10 things to know about Virgin Atlantic’s brand-new Airbus A330neo
Virgin Atlantic unveiled the full details of its newest airplane type in London this week and there was plenty of excitement.
With an array of improvements in all cabins, the airline surprised the industry (and this author) by adding two "super business class" suites at the front of the A330-900neo airplane — a concept that’s very new for Virgin. The first frame will be delivered next month.
Here are 10 things to know about Virgin’s brand-new Airbus A330neo.
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This should be Virgin’s best airplane
Virgin’s product design team proudly told me the new Airbus A330-900neo will be Virgin’s best airplane in all classes for passenger experience. It’s a massive improvement on the Airbus A330-300 airplane it is replacing, as well as the more modern Boeing 787 Dreamliner with the unpopular "coffin style" Upper Class seats.
It should even be an improvement on its flagship Airbus A350 airplane as the airline has had several years to consider passenger feedback and make tweaks before launching its new airplane type.
Related: Onboard Etihad’s 1st Airbus A350 flight to the US, featuring a new business-class product
Having tried out each seat at the launch event in London, I’m inclined to largely agree, with some caveats that I’ll explain below. I look forward to going out of my way to try out this airplane later this year.
It features the biggest seats the airline has ever offered
The centerpiece of the new airplane is the two beautiful Retreat suites at the front of the Upper Class cabin. These two huge suites feature a massive 7-foot-6-inch fully flat bed, masses of personal space and a huge screen for inflight entertainment. They are bigger and better than the rest of the Upper Class cabin, and better than any business-class seat Virgin Atlantic has ever flown (Virgin has never offered international first class).
This is a "super business class," or a "mini first class" depending on how you look at it, and these two seats will be the envy of the Upper Class cabin, as well as the rest of the airplane.
Related: Business-class battle: Comparing ANA The Room and Qatar Qsuite
Upgrading to the Retreat Suite could be a savvy investment
So how do you book this super business class? Virgin is still finalizing the exact process but it's expected that Upper Class passengers on revenue fares will be invited to upgrade to the Retreat Suite for around $230 per person per flight. Invites will be sent 14 days in advance of the flight and booked on a first-come, first-served basis.
On a sub-five-hour flight to Tel Aviv, a $230 surcharge may be a little overpriced. However, for an eight-plus-hour flight to or from the U.S., especially overnight, I would pay this in a heartbeat.
If the upgrade offers are declined by the entire cabin, Virgin may choose to upgrade Flying Club Gold members at no cost, at their discretion. At this stage it’s not expected that Flying Club members will be able to book the Retreat Suite directly with Virgin Points, but this may change. I would happily pay an extra 20,000 Virgin Points for the Retreat Suite.
Award seats are available in all other classes (economy, Premium and Upper) using Virgin Points.
Related: How to maximize Virgin Points rewards redemptions for incredible value
You can dine with a companion
Another neat feature of the two Retreat suites is that they are so big that another passenger can sit on the padded ottoman in front of the IFE screen and dine with you.
This is a feature usually reserved for first class and is a fun way to enjoy a meal at 30,000 feet. If you're traveling with someone else and only one of you can secure the Retreat Suite while the other person has a normal Upper Class seat, this will be a great perk to make the most of the Retreat Suite.
When two people traveling together are both seated in their own Retreat Suite, they will probably prefer to stay in their own seats and eat side by side, rather than facing each other.
Related: Which airlines offer companion dining in first and business class?
The Upper Class doors actually close properly
While the A330neo Upper Class seats share many of the same benefits as their A350 Upper Class relatives, there is one simple but very important improvement coming to the neo. The Upper Class doors close completely, turning the seat into a truly private suite.
Although the A350 Upper Class seat is marketed as a suite, the doors don’t actually completely close. This seems like an unusual omission given the name of the seat they are marketing.
Related: Lofty heights: A review of Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class Suite on the A350 from London to New York
The A330neo suite doors can easily be fully closed by popping the door open and sliding into place.
The Loft enhancements are … confusing
Virgin Atlantic is well known for its onboard bars where business-class guests can socialize with each other and the crew with a cocktail or two. The bar was replaced with "The Loft" on the A350 in 2019, which is more of a lounge that guests can relax in. If they do fancy a beverage, though, a crew member is always nearby and happy to oblige.
Related: Fancy a drink at the bar? A review of Emirates business class on the A380 from Dubai to New York
There are two key differences in the new A330neo Loft compared with the existing A350 version and they both relate to the crew. The first is the addition of a self-service bar fridge that will be stocked with drinks and snacks for Upper Class passengers to help themselves. To fit this in, there's less seating in the Loft compared with the A350.
The second is that the seats are noticeably higher — more like a bar stool height than a sunken lounge. Corneel Koster, Virgin Atlantic’s chief customer and operating officer, explained to me this was done on purpose so passengers enjoying the Loft are closer to the line of sight of crew members they interact with during the flight.
These two changes seem counterintuitive to me. The addition of the drinks fridge is to reduce service, but the higher seating is to improve it. I only sat in the Loft seats for five minutes or so, but the seats are quite high and not very deep. It was fine for a quick chat.
However, I didn’t find them to be comfortable enough to want to linger for hours on a long flight. Surely if crew members want to be at eye height with a passenger they could bend slightly rather than making all passengers sit higher than is most comfortable.
I do, however, trust Virgin knows what it's doing with this space. Perhaps the design is to rotate passengers through the space faster so it isn't dominated by a single group for most of the flight.
Related: Virgin Atlantic debuts new social space called ‘The Booth’ for A350 leisure routes
Technology is a major focus
Modern tech is everywhere throughout the airplane. The Retreat Suite has enormous 27-inch IFE television screens which are huge and crisp in real life. I could happily watch a long movie on this screen with a glass of Champagne. Even in economy the IFE screens are 13.3 inches, the largest economy screens Virgin has ever offered.
All seats have Bluetooth capability, allowing you to connect your own wireless headphones to whatever you are watching, in any class. You can also use your phone as a controller if you don’t want to use the touchscreens.
What impressed me the most is the introduction of wireless charging in Premium as well as Upper Class. I recently discovered this in Finnair’s new business class. The simplicity of your phone immediately charging with no cables required simply by placing it on a lightning bolt is clever and useful. It made me wonder why it had taken this long for me to see it.
It’s great that Upper Class passengers on Virgin Atlantic’s A330neo can use this feature but for Premium passengers, it’s a really valuable perk.
The Premium seats are worryingly narrow
While I haven’t flown the Virgin A350 Premium product just yet (stay tuned for a review later this summer), the seats look practically the same in the new A330neo. Sitting in seats for a few minutes during the launch event, it immediately struck me how narrow they were.
TPG’s Emily McNutt reviewed the Virgin A350 Premium seat in 2019 and noted:
Though I found the pitch and recline of the seats to be on the generous side, Virgin cramped up the cabin and seat by shrinking the width of its Premium seats to just 18.5 inches.
The seat definitely felt on the narrow side. Even though no one was seated next to me, if someone had been, it would’ve felt cramped on a long-haul flight — especially the armrests, which were on the narrow side. I could imagine there being contention about who got the majority of it.
I wish Virgin had opted for a 2-2-2 layout in its A330neo Premium cabin. This would have allowed each passenger 21.5 inches of width, far comfier than what Virgin has chosen, which is not much wider than an economy seat.
Related: Why I don’t think premium economy is worth the ticket price
Economy is ideal for couples
While there are plenty of bells and whistles up at the pointy end of the airplane, this is absolutely the best airplane for couples traveling together. That’s because only the A330 family has a 2-4-2 configuration in economy — Virgin’s A350 and 787 airplanes have a 3-3-3 layout which is awkward for anyone not traveling in a group of three.
Being able to select a window pair of seats means two people traveling together have no one else next to them and each can enjoy an aisle or a window seat.
It's also a great airplane for families of four as they can sit together in the middle block of four seats.
Related: Flying SAS’ A330 in economy from Miami to Copenhagen with a horde of kids
Every flight to Boston
The Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330neo will launch on flights between London's Heathrow Airport (LHR) and Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) in October. As the airline only operates one round-trip flight each day and a single airplane can easily manage to fly between the two cities daily, every flight to Boston should feature the new airplane by the end of October.
Virgin plans to receive four planes by Christmas, and will be looking at other destinations to use its shiny new jet. Corneell Koster was tight-lipped on other routes, only explaining they would be "high-value United States destinations." My money would be on Washington, D.C., and then perhaps New York.