The Sad Decline In Virgin Australia’s Premium Award Availability

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 While the 2-3-2 Boeing 777 business class may seem laughably outdated now, at the time it was a breath of fresh air, and impressed those who flew it.

Virgin Australia’s original 777 business class

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.

Virgin 777 business class bar

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.

Significantly.

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!

Virgin Australia’s The Business

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.

Bottom line

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 travelling across the Pacific.

Have you booked a seat in The Business? How far in advance?

Comments

  1. Its a double whammy to them as I wont book revenue or award with them so its a lose lose proposition
    Any program without award seats is a program I don’t participate in!

  2. Hi James – I agree, as a VA Plat I used to have no problem booking J to LAX as long as I had several dates in mind. Now I struggle to even find “Economy X” – I have ~500k points I cannot use!

    I did fly MEL – HKG when it launched with no issues and it was great.

    I struggle to understand how VA continues to wins awards for best availability!

  3. Really thankful now that I managed to get in on the Error Fare back from Auckland; doesn’t seem like there’s any other way I would’ve been able to try it otherwise.

    Both my flights to/from LAX were full in Biz, so without awards they still don’t have any trouble filling them up

  4. Yes agreed as an unfortunate Virgin Plat I can see absolutely no awards to the US in business class after this week. And in another nasty downgrade, Virgin Australia is gradually taking away its A330’s – equipped with the fine business-class seats – from the longer domestic flights Sto Perth due to the slower resources sector….

    …Now there’s really only one pillar of the Aussie economy still standing: the “industry” of selling off homes and assets to Chinese. And that’s where Virgin is moving the A330s, to new HongKong services addressing the ever-growing market of importing Chinese into Australia to buy up all Australia’s property/farms/businesses.

    Addressing this market is so lucrative that all else is forgotten, loyalty programs can go hang, ignore what is happening to the next generation of local Aussies, forget about releasing award seats ugh

  5. They have the best product (arguably) between AU and US which probably helps bookings. They also have a JV with Delta which means every DL corporate contract to AU now includes VS metal, so they probably don’t have an issue finding paid J pax

  6. @ James: I am likely to shift to Australia in a few months’ time. Should I align with Virgin’s frequent flyer program (despite the above) or Qantas’?

    Additionally:
    1. Do either of those carriers ever allow a FF to swap their status with their current provider for similar status with them? (I have been gold with Air France for the past 3 years but that’s not going to help if/when I shift to Aus.)
    2. Should I consider using Etihad Guest (which I am a member of, and have some pts on) instead of Virgin’s program?

    Thanks for any pointers on the above.

  7. The Velocity program has become a sad, pathetic joke in the last 2 years – as a Platinum member with over 1 million Velocity points, this is infuriating.

    The marketing of the program states that a 100% bonus over the Base Points applies for Platinum members (not true for anything other than domestic flights), upgrades come out of the same pool as award seats (negating the exclusive availability of long haul upgrades to Gold and Platinum members), the priority support contact centres for Gold and Platinum members have ceased to exist (with those answering questions being completely inept and unable to comprehend the most basic of issues) and the selectivity of partners is just getting ridiculous.

    As NZ are no longer a long-haul partner, an excellent alternative for trans-Pacific travel is no longer available and the addition of the various HNA carriers is questionable at best with their extremely limited points and status credit earn options.

    With the loss of VX, Delta now provide the same points earn bonus to Velocity members as Virgin Australia do, however this is also falsely advertised (and very poorly clarified). Award availability on partners is not properly represented online, resulting in drawn out phone calls to the poorly-supported staff who really aren’t as helpful as they should be.

    The onboard experience in J on the A330 and B773 is excellent, however the issues outside of this and the complete lack of partner coverage in Europe negate the ease with which Velocity points can be earned.

  8. @ Neo – its very difficult to recommend one program over the other without knowing more about your travelling situation. Neither program offer official status matches but may on request if you have forward bookings with them already.

    I don’t really rate Etihad Guest but I know Ben has found some unique uses for it. One HUGE benefit of Velocity is the ability to transfer points to Krisflyer at a rate of 1.35:1 which opens up the entire Star Alliance network as well as all the Singapore Airlines awards they hold back for their own members.

  9. Agree that award redemption availability is limited, but most J upgrade requests clear for me (VA platinum) a day or two before flying

  10. I’m not too familiar with Virgin Australia but if they have a bid for upgrade program, I can see how they probably use that to fill up their J seats last minute.

  11. Its not just the award availability, the loss of international travel partners is becoming a real headache for VA members. Especially in Europe.

    Virgin Australia also needs to expand the domestic lounge network. Virgin only has lounges at 11 domestic airports. This is a far cry from Qantas’s 24 domestic locations.

  12. I’d just use the Velocity points for EY and SQ flights. For me, EY F or SQ J if points balance is an issue.

  13. Qantas is terrible imo for ff redemptions. Huge surcharges no availability etc (See james’ Earlier article this week). Btw loving the continued aussie focus 🙂

    To Aus United has some pretty reliable up close availability. I’ve booked far out for my family of 4 (now 5) as well (in December no less – booked about 5 months ahead).

    I’d concentrate on Alaskan if I was moving to Aus. Has all the qantas availability plus American. For the upcoming Christmas trip back to Australia I booked five seats on Cathay J Ord-Hk-syd. Paid 2 per mile on Alaska. Free changes etc so handy. Will swap into shorter route on qantas or American if bybsome miracle it came up. Anyone know if can do jal from Usa to Aus?

  14. Great article. I was just thinking this the other day when searching for a trip to New York in September. I have given up on flying VA metal to the US on an award. Have had luck with the Krisflyer partnership and routing through Singapore. Gold member for 5 years with 500k points which I would much rather use on SQ. EY surcharges are also a joke. $500 one way to Europe.

  15. I feel quite lucky that I found an award ticket using SkyMiles today from AKL to HKG with a connection in SYD in Business for 65K.

  16. Good article about the availability of rewards. It does seem that it is more of a book last minute. I’m wondering how HK availabilty will go after they launch SYD-HKG. Also seems the upgrade me bids are a bit of hit and miss from what FFs report. It would be interesting to do a note on QF vs VAs upgrade me bid process which is still complex to understand.

    But James, please… we all know that the Freddie awards are not even relevant. If you go through Australian FF forums, we all make fun of how irrelevant and not representative it is from reality. Particularly when VA sends their FFs an email of “please vote for us”, seriously? You lost me a little bit with such biased lines.

  17. Being a VA gold flyer based in Melbourne, with Velocity branded credit cards and a decent points value, I’m also saddened by the cheapening of the program over the last few years. I fly frequently between MEL and JNB (via Perth) and LAX, and staying loyal to Virgin (and partners – SAA, etc) seems almost not worth it anymore. Quite sad really.

  18. Thank you , thank you for more articles for your Australian readers

    Couple of points: as a VA Platinum you can book a guaranteed reward seat for your entire family even at peak times- you just have to book six months out

    True , qantas have more lounges on the domestic network but VA have excellent lounges at all the major hubs

    “ the business” is an excellent product and it’s a shame it’s been withdrawn from Perth to the east coast in favour of HKG – having said that you can fly to HKG from BNE for $500 AUD return in economy due to the price war on this route

    Not sure about business class availability however I flew my entire family to LAX in Australian school holidays on economy reward seats from BNE last year, it was hard to get the dates I wanted but did manage it

    Not sure what other readers mean about limited connections in Europe as I travel regularly from BNE to MAN and use the Etihad partner network without issue

    VA do heavily use bid for an upgrade to fill business space ( as do Etihad – even bidding for additional seats in economy which can be great value )

    Velocity do have a very generous pooling programme where you can nominate just about anyone “ related “ to pool their status points and FF points into your account ………..

    You can earn 100 status points per year just by linking your account to shopping with flybuys

    Platinum members get automatic Hilton diamond membership which comes in very handy

    Qantas recently status matched my velocity account to Qantas Gold – just need to ask and provide details, great if your planning a trip on the one world network as a one off and want lounge access etc

  19. CX: how about an article on the sad decline of CX availability even for Asia Miles members? It has gotten significantly worse over the last ~9 months, especially HKG-Europe which I mostly fly. How about some article later from an Asian perspective? There are readers based in Asia as well (who do not fly to US or Australia all the time) and not many articles for us.

  20. @Jay – there are number of issues with your analysis. Most of it is wrong.

    You are guaranteed a set of Economy seats for a family of four as detailed at https://www.velocityfrequentflyer.com/content/Status/PlatinumMembership/ – completely pathetic, useless and a non-feature for those of us who actually want to fly decently.

    Economy seats are massively available generally, and it’s a poor use of Velocity points. If I’m flying friends somewhere, the value proposition is infinitely better when paying for the fare and transferring the points to my account.

    Status Points aren’t a thing – you’re referring to Status Credits. One can earn much more than 100 Status Credits over the course of a year via Family Pooling and promotions.

    Qantas do not do status matches to Velocity – they never have. They do offer status challenges though, with limitations – the requirement is that all Qantas Status Credits are earned on QF ticketed itineraries.

  21. “Qantas recently status matched my velocity account to Qantas Gold – just need to ask and provide details, great if your planning a trip on the one world network as a one off and want lounge access etc”

    I asked and was turned down, made Gold anyway.

    Frankly, Velocity has been going backwards the last few years, but the service is still better than Qantas.

  22. Chris. Thanks for the feedback buddy. I got all my velocity points for free from promos so a famiky trip to the US worth $6k was a good use for me and a guaranteed family reward at Xmas is worth a fortune . Hope you enjoy the view from the front whilst i enjoy a free ride with my family at back

  23. It’s always full when I fly that route so I suppose you can understand them not opening award availability when the seats are going to sell anyway.

  24. I would be interested to know whether anyone has ever used 1.5 million points to book an “any seat” one way business class seat on Virgin? That would have to be up there as one of the of the worst use of points ever!

  25. While VAs premium award availability is (and probably will continue to be) scarce, it is still my preferred choice. Great points earn potential- slightly better than qantas and with ease of transfer to kris flyer miles, still many great ways to burn through the points via star alliance

  26. @ Ramsay – I’ve visited South East Asia extensively but the only place in Southern Asia I’ve visited is Sri Lanka.

  27. @Jay – You’re a tougher human than I, surviving a trip down the back regardless of the cost. 🙂

  28. @Chris – Qantas do offer occasional status matches from VA, though it’s typically targeted (or via a corporate offer). I “achieved” QF Gold courtesy of one of these 🙂

  29. Velocity continues to spam its members to get them to vote for them in stupid frequent flyer award scheme competitions, whilst ignoring that their availability in premium long haul has dropped to almost nothing. Thank god you can transfer out of Velocity to Singapore Airlines!

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