There is a new way to fly around regional Australia, and like with most new things lately, it is with Virgin Australia.
Well, in this case, Virgin Australia and Perth-based Skywest. The two announced their partnership in January and in February announced an order for ATR72-500s and -600s. The -500 and -600 are relatively the same in terms of configuration and range, but the -600 features an all glass cockpit and newer design interior. Undoubtedly Virgin would have preferred to only have -600s, but Virgin’s planned launch date was May, before the first -600 was due to be certified and delivered to launch customer Royal Air Maroc (plus early -600 delivery slots were hard to get).
The Virgin/Skywest deal was four -500s (three delivered so far), four -600s (to be delivered starting next year), and options on five -600s. Leasing company “Aviation” owns the aircraft, which are operated by Skywest for Virgin — an arrangement conducted as Virgin did not have the time and resources, particularly pilot training, to launch its own operation. This deal has since caused some friction between Virgin and Skywest as their CEOs disagree over how/where the ATRs should be deployed. Virgin envisions one day operating its ATRs by itself without Skywest, with some potentially interesting tie-ins and synergies with Air New Zealand, who last week ordered 12 ATR72-600s to complement its -500 fleet and is keen to work with Virgin. (Disclosure: I wrote the articles linked to.)
The May EIS quietly and with no public explanation slipped five months to last week. (Imagine if this was Qantas and/or the 787.)
I booked my ticket I booked my ticket the day ATR flights were announced in August. I briefly contemplated going on the first revenue service (Brisbane-Gladstone) but a 6am departure entailed flying up the night before, logistics and costs I did not like. (Judging from this trip report (Virgins First ATR service to GLT), however, the first flight was pushed back to mid-morning.)I then considered one of the inaugurals on Wednesday to Port Macquarie, but I thought I ought to spend some time wherever I end up going and may as well wait until the weekend. Besides, this was only a dainty ATR, not an A330 (for which I was on the inaugural flight for, both the first SYD-PER and PER-SYD).
From there my quest became figuring out which ATR flights with what positioning flights (I live in MEL) were the best combination and I settled on SYD-PQQ-SYD. A SYD-CBR sector was tempting, but with such a short flight time I thought I wouldn’t get a full ATR experience, and Gladstone did not pique my interest. I ended up deciding to use 18,200 Velocity points as the fares, relative to distance flown, were high and I seldom have the chance to use my Velocity points as the routes I typically fly have cheaper fares on Tiger and Jetstar (sorry elite-card-wielding folks, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing about airlines, it’s that they and their services are all marketing of commoditised products, and I’m not giving in).
I checked in online but when I went to the airport to print my boarding pass (I like real boarding passes, not sheets of A4 paper, thanks) the kiosk gave me an unspecified error. There were only a few people ahead of me in the human check-in queue, not bad for nearly 4pm on a Friday afternoon. I politely explained my situation and gave my ID to the check-in woman, who without uttering a word, explanation, or apology gave me my boarding pass and sent me on my way. (Perhaps she needed one of the sugar-infused cupcakes from the inaugural (Virgins First ATR service to GLT).) Curiously, on my way to security I noticed the premium check-in queue was significantly longer than the non-premium queue.
I was perplexed to discover my boarding pass made no mention the flight was operated by Skywest. For reference, Qantas boarding passes do offer this disclosure. This would be a big no-no in the US, where there has been greater regulatory oversight of transparency of flights operated by another carrier since the Colgan Air crash. Virgin does, however, denote with an orange square Skywest-operated flights for sale on its website. Qantas for Jetconnect and QantasLink uses the same red triangle as for the mainline service. It is only when you click on the flight number the pop-up box says the flight is operated by another airline. I have no problem at all with airlines using subsidiaries, be they Skywest or Jeet Kainect, but transparency is needed.
Boarding was at gate 31, in the corner of Virgin’s pier. Boarding commenced with the special folks and then rows 1-10, which seemed to cause minor confusion to people used to boarding from the rear. The ATR72-500 boards only from the rear as the luggage hold is at the front of the aircraft. The -600 has a similar arrangement although with an optional front door as well. (I don’t know if Virgin has elected for the front passenger door on its -600s.)
On the tarmac was a small trolley for bags that were too big for the cabin to go in the hold. I was in the middle of the boarding queue and no bags had been placed in the trolley yet. On one side was a transparent folder with Virgin-branded luggage tags specifying “ATR” in the centre of the tag (will have to ask for one on my way back), and on the other side a scale, presumably to weigh the bags going in the (aft?) hold for weight and balance purposes.
Here are some pics of VH-FVI (“Mission Beach”) taken before ground staff told me I couldn’t take pics on the tarmac. (Oh, sorry, I didn’t know :)
The entry area (galley on the starboard side, lav on the port side) is relatively spacious. One benefit of boarding from the rear is that you do not have witness the disappointing, by Virgin standards, interior of solid black seats. Although conversely I wonder if boarding from the rear and not seeing the seats meant Virgin thought it could skimp on the interior details.
My biggest dislike was the lack of adjustable headrests or even extra padding at the top of the seat (JQ-like). For those who like a quick in-flight nap, good luck. The seats are thin and there is not much padding, but they are OK to sit in. Moving the literature pocket (where the mag, safety card, and airsickness bag are stored) to the top of the seat frees up a noticable amount of kneespace.
There is a small pocket at the bottom of the seat, I suspect meant by the manufacturer to hold a safety card, but Virgin’s is too big. From my knees to the seat I was able to place my boarding pass (minus the stub).
By all means the ATR cabin is way ahead of QantasLink Dash 8, but that is what you would expect for any new aircraft compared to an old aircraft. Those who fly speciic and regular regional routes that Virgin is or will be flying to will likely prefer Virgin’s fresher look (if all other product, e.g. FFP, propositions click), but those who fly on many regional routes could be better off sticking to QantasLink, as their fleet of 50-odd aircraft and corresponding network is significanlty greater than what Virgin can achieve with up to 12 ATRs for the short/medium-term.
ATR has spruced up the 72-600 interior with a product known as “Armonia”. (You can see here pics I took at the Paris air show of the -600 interior on an aircraft for RAM). While not available on the -500, Virgin’s -500 looks very similiar to the Armonia interior. The major difference is the lack of an updated passenger service unit (where the seatbelt sign etc. is). Virgin’s cabin seemed just as bright and the bins just as big as on the -600. On the note of RAM’s -600 interior, couldn’t Virgin at the very least have elected for red trim on the seats (below)?
The safety card provided some musings. As others have noted, oxygen masks, if necessary, can only be deployed by the crew:
I found strange that the safety card asks you that after landing in water to assess if the aircraft is lopsided and then evacuate on the higher side (avoid water flooding the cabin).
Really? That seems demanding where after you are in shock from a crash “landing” you have to think to check the plane’s level, see if you can actually discern it, and then based off of that chose your egress method. The complexity reminded me of an episode of Come Fly with Me where ficticious airline owner Omar Baba demonstrates how to use a lifejacket on his no-frills airline: remove from seat pouch, swipe credit card, and enter pin.
Boarding for our 4:25pm departure commenced shortly before 4pm and by 4:10 or 4:15 everyone was seated but we were waiting on a few last passengers and paperwork, the pilot announced. The missing passengers became no-shows and off-loading procedures commenced, delaying departure 10-15 minutes. But at least we were kept informed and told why there was a delay. Lately Virgin flights I have been on the past few months have 15-20 minute delays without the gate agents or crew formally announcing the delay, let alone specifying why. (Although a recent disclosure from Tiger that a flight was delayed due to problems re-fuelling the aircraft was not a vote of confidence. Ignorance is bliss?)
There are two FAs on board, and for the safety demo one read the text while the other demonstrated at the front of the cabin, meaning those in the back–if they were paying attention–would have had a hard time seeing it.
We had a long taxi out to 34R. Being low to the ground lets you appreciate how quickly the ATR moves, and also all the groves and bumps on a tarmac.
Near the threshold I saw some fishermen on a boat very close to the runway. Now that’s a place to go spotting!
If I had a window seat I would have had a great view, with pictures, of the Sydney CBD and eastern shore, although I was still able to appreciate it from my aisle seat. Upon arrival in PQQ someone on Twitter had seen an ATR over the CBD shortly before 5pm and asked if that was my flight. Sure was.
The fasten seat belt sign was quickly turned off after take off and the crew commenced the in-flight service, which offers a complimentary snack and drink service (including beer and wine) as the limited galley space prohibits the full range of items being sold (for those curious, there was no menu in the seat pocket). Plus I have a suspicion Virgin is gradually moving to free snacks and drinks for all.
The flight attendants came through with a snack service consisting of Sydney Biscit Company bread sticks (“sea salt grissani”) with pumpkin dip neatly boxed up. Diligence was taken with presentation as the crew carefully placed the box below the napkin/satchel on the tray table — no random placing or putting the items directly into passenger hands.
The snack size was very small and was certainly no sandwich served on the Brisbane-Gladstone flight (Virgins First ATR service to GLT).
The snack was smaller than the contents of the boxes handed out on QantasLink flights, and also I suspect smaller than the “refreshment” option on Qantas mainline flights.
I missed the Qantas option of fresh fruit (apples). While SYD-PQQ is 70 miles shorter than BNE-GLT, catching a 4:25 flight means leaving the Sydney CBD around 3pm, and to do that I elected to skip lunch to stay productive. Or perhaps the thinking is that the important passengers are lounge cardholders and can get extra nourishment there.
The presentation of Virgin’s service was very nice, but it seems Qantas v Virgin regional is like deciding if you want a hearty meal at a suitable restaurant (Qantas) or if you want an ultra-post-modern restaurant whose presentation fills you up in lieu of decent serving sizes (Virgin).
Wine, beer, water, and (orange) juice were all offered, and Virgin did not skimp on serving size with noticeably large bottles of water and orange juice. While there was only one beer option (full size can), it was Pure Blonde — something decent (and not VB).
With my snack consumed I turned my attention to the white cloth with requisite Luke Mangan & Virgin logo. (No offence to Luke’s company, but in serving drinks and a snack box from a third-party company, what exactly did he do for this service?) I initially though the cloth was a rather extravagant (for an airplane flight) napkin. Unfolding it revealed a pouch at the bottom where a packet with napkin and condiments was stored — clever but over-engineered.
Fumbling with the cloth I discovered one side opened at the top and became a waste bag, a la Qantas.
There were no markings on the bag (unlike Qantas) and in my immedieate vicinity I only saw one passenger figure out the bag’s purpose and use it as such. Everyone else handed rubbish piece by piece to the flight attendant. Considering there were not many items in this service and the flight attendants did not struggle to pick up rubbish, it seems wasteful to have this bag. (Remind me to heckle the bean counters at the AGM next month.)
I was going to find out if it’s permitted to have a second drink, but we started descent before I could find out. Here’s a cabin shot:
Here we are on the ground at PQQ, with a pic (backlit position, again) before ground staff told me off for taking photos. (Oh, sorry, I didn’t know :)
Here’s a pic of the PQQ terminal if you’re interested.
Virgin/Skywest ATR72 in summary
- newer aircraft, so interior looks better
- food service looks nice
- generous beverage (water and juice) sizes
- seats could with more padding and some form of headrest/support
- snacks skimpy
- over-engineered rubbish bag is wasteful