Virgin Australia has unveiled new business-class suites for its fleet of A330s and Boeing 777s in a move that will offer all travellers in the cabin a fully-flat bed and direct aisle access for the first time.
The new seats, to be installed from between March and August next year on the A330s and from November to early 2016 on the 777s, also offer larger in-flight entertainment screens and more storage space.
On trans-continental routes, the product will compete head to head against Qantas's new A330 business class suites, which will be installed on its fleet of domestic and international aircraft from December.
The Virgin seats will replace angled lie-flat beds first installed in 2011 that led to sharper competition between the two carriers on flights between the east coast and Perth. The new seats are manufactured by B/E Aerospace and have been customised, but they are most similar to business class seats used by Air Canada.
"We know we already have the best business class trans-continental in Australia and this will take it to the next level," Virgin chief executive John Borghetti said after unveiling the new product in Singapore on Wednesday. "An Australian trans-continental flight can be six hours and that is long by any standard. You need to have a comfortable seat to do that crossing."
Mr Borghetti also emphasised the new seat would be accompanied by top-tier service along with a new menu being prepared by chef Luke Mangan.
Virgin will cut the number of business class seats available in its A330s from 24 to 20 as a result of the change to a 1-2-1 configuration with an 80 inch bed.
On its 777 aircraft, which fly to Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi, Virgin will use the same seat offering for product consistency. It will increase the number of business class seats to 27 from 24 and install a redesigned bar for those passengers. In premium economy, the number of seats will reduce from 40 to 21 and the bar will be removed, but each passenger will receive an additional 3 inches of legroom, taking the seat pitch to 41 inches. Virgin will also offer some economy class seats with additional legroom.
"We are trying to pitch the business class seat at a halfway house between business and first and premium economy as a halfway house between economy and business, but closer to business," Mr Borghetti said.
David Flynn, the editor of independent website Australian Business Traveller said Virgin's new seats had a "superb design" and were easily among the world's best business class seats.
"It could be sold as first class on many airlines," he said. "One of the seat's best traits is ample storage for all that carry-on kit which business travellers seem to lug around these days."
Virgin Australia and Singapore Airlines also announced it would allow members of their respective frequent flyer programs to convert points between the programs for the first time to allow for greater access to reward seats and upgrades.
The new deal will allow members of Virgin's Velocity frequent flyer program to book an economy class seat on Singapore Airlines and to upgrade to business class using points. At present, Qantas Airways does not allow its frequent flyers to use points to upgrade on flights on planes flown by alliance partner Emirates.
Singapore Airlines is one of the largest shareholders in Virgin and a key alliance partner for flights to Asia and Europe. Singapore Airlines also holds an indirect interest in budget carrier Tigerair Australia, which is now 60 per cent-owned by Virgin.
The airlines have not yet announced the conversion rates between Velocity points and KrisFlyer miles, but the new offering will be available to members of both programs from November.
Virgin now has 4.5 million members of its Velocity program, with around 2000 more joining each day. That compares to the 10.2 million members of Qantas's frequent flyer program.
The reporter travelled to Singapore as a guest of Virgin Australia