Friday, 9 October 2009

The Business End 1: LAX-SYD on V Australia

I’ve only been upgraded to international Business Class on two occasions. The first was on a flight from Perth to Bandar Seri Begawan in 1992; and as Royal Brunei Airlines didn’t serve alcohol on its flights, there wasn’t much popping of champagne corks.

The second time was two weeks ago from Los Angeles to Sydney, when Virgin's new airline V Australia bumped our media group up to Business.

Now, given that my trips in international Business apparently only happen every 17 years, and I could never afford to pay for it myself, this seems a good opportunity to share the secrets of the pointy end with my fellow travellers, via a review of Biz Class.

Is it really worth all that extra cash? This is what I thought...

Pre-boarding

It’s funny the tiny bits of excitement that being in Business Class can bring, even before finding your seat: having a single-digit row number on your boarding card, for example, or being asked to turn left inside the aircraft door instead of right.

That is, once you’ve made it through check-in. V Australia (I'll call them V from now on) takes off from Terminal 3 at LAX. It’s hard to sing the praises of Terminal 3 - it’s a long, dingy concrete box (like all the LAX terminals I saw), and particularly poorly signposted.

V’s check-in, through no fault of their own, is squeezed into a fairly cramped area at the front of the terminal, and it’s a bit messy and straggling even if you’re in the Biz Class queue.

However, boarding pass secured, I had access to the Alaska Airlines lounge. One of the attendants there said that Alaska would be moving out in due course, presumably giving V free rein to redesign the place. The lounge was comfortable but not lavish; no hot food, but a selection of salad, cheese and crackers, and a full bar.

Chatting about the merits of Montana and North Dakota, we got into conversation with some of our fellow passengers, who were just the type of Australian travellers those states want to attract - people who’ve done the USA’s big cities and want to try something new.

Layout

The first thing that strikes you in the Business Class cabin is the space. And I mean spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace. Seats are arranged in a widely spaced 2-3-2 configuration, with two metres clearance between you and the seatback in front. It’s a long way to reach for your inflight mag, but who cares? After years of Economy travel, it’s exhilarating just to be able to move around freely.

Behind a bulkhead at the rear of the cabin is a full-sized bar (see the image above, supplied by V). It’s a curved counter with four fixed barstools which swivel beneath it for safety when not being used. There’s a long shallow depression in the bar surface to rest glasses in, and a shelf of spirits and mixers against the bulkhead.

Staff will pour you a drink on request through the flight - though I did notice the bottles had disappeared by breakfast time the next morning, probably a sensible precaution against people overdoing it.

Seating

The seat is what you’re largely paying the big bucks for in Biz Class. It was distinctly roomier than the Premium Economy Class one I'd flown from Sydney in, but not phenomenally so - it was still fairly snug for my (admittedly broad) shoulders. The surface of the seat was firm but not uncomfortable, something I’ve noticed on all the 777s I’ve flown on recently.

Boeing makes a big deal of how much lighter these aircraft are, and therefore more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, so I suspect the designers have thinned out the padding in the seats as well. It’s probably better for your back to have firm support, in any case.

The only flaw concerned tall people. The seat contains a broad, thick headrest which can be pushed up a little higher; but not high enough for everyone. For anyone over about 180cm (6 feet) tall, the headrest pushes into the back of your shoulders, an uncomfortable situation that could be remedied by the airline making the extension longer or removable. I stuffed the area with pillows to try to make it easier to deal with, or reclined the seat in order to slump down and avoid it.

When it’s time for sleep, the seat is folded down by a flight attendant into a flat bed with a sheet and blanket, and a privacy divider between you and your neighbour. When the lights are dimmed, a starfield appears as pinpricks of light on the ceiling. It’s a firm bed, but it’s definitely possible to get a few hours’ sleep on it, a huge advantage over Economy Class squeeziness.

Entertainment

V had the advantage of fitting these aircraft out from scratch, so the entertainment system is fantastic, definitely the highlight of the flight. It’s the first aircraft entertainment system I’ve encountered with wide screens, which makes a big difference to the movie viewing experience.

What’s even more exciting is the gaming experience. I’ve never bothered much with onboard games before, as the systems running them are usually painfully slow and it’s just not worth the hassle. V’s system, however, is fast and responsive, and there’s a broad selection of games beyond the usual Tetris and solitaire.

I spent hours playing Texas draw poker with a bunch of virtual opponents, which was great fun. It was just the sort of compulsive, absorbing distraction I want on a long flight.

You can even play some games with other passengers on the flight, which is a great idea and adds to the “fun” V marketing image. There’s also a chat room in which passengers can talk, though I didn’t encounter anyone else there the few times I logged in. I can’t see that feature lasting, frankly - all it’ll take is one embarrassing discussion hitting the media and it’ll be withdrawn. But what the hell, there are always the games.

There was one small flaw with the entertainment system, one shared by most airlines - the movie offering was too narrow for my tastes, with a big emphasis on Hollywood flicks. There were only three films I fancied watching - Milk, The Boat That Rocked and The Young Victoria (oh look, Jim Broadbent in period costume again) - and even they were arthouse-lite.

Given the system's presumably large capacity, I’d like to see a wider range of material, including more arthouse movies - if you’re paying for the premium class, it’d be nice to have some premium quality movies to watch. And I don’t know why airlines don’t serve up more TV series. On a 14 hour flight, it’d be great to have a six-part British comedy series - Beautiful People, The Robinsons or No Heroics, for example - to watch over the course of the journey.

Food

I wasn’t blown away by the food - it was good without being spectacular, and presented attractively. To be honest, when you get on board a flight at midnight after snacking in the lounge, and having come from a domestic destination two timezones further on, all you want to do is sleep!

Service

This was flawless. I don’t know if V pay their staff more than other airlines do, but they have a knack of employing people who are efficient, flexible, good-natured and clearly enjoy their jobs. As you’d expect, there’s a surplus of flight attendants in Biz Class; but on the trip over in Premium Economy I found the same helpful staff. Frankly, it was a relief to discover the flight attendants weren’t actually the slightly scary hyper-coiffed fembots depicted in V's TV ad featuring Sir Richard Branson...

Conclusion

You’d expect V’s Business Class to be good - and it was very good. Flaws like the short headrest will, I assume, be dealt with in due course; one of the attendants mentioned that adjustments were made to elements of the cabin from time to time, as the aircraft were still so new (and it's to V's credit that its staff were so open to constructive feedback). But of course the plentiful space and the opportunity to sleep on a flat bed were impressive.

I also found the flight attendants’ level of service to be excellent in both Business and Premium Economy.

But the real game-changer is V’s entertainment system, a huge asset on such a long flight in any class. I’d actually choose this airline over another if that was the main point of difference.

Verdict

To give you a sense of proportion: when I wrote this piece, return Economy Class on V from Sydney to Los Angeles started from about A$1100; Premium Economy from A$2000; and Business Class from A$5000.

These are excellent when compared to the fares from a few years ago; even Premium Economy now is cheaper than Economy was then.

But is Business Class worth a few extra thousand dollars for a flat bed, quality headphones, fine service and the various other goodies? Only you can decide that.

I’d travel Business Class on V like a shot if I was made of money; but back in the real world, I’d definitely pay the extra bucks to go Premium Economy. With its own separate cabin and compact bar, and significant extra legroom over Economy, it might be the best compromise between price and comfort for most.

But Business Class was very very nice.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of zuji.com.au and V Australia.