Virgin international business class features lie-flat beds that are 1.88m long. Picture: Supplied

Arguably nobody has shaken up Australia's aviation industry like the flamboyant Sir Richard Branson.

In 1999, he promised to bring low fares to the masses and he did with his Virgin Blue adventure, which helped ground Ansett and forced Qantas to launch Jetstar to compete.

Now, in a makeover that would shame a chameleon, Virgin Blue has morphed into Virgin Australia.

And with that has come a touch of elegance, not only with a new business class but one of the classiest economy cabins on offer.

At the time of the rebranding in 2011, Sir Richard warned it would shake up the Australian travel market "on an even larger scale than it did 10 years ago".

"And yes, the blues may be going to Qantas. Our new business class is better," Mr Branson boasted.

Not only is it better, it is also cheaper, so that many more passengers can enjoy luxury on transcontinental routes. Whereas one-way business-class fares across the country used to be about $1800, it is now about $1200 and sometimes just under $1000.

According to the government airfare travel index, business-class fares in Australia have plummeted 60 per cent since Virgin Australia launched its new offering.

And that product has been crafted by the man who developed Qantas' domestic and international offering, John Borghetti.

Mr Borghetti, now Virgin Australia chief executive, is a master at fine detail - detail that brings passengers back.

Mr Borghetti noted that when the airline introduced its plush, disco-styled interiors, passengers thought they were on the wrong plane and turned to leave.

"When our cabin staff says 'No, you're on the right airline', they insist they can't be because they are flying Virgin Blue," Mr Borghetti said.

The magic of the makeover is Mr Borghetti has harnessed the passion of Virgin staff with a business-class product.

The only problem for Virgin is that in many countries, including Australia, the brand has been associated with low-cost travel. Virgin today, however, is more about good value - whether it's in economy or business.

Virgin Australia's domestic business class on its A330s is of international standard. The seats are white leather and recline fully flat into a bed at a pitch of 150cm.

There is an international-style amenity kit, including products from Australian brand Grown.

Passengers can indulge in a three-course meal for lunch or dinner, with a menu inspired by celebrity chef Luke Mangan.

For red-eye flights, passengers can have a quick snack shortly after take-off and wake to a continental breakfast.

As well as a range of champagne, wine and beer, flight attendants can whip up a barista-style coffee or premium tea.

In-flight entertainment is displayed on a 10.6-inch (27cm) in-seat screen. And listening is comfortable with a large noise-cancelling headset.

Competition in the front end of the plane is intense. Qantas announced late last year that it would match Virgin Australia and introduce business suites with a bed on all Airbus A330 transcontinental flights to and from Perth from late this year. All 30 Qantas A330s will get business suites with direct aisle access from each seat. Ten international A330-300s will also feature new economy seats and 20 domestic A330-200s will get refurbished economy seats. The new Qantas business-class seats can be left in a reclined position for take-off and landing.

Last year, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce promised the upgrade would set the airline apart on key Asian routes and the domestic east-west market.

"Customers in all parts of the aircraft will notice a significant improvement in comfort when our refreshed A330s start to roll out from the end of 2014," he said.

Not to be outdone, Virgin Australia is planning a total revamp of its business product across its domestic and international Boeing 777-300ERs. This is expected to be announced this year, with roll-out from 2015.

Virgin Australia's international business class is proving popular, with flights to Los Angeles often full. It features lie-flat beds that are 1.88m long with all the usual extras. There is also a bar to relax with other passengers, and there is even a female-only toilet.

Passengers looking for privacy can request row five, where a curtain partitions off the two lie-flat beds on both sides of the cabin.

However, all the features in the world count for nothing if the crew aren't engaged - and that is where Virgin Australia excels.

There is no doubt that Virgin Australia has raised the bar.

Qantas may be down but it is not out and it's about to bounce back.

The passenger is the winner.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save