After covering Virgin Atlantic’s flight powered by recaptured carbon biofuel, Geoff Fischer had to get back home to Seattle. He was lucky enough to be flown home in Upper Class (aka Business Class), and here’s his report.
Disclosure: Virgin Atlantic paid for Geoff’s travel.
Having flown British Airways a number of times, I was looking forward to this return flight to finally try the competition and see if Virgin Atlantic lives up to its hype.
Virgin was one of the pioneers of a premium cabin product better than traditional business class, but priced lower than first class. Their “Upper Class” is also meant to be fun, in a Sir Richard Branson, British jet-set way. While they no longer have an onboard masseuse, they differentiate by providing chauffeur service to and from the airport; upscale Clubhouse lounges with spa facilities and copious food and drink; an onboard bar; and, at London/Heathrow, a private check-in and security area called the Wing.
In my time at Heathrow and in the air on a two year-old Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, Virgin definitely lived up to its reputation of fun and different. Although I had some qualms with the seat itself (more on that below), my overall experience was great.
Of course it had better be great when the retail price tag can be $5,000 each way or more. There will be some who may prefer a more conventional onboard product, such as couples flying together or business travelers trying to sleep who find themselves seated near the bar. But I’ve never had an easier or more pleasant time getting to and through Heathrow, and was thoroughly impressed with the friendliness and attentiveness of the flight attendants, the condition of the airplane and the quality of the onboard food.
A few days before departure I called to arrange the car service. I chose a 6:30am pickup for my 9:25am flight to maximize time at the Clubhouse before boarding. My driver was outside the hotel in a Mercedes sedan at 6:20, and with only moderate traffic we arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 just after 7.
Instead of dropping me off at the normal entrance, the driver made a left turn and went up a ramp to the Upper Class Wing. At a barrier he rang a call button and announced me by name and flight number. After verification, the arm went up and we proceeded to the ornate driveway where a staff member was waiting for us.
She led me inside to a check-in desk and I had my boarding pass in two minutes. It was just a few steps to the dedicated security channel, where there was only one person in front of me. I was through security seven minutes after stepping out of the car. The only other airport arrival I’ve had as effortless was at the Lufthansa First Class terminal in Frankfurt. And this was better, because Lufthansa doesn’t provide car service to get you there.
After security, it’s a bit of a hike through the massive Duty Free store and out to the lounges but well worth it. I was welcomed at the door to the Clubhouse and told to sit anywhere and that a server would be by to take my food and drink orders. I mentioned that I was eager to book a massage, and so the agent walked me over to the spa. Seeing the lounge fairly busy, I was expecting to be told there were no time slots available. But I was given a choice of four times and settled on 8:15 so that I could eat and explore first.
Although there were probably a hundred passengers using the lounge, I had no problem finding a quiet area with a bunch of open tables where I sat down for breakfast.
A server came by quickly, and within ten minutes I was enjoying a latte, a mimosa and eggs with smoked salmon and toast – one of the many entree options on their made-to-order breakfast menu. There’s also a large self-service buffet spread.
Off to a solid start, I took a walk around the sprawling facility and found several areas that I wished I had more time to enjoy, including the game room with a beautiful pool table, and the roof deck, with good airport views even on a drizzly London morning. I also wished it was later in the day because the bar had an extensive craft cocktail and beer menu that I didn’t get to sample.
The elegant decor impressed in both form and function, and it lived up to the promise of being a “clubhouse” – someplace you’d actually want to hang out. There was a small army of staff circulating constantly, and it had all the features and amenities you’d expect: a work area, a play area for children, magazines and papers, clean restrooms, etc.
My brief experience at the spa was the only aspect that was underwhelming. They offer a few basic complimentary services but charge for most, including massages, facials and haircuts. I wouldn’t spend 16 GBP again after an uninspired 15 minute chair massage. Nevertheless, I headed off to my gate feeling that Virgin has a clear leg up on BA across the end-to-end airport experience for departing premium cabin passengers.
Boarding was underway when I approached. There was no wait in the premium lane, and being spared a random secondary security screening, I headed down the jet bridge…
October 5, 2018
Virgin Atlantic 105 Lv London/Heathrow 925a Arr Seattle 1105a
London/Heathrow (LHR): Gate 13, Runway 27L, Depart 7m Early
Seattle (SEA): Runway 16R, Gate S9, Arrive 6m Early
Boeing 787-9, G-VDIA “Lucy in the Sky”, 80% Full
Seat 1K, Upper Class
Flight Time 9h12m
Just inside the boarding door, the bar was set up with newspapers and welcome drinks. I made the all-important left turn and headed up to seat 1K. My first impression was that the cabin looked to be in great shape (as it should on such a young airplane). The mood lighting was definitely in effect.
The seats are in a 1-1-1 herringbone layout angled toward the aisle. The biggest upside of this is that every seat has direct aisle access. There are several downsides including that your back is to the window, there are no seats for couples to sit together, and that everyone’s feet stick out exposed into the aisle.
I definitely prefer the 1-2-1 business class seat design and forward-facing layout that Japanese carrier ANA uses on their 789. But it’s a much closer call that comes down to personal preferences with the 2-3-2 alternating forward and backward layout that British Airways uses on their 789s and the similar 2-4-2 configuration on the 777s and 747s that BA flies on the London-Seattle route.
It was weird at first walking the gauntlet of feet, but I got over it by the second or third time. (Seats on the A side are more private. 50% fewer feet to walk by!)
Waiting at the seat were a menu and an attractive amenity kit designed by the Canadian company Herschel, containing standard items (though no mouthwash) and skin products by Rituals. The pillow and bedding are stowed behind the seatback, which is good because there is zero storage space other than a small nook under the ottoman. The legroom was ample and I appreciated the high privacy divider between me and 2K, but the seat definitely felt narrow because of it. On the plus side, there were individual air dampers, which seem to be getting rarer on new aircraft these days.
As I settled in, a flight attendant came by to welcome me, hang my jacket and offer a pre-departure beverage. It felt a little awkward at first with my feet extending out almost into the forward galley, but it was nice to not be staring at another passenger. With the lavatories at mid-cabin, the only foot traffic coming past was the flight attendants. (It is likely less serene for passengers at the back of the cabin.)
We pushed back a few minutes early and being merely fourth in line for takeoff, the quiet and powerful Rolls Royce engines soon had us in the air. The flight time was announced as nine hours flat, and the seatbelt sign was off 15 minutes after wheels-up.
The flight attendants sprang into action to prepare service for the entirely full 31-seat cabin, with three attendants each working one side of an aisle, and a fourth in the galley. I interacted with all four at different times during the flight, and one or two from other cabins, and all were friendly, attentive and eager to help. It certainly made my flight more enjoyable, and if it holds true day in and day out, it gives Virgin a big advantage over a lot of other legacy carriers.
Service began with drinks and a small bowl of crisps (no hot towel offered). While waiting for lunch to begin, I asked for the sleep suit (which they automatically provide on night flights, but can be requested on day flights too). I changed in the refreshingly spacious and clean lavatory, which gets bonus points for the hand sensors on the toilet flush and sink. The one other thing missing that every airplane bathroom should have is a foot pedal so that you don’t have to touch the waste-bin lid to open it.
Drink refills were offered and our lunch orders taken. The menu listed a choice of two appetizers or soup to start, followed by a choice of four entrees. For both white and red wines there were three options categorized as “Classic”, “Familiar” and “Discover”, which I thought was a nice touch.
Just over an hour out of London the first course was served. The tray table was large and sturdy, and the presentation was classy. The tomato basil soup and multigrain roll were both very good. I started with the French Chardonnay and it was ok.
For my entree I went out on a limb. I VERY rarely order seafood on planes. But while the beef, chicken and pasta options all sounded fine, the Thai spice-rubbed cod with chilis and mango cucumber salad just sounded good. And to my surprise, it was cooked perfectly (skin crispy, moist inside) and the spice level was pleasantly hot. It paired well with the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
Dessert was a choice of apple tart or chocolate pistachio amazingness, so not a tough choice for me. The flight attendant insisted I try the French Syrah as an accompaniment, and I allowed my arm to be twisted. It was indulgent and a great finish to the meal.
I had been worried when I first saw on the menu that there was no salad and only a choice of soup or appetizer, but the portion sizes were fine and the food was very good.
It was soon time for a nap, and a flight attendant made my bed which involved me standing up so that she could flip the seat cushion over and then roll out the mattress pad and duvet. The bed and pillow were quite comfortable. As you can see from the image, the bed ends up being comma-shaped. Being a side sleeper, I wasn’t bothered by the need to curl a bit, and I enjoyed not having my feet constrained in a tight footwell, as you do in other seat designs. But some might find this uncomfortable and might want more storage options than the small drink shelf on one side and ledge on the other.
I woke up after an hour and saw a lot of passengers looking out the windows. We had taken an unusually northern routing up over central Greenland and on this clear sunny day there were incredible views out both sides of the plane. It was hard to believe that we were really at 38,000 feet given how close the snow-covered mountains looked. For quite a while, passengers and crew alike traded places to gawk and take pictures.
A couple of people were hanging out at the bar, some talking and one guy just working on his laptop. I wandered over and ended up staying for over an hour. It’s not as fancy as the bar on Emirates A380s, as it spills into the adjoining space and does not have a full-time bartender (flight attendants walk by every once in a while and serve on request). But I had great impromptu conversations that wouldn’t have happened without the social space and were more interesting to me than watching movies in my cocoon. Passengers nearby seemed to be sleeping fine, but I would suggest avoiding the last row or two, particularly on overnight flights.
I asked the guy on his laptop how the WiFi was, since I had decided not to shell out $5.95 for 40 megabytes of data or $21.99 for 150 MB. He said it was average by international standards; it worked ok at some times, and then was slow or unavailable other times.
About three hours before arrival, I started to feel hungry again and ordered the burger from the Extra Bites section of the menu. The flight attendant said it would take 20 minutes to cook and she would bring it out to me. I also asked for an espresso, and she apologized saying that only their A340s have espresso machines. Disappointingly, the only coffee option was the same flavorless instant brew I had struggled to finish on the eastbound flight.
The burger arrived and it hit the spot. The pickle and red cabbage slaw were appreciated touches. The one thing that would have made it even better would have been fries instead of the potato chips… but I realize that could be hard to do well on a plane.
I did some work and tried to enjoy the last two hours of the flight, before it was time to go back to reality. I had a cup of tea and a finger sandwich when they came around with the formal second meal service. Hot towels were offered after tea, and then it was time to change clothes and prepare for landing.
We got put into a holding pattern just past Vancouver thanks to runway construction limiting arrival capacity, but we still docked six minutes early at the South satellite building. Global Entry worked like a charm, and after a quick subway ride back to the main terminal, I met my driver who was holding a sign with my name at arrivals. Not having to deal with the mess of trying to get a Lyft or Uber out of SEA-TAC was a welcome change, and the SUV ride home was a fitting end to a great Upper Class experience.