In 2009, Virgin Australia (or as it was called then, “V Australia”) launched longhaul flights between Australia and Los Angeles, bringing some much needed competition to the market that was owned by Qantas and United. While the 2-3-2 Boeing 777 business class may seem laughably outdated now, at the time it was a breath of fresh air, and impressed those who flew it.
The good old days
When Virgin Australia launched its Velocity program, it made a significant amount of award space available, both to members of their own program, as well as to members of partner programs, like Delta SkyMiles and Virgin America Elevate.
Transpacific premium award availability is one of the toughest markets to find award seats in, and while there certainly wasn’t availability on every single flight, it was significantly better than on its arch-nemesis, Qantas. The fact that Velocity did not charge fuel surcharges was the cherry-on-top. Back in 2015 Ben noted just how good the availability was:
While Delta, Qantas, and United have all historically been stingy when it comes to releasing saver level premium cabin award space between the two countries, Virgin Australia has been generous by comparison. Really generous. It was pretty normal to consistently see them release multiple business class award seats per flight.
It made Velocity a compelling loyalty program and led to Velocity winning numerous awards for their excellent availability.
While Qantas has retained its 2-2-2 business class seating on most Los Angeles flights (A380s and B747s), in 2016 Virgin Australia installed ‘The Business’ on all five of its 777s that fly from Australia to Los Angeles. It was a significant improvement on the V Australia product.
I flew The Business earlier this year on Virgin Australia’s A330 from Melbourne to Hong Kong, which features exactly the same product, and was one of the best all around business class experiences I have had. As a point of comparison I then flew on to London in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class, and Virgin Australia was much better in every single aspect.
The new reality
Naturally, Virgin Australia thought there would be more demand for people to actually pay the full price for their greatly improved product, so when they introduced it in 2016, they reduced their award availability.
To be honest, I thought this would be a temporary measure, and once the hype had died down they would go back to releasing semi-decent availability, even if it wasn’t quite as good as before (as it was almost too good back then anyway).
But now, two years later, unfortunately it has not improved. Even through to the end of the schedule I’ve checked dozens of dates and cannot find a single business class award seat from Australia to Los Angeles beyond the next few days of travel.
Here’s the availability on the last day of the schedule in 11 months time, i.e. the first day awards are loaded:
Even aiming for a quiet travel time, mid-week in February (so still 9-ish months in advance), this is the availability:
Virgin Australia does release unsold revenue seats as awards last minute, and for people like Ben who are happy to book their travel last minute, award availability is excellent.
This is the availability in two days time:
But most of us would prefer to book in advance, and while we would not expect to see multiple flights with multiple seats available for awards a month or two in advance, you would expect to see seats loaded at the start of the schedule.
Even Qantas does that!
Will things improve?
Virgin Australia has such a small international network that to restrict availability for the entire schedule except for last minute is really disappointing.
This really devalues the Velocity program.
It’s ridiculous that Velocity continues to win awards for its excellent availability, when its best product is almost unachievable for members.
Velocity also does not have the unadvertised discretionary benefit that Qantas has for its Platinum members where they (may) open up a business class revenue seat as an award, on request, although this is not guaranteed for Qantas members.
I booked my Melbourne to Hong Kong seat as an award through Velocity about seven weeks in advance and availability is significantly better on this route than anything to Los Angeles. This is because Hong Kong is a new route that is difficult for Virgin Australia to fill with so much competition from Cathay Pacific and Qantas. I booked this because it seemed like dumb luck that a seat was available on the exact day I wanted to travel.
There were no seats available on this flight for an entire week either side.
If you see a ‘The Business’ seat available on any Virgin Australia flight book it as soon as possible, because Velocity’s new strategy means they are arguably harder to get than on Qantas. At least Qantas will release some space to their own members at the start of the schedule. Unfortunately I cannot see this situation changing anytime soon.
It’s my understanding partner airline members like Delta and Virgin Atlantic have the same access to Virgin Australia premium seats that Velocity members have.
If you can book last minute, Virgin Australia remains the best option for traveling across the Pacific.
Have you booked a seat in The Business? How far in advance?