If 2020 was Virgin Australia’s year from hell, 2021 was the year Virgin Australia started getting its mojo back. This year wasn’t an easy year for the airline, but throughout 2021 Virgin Australia kept rolling out a series of product and network improvements.
Twenty months after Virgin Australia went into voluntary administration, the airline hasn’t quite got its pre-administration swagger back yet. But Virgin Australia is well on its way. Here are five cool moves Virgin Australia made this year to get passengers back onboard.
Virgin Australia upsizes its fleet and gets adventurous with new city pairs
This time last year, Virgin Australia had downsized to around 55 aircraft and scaled back to become a one aircraft type airline – sticking to Boeing 737-800s. The Airbus A330s, ATR72s, and Boeing 777s all got the flick.
At the same time, it looked like Virgin Australia would abandon most of its regional flying, sticking to mainline Australian trunk routes and a few key leisure destinations. But this year, the airline has been a mine of fleet and network surprizes.
Virgin Australia is still sticking with the vanilla Boeing 737s, but they’ve upsized the fleet by nearly 50% in the space of 12 months. They’ve also added a swag of new routes that reveal an element of welcome adventurism.
Getting a lot of attention was long-neglected Tasmania. Before voluntary administration, Virgin Australia flew nonstop to three destinations from the Tasmanian capital of Hobart. Now they fly to six. The northern Tasmanian city of Launceston has also doubled the number of its Virgin Australia city pairs to six.
What’s interesting/crazy brave/adventurous about many of these city pairs is that no airline has flown them for years, if ever. It was good to see Virgin Australia step out of their comfort zone this year and give some new and untested routes a go.
Virgin Australia puts Noodlegate behind it and sorts its catering out
Virgin Australia hit a low water mark late last year when one unhappy business class passenger posted a picture online of a cup of instant noodles that was the business class meal. The image went viral and was promptly tagged Noodlegate.
Twelve months later, Virgin Australia has picked up its catering game. In March, the airline rolled out its new business class catering menu that has drawn wide praise. Hot cafe-style meals come served in wide bowls and the complimentary drinks flow freely.
In the main cabin, while retaining complimentary tea, coffee, and water, Virgin Australia introduced a buy-onboard menu. That menu wasn’t so well received. The lack of substantial hot food items, particularly on longer flights, was criticized.
Virgin Australia has recently sorted that by introducing more substantial fresh food items to the economy class menu, including wraps, sandwiches, and hot pies. As a little bit of icing, Violet Crumbles and Cheezels are also now available for sale.
Up in business class, due to popular demand, Virgin Australia is doubling the supplies of sparkling wine loaded on each flight. A glass of sparkling is proving a popular pre-departure tipple for Virgin Australia’s business class passengers.
Two bright lounge spots after a series of closures
2020 was a sad and sorry year for Virgin Australia’s lounge regulars. The airline closed nearly half its lounges, including in significant airports like Cairns and Darwin. Unfortunately, that put Virgin Australia at a serious disadvantage to rival Qantas, especially when chasing the corporate dollar and premium passengers.
Virgin Australia has made no moves to reopen any shuttered lounges, but they have overhauled two surviving lounges and done a pretty sterling job. Both the Melbourne and Adelaide lounges reopened this year to good reviews and, in those cities at least, offer Qantas some competition.
Airline lounges are an odd proposition. They appeal to a minority of passengers, but that minority is a crucial passenger base. They usually fly a lot. Virgin Australia’s new(ish) CEO Jayne Hrdlicka isn’t chasing the lounge-loving corporate market as hard as her predecessors did. Virgin Australia has obviously done some sort of cost-benefit analysis, and figures less is more when it comes to their airport lounge footprint.
Delta dumped as Virgin Australia snuggles up to United Airlines
Many Virgin Australia loyalists almost choked on their breakfast coffee recently while reading the news Virgin Australia was dumping its long-time North American codeshare buddy Delta Air Lines.
In a stunning “it was fun while it lasted” switcheroo, Virgin Australia decided United Airlines was more them. In many ways, it makes sense. Before the travel downturn, United had the most extensive network of any North American airline into Australia, and they have significant brand awareness in the country.
United marked the partnership by taking out full-page advertisements in major metropolitan dailies across Australia. It read like a citizenship application.
But equally, many Australia-based Virgin Australia passengers preferred the Delta inflight product. The dumping of Delta gave rise to all sorts of speculation. The United partnership gives Virgin Australia a significant transpacific presence without having an actual transpacific presence like it used to.
The United tie-up also allows Virgin Australia to indefinitely defer any long-haul flying using its own metal at a time when it cannot afford to undertake such an expensive venture. It also gave fresh impetus to perennial chit-chat about Virgin Australia joining Star Alliance. But regional Star Alliance members Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand would have definite views about that.
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Virgin Australia resumes international flying
To wrap up the year on a high note, Virgin Australia resumed international operations. Granted, it was a relatively short sector and only two routes, but it was a significant step forward. In mid-December, Virgin Australia restarted flights between Sydney and Nadi and Melbourne and Nadi.
These flights are a far cry from Virgin Australia’s glamorous Boeing 777-300 ER flights to Los Angeles that ended in early 2020. But when that happened, there were doubts Virgin Australia would ever resume international flights at all.
On this level, the relaunch of flights to Fiji is somewhat of a triumph for Virgin Australia. Sure, it’s baby steps, but it’s baby steps forward rather than backward. Next year, Virgin Australia is eyeing flights to Bali and New Zealand, subject to travel restrictions.
CEO Jayne Hrdlicka said at the mid-December relaunch, until the onset of the travel downturn, Virgin Australia had held the highest market share of any other Australian carrier for services operated to Fiji. She added the airline aimed to continue being very competitive.
Virgin Australia has continued to roll out product and network upgrades throughout the year. There’s still a way to go, but Virgin Australia is coming along in leaps and bounds after a slow post-administration start. It will be interesting to see what 2022 brings.