We toured Virgin Atlantic’s final 747 — here’s why we’ll miss the Queen

Dec 11, 2020

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Friday was an emotional day at Virgin Atlantic’s Heathrow hangar.

The airline invited media to Heathrow for a preview of the farewell to its final Boeing 747. To retire its final Queen of the Skies, Virgin released tickets on Monday for a public dinner party on Saturday — and they sold out within a couple of minutes.

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TPG U.K. spent the morning onboard Pretty Woman, G-VROY, the last of Virgin’s Boeing 747 aircraft to be retired, as we bid her a fond farewell. Despite initial thoughts that she’d be off to her final resting place in the desert, the nearly 20-year-old Pretty Woman will continue to fly passengers around the world with a new, yet undisclosed, lessor.

We started off with a Champagne reception in the famous bubble — the hump at the front of the aircraft. Then, one of Virgin’s longest-operating jumbo pilots gave us a safety briefing.

But, before long, it was time for a tour of the aircraft — both inside and out.

The tour was followed by a delicious three-course breakfast, served the classic Virgin Atlantic way. Of course, the service included Wilbur and Orville salt and pepper shakers.

And for those who really wanted to see the Queen off in style, Champagne top-ups were freely flowing.

The day marked one to celebrate the life of the Boeing 747 within Virgin’s fleet. It’s no surprise that it’s been a turbulent year for the aviation industry. In an effort to cut costs, airlines have taken to grounding or retiring some of the older, larger — and more fuel-inefficient — aircraft like the Airbus A340, Airbus A380 and the Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747. In fact, British Airways also retired its 747s earlier this year, as did KLM and Qantas.

Ironically, 2020 marks 50 years that the 747 has been in operation. In January 1970, the first-ever Boeing 747-operated commercial flight touched down at London Heathrow (LHR) from New York (JFK) with Pan Am. It marked the dawn of a new era of air travel and quickly became an integral part of airlines’ fleets across the world.

Over the years, Virgin operated 30 of the jumbo 747s. Before retirement, Virgin’s fleet of 747s flew a combined total of around 2.3 million hours and transported between 60 million and 70 million passengers in total — that’s around the entire population of the U.K.

If you’re not an AvGeek, this might sound a bit odd, but these aircraft hold a special place in many frequent flyers’ hearts. In fact, the exact same Virgin 747 that I spent the morning visiting Friday was the aircraft I flew on my first-ever Virgin flight in 2019 from Manchester (MAN) to Atlanta (ATL).

After a morning filled with nostalgia, AvGeekery and the odd teary eye, here are some of the things we’ll miss the most about Virgin’s 747.

Bubbles in the bubble

I’m not a massive fan of Champagne, but if there’s a place to drink it, it’s on a plane. It just so happens that one of the most iconic places on a plane to drink said bubbles is in ‘the bubble’ of the 747.

Passengers flying Premium on Virgin’s 747 were able to do just that, as there’s a small section of the cabin upstairs at the front of the bubble where guests were served Champagne as a welcome drink.

Related: Premium, upgraded: A review of Virgin Atlantic’s new Premium product on the A350

The smaller Premium cabin upstairs in The Bubble of Virgin’s 747.

Four bright red GE CF6 engines

Aircraft with four engines are a dying breed, including the 747. We’ll certainly miss looking out over the world and seeing those bright red GE CF6 engines.

(Photo by Daniel Ross / The Points Guy)
Two of Pretty Woman’s four GE CF6 engines carrying her across the Atlantic from Manchester to Atlanta in 2019.

It was nice to see them again today, even though the backdrop wasn’t quite the same as the Atlantic Ocean.

Don’t worry, though. If you’re a big fan of aircraft with four engines, the Airbus A380 should be around with us for a long time yet.

The retro cockpit

The cockpit of the 747 is as about as retro as it gets. It’s not often passengers get to see inside the flight deck, but when you do get the chance, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Related: Evolution of an airline: From the 747 jumbo jet to the 787 Dreamliner

The technological evolutions from the 747 to newer Boeing 787 Dreamliners has been a welcome change for many pilots. More efficient air conditioning in the cockpit and the introduction of the Head-Up Display (HUD) are just two of the many ways that the 747 has transformed into the 787. In the end, the changes have come about to ultimately make flying safer and greener for everyone.

The 747 cockpit. (Note: This photo was taken before COVID-19.)

Sitting in the nose

Because the cockpit is located on the upper deck of the aircraft, seats in the lower deck can creep all the way up to the front of the nose. In fact, some of the coolest views out of the window come from that first row, as you get the illusion that you’re seeing right out the front of the plane.

There’s nothing quite like sitting right up front in the nose of a 747. The feeling of exclusivity is second to none, and the privacy at the very front row of Virgin’s Upper cabin on the 747 is about as good as it gets in business class.

The bar

Of course, it wouldn’t be a trip on a Virgin 747 without a trip to the bar. The airline’s newer A350 aircraft, unfortunately, don’t feature a bar. Virgin decided to replace its famed bar area with The Loft, a more lounge-feel with a screen and sofa.

So, for what was my last time ever on a Virgin 747 aircraft, I took up a seat at the bar and reenacted the exact same photo that I took when flying this exact plane to Atlanta (ATL) back in May 2019.

The 747 bar in 2019. (Note: This photo was taken before COVID-19.)

The most exclusive long-haul economy class cabin

Economy cabins are commonly cramped, lack privacy and the service can be rather slow at times, depending on the size of the aircraft.

That’s not the case in the bubble of Virgin’s 747. The lucky 33 passengers who were able to bag themselves a seat upstairs would have experienced a more exclusive, comfortable and premium service than you’d expect to receive in economy class.

Related: The best Virgin Atlantic economy seats

The distinctive shape

The 747 is unique in many ways, not least in its impressive size and shape. The cockpit sits high as a small block of flats above the ground while the passengers in Upper Class sit several feet in front of the pilots as the Queen of the Skies soars through the air.

While not exclusive to Virgin’s 747s, we’ll miss seeing one in Virgin’s colors flying through the skies.

Bottom line

Virgin’s unique 747 was an iconic way to fly. The beautiful aircraft holds a special place in all of our hearts at TPG, and we will miss her dearly. Stay tuned for a full video of our day, saying goodbye to Virgin’s final 747.

Photos by Daniel Ross, unless specified otherwise

Featured photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy

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