Aircraft interiors the new airline battleground

The battleground for the past decade in domestic air travel has been chiefly on price and thankfully that four-way contest still exists at the bottom of the market. If you just want to get somewhere cheaply, there are abundant options if you don’t mind having your knees under your chin.

Now, the battle is moving upmarket as Virgin Australia continues to remake itself as a head-on competitor to Qantas, so everything is on the table from the front of the plane to the back.

The latest fashion battleground is aircraft interiors – something of a problem since the workhorse of both Qantas and Virgin fleets is the 737-800. Nevertheless both are rolling out their own versions of the new Boeing 737 “Sky Interior”, which uses light, increased headroom, reduced noise, and newly designed luggage bins to give a feeling of space.

Virgin is already flying the Sky Interior in Australia and the first of 17 Qantas planes with the cabin is about to roll off the Boeing production line in Seattle.

"The ceiling is about giving the passengers the feeling of sky overhead," Boeing passenger satisfaction regional director Colleen Kottlowski told Australian journalists in Seattle last week. "First of all to connect them back to the flying experience and second to make the plane feel a little bit more spacious.”

The windows have also been redesigned to make them appear bigger and the cabin offers more storage space for hand luggage in ergonomically designed pivoting bins that are less intrusive than traditional bins and simpler to access. The increased headroom means that most passengers in the two seats closest to aisle will be able to stand up.

Qantas is also introducing Marc Newson-designed leather business class seats in a new claret colour scheme and says it already has Newson-styled Weber economy seats designed to provide extra legroom in all its new 737-800s. The airline is providing international standard seat-back video on demand in its new planes.

The airline will be introducing its new product on east coast markets, but it hopes the revamp will give it an edge on flights to Perth, where most people steer away from 737s in favour of more spacious widebodies like the 767 and A330, as well as on the Tasman.

Qantas general manager of customer experience Alison Webster said a key difference with Virgin was the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system. “We are taking delivery of all of our 737-800s with the Panasonic in-seat and seat-back IFE system and I think that is a significant differential for Qantas,” she told The Australian.

However, Virgin Australia is also planning to up the ante on in-flight entertainment and connectivity. Its predecessor, Virgin Blue, was a pioneer in offering Australia’s first live in-flight pay TV in conjunction with Foxtel.

But next year chief executive John Borghetti will reportedly unveil the next step of his so-called "Game Change" strategy to take Virgin Australia upmarket.

Virgin is said to be in advanced discussions with a range of suppliers to offer in-flight WiFi for both internet access and media streaming of inflight entertainment to passengers' laptops, tablets or smartphones.

The programs will be beamed wirelessly throughout the aircraft, eliminating the need for Borghetti to refit his entire fleet with costly, new in-flight entertainment players. Those passengers without a device would be offered an iPad for use during the flight.

There has been talk of Virgin installing the Panasonic Red entertainment system on its 737s, which is in use on Virgin America and V Australia and Virgin hopes to have a trial Boeing 737 aircraft carrying the product domestically early next year, with the new services rolled out across its entire fleet within 12 months.

The carrier’s existing Live-to-Air TV service had its strongest take-up rates among passengers on long trans-Nullabor services, but it’s understood the airline is disappointed with the poor usage rates, even though the pay-per-view rate starts at just $5 payable by credit card swipe.

Qantas says it plans in-flight internet for both domestic and international services, following a so-called fleet-wide connectivity review.

But the problem so far in Australia has been the cost of the technology. While some US carriers offer in-flight WiFi services, the number of WiFi base stations in Australia is limited, which means satellite technology is required – and that technology investment has to be spread over far fewer paying users than in the US.

Meantime, there continue to rumours that Virgin Australia is interested in either taking over or co-operating with Tiger Airways, a third of which is owned by Virgin Australia’s new alliance partner, Singapore Airlines.

A Virgin-aligned or owned Tiger would be a good fit for both lots of movers and shakers: It would give VA more freedom to move upmarket in competition with Qantas for business flyers, while acquiring a cheap leisure product to compete with Qantas subsidiary Jetstar.

Singapore Airlines also wants to keep the pressure up on Qantas and its hand was strongly in evidence in the departure of Tony Davis from Tiger Airways as its group chief executive after Tiger’s Australian grounding, the installation of Singapore Airlines manager Chin Yau Seng to replace him and the appointment of former Virgin Blue chief operating officer Andrew David to run Tiger in Australia.

Are you actively comparing the passenger experience on Virgin Australia and Qantas in Australia and on the Tasman? Are you seeing changes in their respective services and the quality of the product they offer? Do you agree with John Borghetti’s boast that Virgin Australia will become the airline of choice for Australians or is he getting ahead of himself?

Photos: New Boeing 737 interiors