Pacific Blue.

(Virgin Group, you listening? I'm between jobs right now, and have lots of time on my hands but not all that much extra cash, so free tickets are always welcome! Want a more detailed blog of someone's experiences on the new Virgin round-the-world fare? I've been a professional writer. Give me tickets, itinerary, and as many guidelines as you want, and you've got it.)

restlessinRNO Mar 1, 09 2:14 pm

heleno - Welcome to FT. Thanks for a great trip report! Wow - full length mirrors in the loo. :)

BoyAreMyArmsTired Mar 1, 09 3:10 pm

Welcome to FT! I am moving to trip reports, as that is the form that houses these types of posts.

BAMAT
Moderator, Budget Travel

BiziBB Mar 1, 09 3:10 pm

Thanks, Heleno. I'll put in a link to Trip Reports, where this would get a lot of exposure.
:)

heleno Mar 1, 09 3:24 pm


Originally Posted by restlessinRNO (Post 11341685)
heleno - Welcome to FT. Thanks for a great trip report! Wow - full length mirrors in the loo. :)

There was much I left unsaid regarding the possibilities of the comparatively spacious loo, but presumably given the comment's location under entertainment, adults can read between the lines. After I landed, I called a friend and discussed this and asked, "How long do you think before..." and he interrupted me to say, "About 8 hours ago."

Oh, wait, here was one part left unsaid that should have been said: the loo had its own pop/rock music playing. One glitch, IMHO, is that the loo music didn't cut off when PA announcements were made. I missed a PA announcement while I was spending a penny at one point in the flight. What if it had been a seatbelt sign announcement? They should fix that.

adampenrith Mar 1, 09 6:47 pm

Heleno,

Thank you so much for a fantastic detailed TR.

As a fan of Virgin Blue in OZ - and a keen follower of V Australia - thank you from the bottom of my true blue Aussie heart!!!

I get it - when you say V - Australia is hip - Virgin Blue is like that too, I personally enjoy the lightheartedness of the Virgin Blue annoucments, I have travelled extensively with DJ and their tone never gets boring or trite.

On of our best remembered moments, was after a very heavy landing in Melbourne during the first year or so of operation, - the welcome annoucement was "welcome to melbourne, as the captain takes whats left of the aircraft to the terminal, we ask that you remain seated until the aircraft has come to a stop outside the terminal and the seat belt sign is switched off.etc".

Hopefully now that there is some real competition on the trans pacific route we will see consistently great fares.

Thanks again and good luck getting some great tickets from Sir Richard.

Adam

Kiwi Flyer Mar 1, 09 8:23 pm

Thanks for the great report heleno ^^^ and welcome to Flyer Talk :)

Inaugural flights are fun - I was disappointed I couldn't be on this one due to my schedule.

gosha83 Mar 1, 09 11:47 pm

Thank you for the trip report!

MatthewLAX Mar 2, 09 12:32 am

Wonderful trip report. I'm almost sorry I cancelled my VA flight for next week...

Welcome to FT!

EK_Flyer Mar 2, 09 12:45 am

Brilliant Trip Report :-: ... Thanks for sharing your experience in such a unique and well written report !

Any chance of posting a few pictures ? :)


Cheers

heleno Mar 2, 09 1:00 am


Originally Posted by adampenrith (Post 11342892)
Heleno,

Thank you so much for a fantastic detailed TR.

As a fan of Virgin Blue in OZ - and a keen follower of V Australia - thank you from the bottom of my true blue Aussie heart!!!

...

welcome annoucement was "welcome to melbourne, as the captain takes whats left of the aircraft to the terminal, [...]".

Hopefully now that there is some real competition on the trans pacific route we will see consistently great fares.

Thanks again and good luck getting some great tickets from Sir Richard.

Adam

You're mighty welcome, Adam! I'm also a fan of Virgin Blue, and have flown all of my domestic segments on them for the past few years when in Oz, after an Aussie friend recommended them as an alternative to QF. It was my history with DJ that caused me to think VA would be a very interesting airline.

My running joke about DJ is that they've seemingly tried to damage me several times, but seem to keep not succeeding at it, so I therefore must conclude that they're about the safest airline I could possibly fly. Literally, I've been in a bird strike that required an engine shutdown and an emergency landing complete with firetrucks and disembarking away from the terminal, a landing in a then-new Embraer on a short BNE runway on which we BARELY stopped in time after the pilot applied emergency speed brakes (so I can relate to that Melbourne comment!), etc. Yes, even though I'm not an Oz resident, I've still managed to fly a couple dozen DJ segments over the years.

I'm excited about what VA has already done to fares on the SYD-LAX route. It's making it all the easier to lure my stateside friends to come with me on future trips Down Under, so that I can show them a country I really love! I'm even working on my senior-citizen Aunt, trying to explain to her that if she travels Business, it's really not that different from sitting at home in her lounge chair and watching TV for a day.

Oh, and I strongly want to move to Oz for at least a few years and work Down Under... and may apply for a position mentioned on the DJ recruiting web site, as I've done similar work at a globally-known large corporation before.

heleno Mar 2, 09 1:02 am


Originally Posted by EK_Flyer (Post 11344255)
Brilliant Trip Report :-: ... Thanks for sharing your experience in such a unique and well written report !

Any chance of posting a few pictures ? :)


Cheers

As soon as I get the pics and video off my devices and onto my computer, sure! I originally wrote the TR without knowing of the TR forum, so I didn't follow any of the tips and didn't know the bit about being able to include pictures.

BiziBB Mar 2, 09 1:06 am

heleno, reading your trip report again, we all look forward to your next one. ^

I'm so happy to read your report and hope it's just the beginning of your posts here on FlyyerTalk.

Welcome. :)



[Did anyone get a pic of your pec with Sir Dick?]

EK_Flyer Mar 2, 09 1:17 am


Originally Posted by heleno (Post 11344289)
As soon as I get the pics and video off my devices and onto my computer, sure! I originally wrote the TR without knowing of the TR forum, so I didn't follow any of the tips and didn't know the bit about being able to include pictures.


Fantastic mate that would be awesome ! :)

Thanks .. You're a :-:

heleno Mar 2, 09 1:22 am


Originally Posted by BiziBB (Post 11344299)
heleno[Did anyone get a pic of your pec with Sir Dick?]

So, so, so, *SO* sadly no. *OH*, I so wish I'd been travelling with a friend with a camera. I do have a pic of him signing my boarding pass, though. :-)


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