King in the North: A Review of Virgin Atlantic Upper Class on the 747 From Manchester to Atlanta
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The service was up there with the best I have ever experienced in the sky, and the food was a delight for this Northerner.
The Wi-Fi cut out halfway across the Atlantic, and an outdated cabin configuration meant I was facing away from the window.
Virgin Atlantic is the UK’s second-biggest long-haul carrier and is known for the fun and laid-back experience that it offers its customers. This trip was to be my first time flying with the airline, and I was very much looking forward to finding out what all the fuss was about — especially since I’d be flying in the nose of the soon-to-be-retired Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747.
Atlanta is one of the destinations that sees Virgin’s 747s. If you’re originating in the UK, you can find round-trip tickets in Upper Class for as little as $2,750, which is no small amount of money, but considering the $8,000 round-trip fares that you typically see on flights between New York and London, for example. Luckily, too, it’s relatively easy to book Virgin flights with miles — a round-trip flight in Upper Class between MAN and ATL will run you 95,000 Flying Club miles in the off-peak season (47,500 miles each way).
Since Virgin’s Flying Club is a transfer partner of all three major transferable points currencies (American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou), it’s easy to gather the miles necessary to book award flights. Plus, now through July 1, 2019, American Express and Virgin are running a 30% bonus on transferred points, making a redemption even easier to achieve. If your points balance is running low, consider signing up for a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $5,000 within the first three months of card membership.
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However, just like with all tickets that originate or connect through the UK, these tickets are subject to insanely high taxes and fees. You can expect to pay around $700 in fees on a round-trip award itinerary.
Manchester’s Terminal 2 check-in area is predominantly used by Virgin Atlantic, Tui and Jet2 (two European leisure airlines). When I arrived at the Upper Class check-in desk, the line was pretty much nonexistent compared to the huge ones for the economy check-in at both Virgin and Tui. It still seemed to take around 20 minutes before I had my boarding pass in hand. The check-in agent who served me had a good sense of humor and a hearty smile, which made my slight frustration at waiting too long in a tiny line disappear instantly. He changed my seat without question to the closest available to the front of the jumbo jet and wished me a pleasant flight.
Having heard amazing things about the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, I was looking forward to the airline’s Manchester Airport lounge. To my sheer horror, I was handed a pass to get into one of the airport’s Escape Lounges. As part of Manchester Terminal 2’s huge transformation project, the old Virgin Holidays v-room had been closed to make way for a brand-new one.
Flying Upper Class got me fast-track security, but the whole security area was jam-packed and still seemed to take forever, even though I was in a shorter queue.
Once I (finally) made it through security, I arrived quickly at the lounge area — and a painful reminder of the Virgin lounge that I longer had access to.
The lounge wasn’t actually that bad on the inside. The only real issue was the size: It was tiny. The space was shared between Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic, so when the flights overlap it gets crowded. Lucky for me, my flight was the last of Virgin’s to depart that morning and there were no Qatar passengers in the lounge, so it was actually pretty empty.
I skipped breakfast to get to the airport super early, so I was happy that the food was tasty.
The views weren’t great from the lounge, as the only area with a window was small and looked down onto the departure hall. The view was just good enough, however, to snap a pic of my bird, which just so happened to be parked at the gate directly opposite the lounge.
The departure gate was very crowded and seemed to be just part of the main thoroughfare of the airport rather than its own dedicated space.
I was an eager beaver and first up to the priority lane when boarding started.
My flight was to be on 17-year-old Pretty Woman, one of Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 747s — and what a pretty woman she was! We pushed back right at our scheduled departure time of 11:05am and were in the air just over 10 minutes later.
Cabin and Seat
I couldn’t help but smile to myself stepping into the Upper Class cabin for the first time. The view right into the nose of the jumbo really was quite something. The cabin, despite its age, felt fresh and appeared clean and well-prepared for the eight-hour flight across the Atlantic. I have to say, the boarding music was my favorite of all the airlines I’ve flown — it had a tongue-in-cheek and playful feel, sort of like a school disco crossed with an all-inclusive hotel’s evening entertainment. “Come Fly With Me” was my No. 1, for sure.
The bar was stocked and ready to offer passengers their first drinks.
That symmetry, though … I was in AvGeek heaven, that’s for sure.
I love just staring aimlessly out the window when I fly, so I wasn’t really looking forward to eight hours facing away from the window, but I suppose you can’t have it all. I really wanted to check out the view of the bright red engines, so headed back into the premium economy cabin to do so. I was not disappointed!
Considering the plane’s age, I thought the seat looked to be in good shape. My amenity kit was sat waiting for me, and the bedding was stored behind the seat. The little fold-down tray under the lamp was great, as you didn’t need to fold it away for takeoff and landing.
There were four little buttons for simple adjustments in the incline of the seat. And after I spent a while trying to find the tray table, I realized the button in the righthand corner popped it out from next to the footrest.
The only power outlet in the seat was bizarrely stashed underneath the footrest in a really awkward place — one of the flight attendants had to use a flashlight to show me where it was.
The seat reclined into a fully flat bed, and I was provided with mattress pad, duvet and perfectly plump pillow. Passengers weren’t actually allowed to set up their own beds, which meant there’s always a turndown service — something I really think is important in premium cabins and five-star hotels alike.
I didn’t want to sleep, as it was a day flight, but one of the crew members set another one up for me so that I could take a short nap later if I changed my mind.
When I popped the TV out, I noticed a stain from a dirty mug. I’m not grossed out by stuff like that, but it did make me wonder how throughly the cabin was cleaned between each flight if something that obvious was missed.
On my first visit to one of the two washrooms in the cabin, I was actually bowled over by the smell of vomit. I stayed just long enough to get a pic and then switched to the washroom across the galley. I mentioned to a member of the crew about the stench, but it still smelled just as bad a couple of hours later when I went back. I joked about it with the crew the second time, and they apologized and said that they just couldn’t get rid of the smell.
The amenities were miniature but functional.
Oh, and the bar was pretty top-notch.
Amenities and IFE
When I was assessing the goods in the amenity kit (and taking pictures) a neighboring passenger asked me if I’d ever seen a toothbrush before. I laughed and explained that it was my job and that indeed I had brushed my teeth that morning before leaving the house.
In light of Virgin’s cheekier side, I loved the “Touch Me” button, where most other airlines would just have “Start'” or “On” — these little touches are simple, but effective.
We were barely even an hour into the flight when I started up the inflight entertainment, but I was thoroughly enjoying myself and did not want a display of how long was left in the flight. The screen itself was big enough and responsive enough, especially considering its age.
There were enough films, documentaries and TV shows to keep anyone entertained. I decided I’d try (for about the third time) to watch “Instant Family” to the end, but there was just something about the combination of altitude plus alcohol plus TV that rendered me incapable of staying awake. Better luck next time, Daniel!
The moving map didn’t show the actual position on the globe and also seemed to show the flight in reverse from west to east. Weird, no?
The headphones weren’t in the best condition and definitely not noise-canceling. They were perfectly fine for what I needed them for, though.
Initially, I was very impressed with the strength of the Wi-Fi. I paid £20.99 (~$27) for the fastest and best connection, which I thought was value for money. The download speed was 34 Mbps — so much better than most lounges I’ve been to and probably even better than my Internet at home. Upload wasn’t as good at 2.73 Mbps but did the job just fine. Then it was as if a switch tripped as we crossed the middle of the Atlantic. From then on, the connection was so poor that I just disconnected and enjoyed the rest of the flight.
I wasn’t expecting there to be any pajamas handed out for a day flight across the Atlantic, but when I asked if there were any, the crew were more than happy to hand me a set. I ended up being the only person wearing them.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
My glass of Canard-Duchêne Champagne was filled up twice before we had even taken off. As the seat-belt signs went off, a cabin crew member took drink orders. I went for the elderflower Collins — a twist on the classic gin cocktail that was a winner.
Soon after my order was taken, the crew came down with their cart to set up my table for my food.
The setup included the famous salt-and-pepper shakers in the shape of tiny airplanes — another great little touch.
I went for the salmon starter which was colorful and really tasty. The salmon was so fresh, and combined with the other flavors, the whole thing was just delicious.
My favorite was the main course. I am a Northern lad at heart, and there’s no denying that I absolutely love pie. I’ve never eaten pie on a plane, let alone anything like this. The crust was amazing, and it was filled to the brim. The gravy was almost as good as my mother’s (don’t tell her I said that), and the mashed potatoes and mushy peas on the side made it just perfect. It was like being at the pub at 35,000 feet — the only thing missing was a pint and a sticky barstool.
I was actually pretty full by the time it came to dessert, but I ate it anyway. Chocolate desserts are my favorite, so I was pretty happy with this.
After the chocolate, though I didn’t have any more room and didn’t want to see a plate of cheese go to waste, so I declined.
There were snacks available at the bar throughout the flight.
After the lights went down, I order myself a couple of snacks from the on-demand menu. The first was a set of sandwiches.
Later, I got my appetite back and I ordered one of the mini burgers which I’d heard great things about, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Not sure why, but almost everything I was served, from the first drink to these snacks, included chips on the side. Almost like a picnic or school lunchbox would, and I don’t think it was necessary, really.
As if I hadn’t eaten enough already, afternoon tea was served just before landing. Of course, I ate the lot.
It was followed by a cup of coffee.
After meal service, I went to the bar and asked for an Aviation gin and tonic. I’m actually not really a fan of this brand, but as it was the only gin available, beggars can’t be choosers.
I needed a second coffee before landing, as I was pretty groggy from a 40-minute nap. I asked for it in the Virgin Atlantic-branded teacup instead so I could take one with me.
I gave this crew a maximum score for the service, as they really did deserve it. From start to finish, every single member of the cabin crew I encountered was fun, helpful and just seemed to generally care about making sure the other passengers and I enjoyed every single second of the flight. The service was seamless, from the continually full glass of bubbles before takeoff to the turndown service. Most of them were from the North, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, and just had a really friendly, fun spirit about them, which really made a really positive impression on me.
I usually test out the call button, but didn’t need to on this flight, as the crew were so attentive. Of the 14 seats available, only eight or nine of them were occupied, so the service each of us received was really personalized. At the end of the flight, I went up to the flight deck to have a quick chat with the pilots, who were also super friendly, despite just having flown a plane for eight hours across the Atlantic. Well done, Virgin Atlantic — absolutely faultless.
I’d only ever heard great things about Virgin Atlantic, and now I know why. It’s fair enough to note that the Queen of the Skies has had her day and is being retired from most airlines’ fleets in the coming years. But the novelty of sitting right up in the nose distracts from the fact that the hard product in business class is a bit old-fashioned. The seat was perfectly comfortable, but it was annoying that I had to crane my neck to see out of the window.
If you’re used to caviar and foie gras, then Virgin Atlantic’s pie probably wouldn’t be your thing, but I think the menu really suits the airline and the route that I was on that day. I was bowled over by the service. Most of the crew I spoke to had been working for the airline for over 10 years, and they said it was like a family. This really showed, and I think the airline should be really proud of their incredible Northern-based team. I cannot wait to fly Virgin Atlantic again, hopefully next time on one of the airline’s first A350s.
All photos by the author.
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