Virgin Blue launches AFL plane amid controversy

Amid criticism from certain quarters in the Australian Football League, Virgin Blue has unveiled a new Boeing 737-800 in AFL livery today, after replacing Qantas as the league's official airline in a deal announced in November.

The Boeing, its fuselage emblazoned with the logos of the AFL and the 17 league clubs, took off from Adelaide this morning carrying the Adelaide Crows for a pre-season training camp on the Gold Coast.

The AFL's decision to dump Qantas in favour of Virgin Blue has drawn heated criticism from some club officials, including Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett, who has accused the AFL of putting money before players' welfare by selecting an airline with planes not fitted out with expansive seating.

While Virgin Blue offers "premium economy" seating with extra knee room, Mr Kennett has raised health concerns especially for players returning on flights after matches.

"If those players in the course of their work get hurt or injured, you have a responsibility that when you're transporting them around the country, you do so with their health interests at a very high priority. It's going to make it very, very difficult and you're going to find clubs having to stay overnight when they otherwise and previously didn't," Mr Kennett told radio station 3AW recently.

"You're going to find disrupted training and players that are injured, hurt coming back in a worse condition than if they'd had a transportation option that allowed greater flexibility with seating."

Virgin Blue says its 737-800 planes have 12 "premium economy" seats with a 34-inch (85 cm) seat pitch, with a further 8 exit-row seats with 38-39 inches (99cm) seat pitch. The remaining 180 economy seats have a seat pitch of 31-33 inches.

Seat pitch is measured from a seat's backrest to the back of the seat ahead.

On Qantas' Boeing 737-800 planes business class has 12 business class seats with a 37-inch pitch, 156 economy seats with a 30-inch pitch, with 39-inch pitches in exit rows.

But Qantas used a range of aircraft to fly football teams, including wide-bodied Boeing 767s and Airbus 330s, with 38-inch pitches in business class.

Nonetheless, the National Basketball League this month defended Virgin Blue, which has sponsorsed the the basketball competition for seven years, claiming it has had no problem accommodating tall sportsmen.

The teams were guaranteed exit rows with more leg room compared with ordinary economy seats.

What eagle-eyed plane-spotters will notice is that Virgin Blue's latest paint job has the airline's logo missing from the tail fin. Signwriting of its name has dropped the "freehand" script of the Virgin brand, in favour of a businesslike sans-serif font.

It could be the precursor to the foreshadowed rebranding exercise that Virgin Blue is developing under John Borghetti, who left Qantas to run the no-frills airline.

Under his watch, Mr Borghetti has been chaging the course of the airline, to chase the lucrative corporate travel market by introducing lounges and forming international alliances, rather than simply relying on low-budget leisure travellers.

The AFL-branded plane will still be carrying fans to and from interstate matches, and will be used outside of game days as a regular part of the Virgin Blue fleet.