Virgin Blue ditches jets to go 'retro'

Whatever else it is, Virgin and its airline incarnation Down Under, Virgin Blue, is a fashion brand, selling a travel experience. So when Virgin Blue decided to aquire a fleet of small regional jets from Brazil's Embraer in 2006, it marketed them with a slick series of double entendres about Brazilians.

Embraer was one of two manufacturers that rode a fashion wave in the 1990s as airlines discovered they could sometimes double passenger traffic from cities and towns that used to have noisy turboprop airliners if they switched to fast, quieter small jets starting at about 50 seats in size.

In Australia, Ansett joined the rush and bought a fleet of Bombardier regional jets, to replace its big jet services to Tasmania and offer business customers much higher daily frequencies.

But, as the first decade of this century rolled around, the new fashion hit the wall as the price of jet fuel hit the roof – not out of any shortage, but as a result of manipulation of the oil "futures" market.

What do you know? With the price of fuel on the rise again, there are now hundreds of unemployable small regional jets parked in the US desert. Much more fuel efficient turboprops are back in fashion, even though they've never been particularly popular with punters.

And Virgin Blue has announced that it is getting rid of the smaller of the two Embraer types it decided to buy in 2006 – the 70-seat Embraer 170 – even though the 170 and the larger 190 are popular because of their unique oblong cabin design that offers plenty of headroom among other things.

The whole deal is shrouded in mystery as Virgin Blue has revealed little other than the fact that it will lease a new fleet of up to 18 unspecified turboprop airliners, in conjunction with Western Australian regional airline, Skywest.

VB hasn't even said where the turboprops will be flying, but there's plenty of speculation they'll be flying all over the VB network in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, as well as in WA.

My tip, for example, is that VB will use them to operate its first services to Bundaberg and Gladstone; it's an embarrassment for the Brisbane-based carrier that it has never been able to fly to these centres, when it boasts it's Queensland's biggest airline.

The obvious candidate elsewhere is the Sydney-Canberra route. If the airline chooses the fast turboprop Bombardier Q400 – a plane that new Virgin Blue boss John Borghetti saw up close at Qantas – a whole range of other routes come into calculations as the aircraft can compete on flying time with bigger jets on routes of up to as much as 1000 kilometres.

But how will a new fleet of turboprops be greeted by punters in Australia? They've never been popular because of the increased cabin noise and vibration compared with jets, and they tend to find more rough weather because they're unable to fly above it.

I remember, in the 1990s, flying from Melbourne to Adelaide via Mount Gambier in a Kendell Airlines Saab 340; the cabin vibration was so bad my voice sounded like a psychedelic audio experiment.

In my rare trips to the bush, I've found Qantas's Bombardier Dash 8s better than Rex's Saab 340s for noise, but there's no doubt the technology is better nowadays on both types with cabin noise and vibration suppression systems.

What do you think? Would you change your booking if you had a choice between a jet and a turboprop? What has your experience been on Qantas and Rex turboprops? Would you fly in a Virgin Blue turboprop? What is your experience in Australia and overseas with regional jets and turboprops?

CORRECTION: In the first edition of this blog, I made the error of not updating my knowledge of Bundaberg airport and assumed that it could not take large jet aircraft. In fact, the airport was upgraded more than a year ago.