Lounge Lovin': Virgin Atlantic Upper Class on the Boeing 787-9 From London to New York
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="76" ground-experience="9" cabin-seat="17" amens-ife="10" food-bev="18" service="22" pros="Phenomenal ground experience at LHR, fun and attentive crew and plentiful redemption options." cons="A dark, cramped cabin, and the seat configuration doesn't allow for looking out the window." /]
As the launch of TPG UK grew even closer, I had to take yet another trip across the Pond to TPG headquarters in New York. I found that this was the perfect opportunity to pitch Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class product on its newer 787-9 Dreamliners against the crustier -- but four-engine -- Airbus A340s. Going into this flight, I knew that Virgin doesn't have the best seat around installed for its Upper Class product, but its Clubhouse at Heathrow gets a lot of praise, and generally the onboard experience is positive and fun -- would this be enough to overcome its outdated hard product?
We booked my trip between London and New York as a round-trip award, so we paid a total of 95,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles and about $845 in taxes and fees. It's a staggering amount to pay on top of a mileage redemption, but when you consider that round-trip business-class tickets between the two cities regularly sell for anywhere from $2,700 to over $8,000, it doesn't seem so bad.
Luckily, too, Virgin is pretty generous when it comes to offering award flights on its own metal. And, since the program is a 1:1 transfer partner of all the major transferrable points currencies (American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou), so Virgin miles are easy to earn. For example, you could apply for The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of 100,000 points after spending $6,000 within the first six months of account opening. Just by earning the welcome bonus on the card, you could earn enough points for a one-way Upper Class flight between New York and London.
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The experience kicked off in style using Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class Wing at Heathrow's Terminal 3. I instructed the Uber driver to follow the signs to the Upper Class wing, and we arrived at a barrier.
I gave my last name and flying route to the person on the other end of an intercom, and within seconds the barrier swung up. After a jolt forward in the wrong direction by the driver, we were up the ramp to the front door of the Clubhouse wing.
As we pulled round the roundabout at the top of the driveway, the wonderful Charlene, dressed in glorious Virgin red, was waiting at the door. She opened the door to the car and welcomed me to the Upper Class wing. Two gents popped the trunk and took my bags straight to the check-in desk.
Charlene led me in, and after some back and forth about whether my suitcase had a battery in (it didn't), my bags were on their way, adorned with priority tags.
I was guided back into the main part of the terminal and invited to use the Upper Class security lane, where there were only a couple of people ahead of me. A real win on this Monday morning, when the main lines for security looked long and were not moving fast.
The entire process felt special and exclusive, and was incredibly efficient.
I made my way to the Virgin Clubhouse. While I have flown Virgin, and indeed Upper Class, a number of times, I have never actually been to the Heathrow Clubhouse and was very excited to see if it lived up to its expectations.
First impressions were excellent. The staff greeted me and asked if I had been there before. When I told them I hadn't, they walked me in and gave me a short tour.
Amenities abounded in this lounge: a spa, a pool table and, most incredibly, a roof terrace looking out over the Terminal 3 apron and the Heathrow runways.
I made an appointment at the Spa as soon as I entered. Complimentary 15-minute treatments were available: a hand-and-nail treatment, facial, hair tidy-up, or scalp-and-neck massage. There didn't seem to be any availability issues, although I did arrive at the lounge four hours before my departure time.
There was a wide range of seating, from more formal dining to bubble chairs hanging from the roof, and although the lounge felt busy (and buzzy), there were seats available in all the different areas.
Naturally, I chose a hanging swing seat facing the runway!
The food and beverage options were also brilliant. There was a bar, a deli counter with salads and smoked salmon, frozen yogurt and at-seat dining.
I ordered the pan-seared cod with cauliflower mash, which was delicious.
I didn't want to be shy ordering, so I moved seats and plowed through the menu once TPG UK social media whiz Liam joined me in the lounge. The tomato soup, chicken drumsticks and cauliflower mac and cheese were all good, but the butter chicken with naan, poppadoms and chutney was exceptionally tasty.
Next up was a visit to the fabulous rooftop viewing deck, where I was in absolute AvGeek heaven. There is simply nothing better for me than being outside, right in the heart of one of the busiest airfields in the worlds.
Then, a 15-minute, incredibly relaxing scalp-and-shoulder massage, complete with deep breathing and lavender oil, to set the preflight mood.
I also checked out the nearby bathrooms, which looked good and were large and stocked with Cowshed products.
Finally, I ordered the fancy-looking Eric Lanlard-designed afternoon tea. It looked great, but much of it was style over substance. The bread in the sandwiches was a bit dry and the croissant a bit sad. However, the insane brownie with squeeze tube of salted caramel made up for any faults. It was really out of this world.
Every time I sat down in a different area, the staff were with me to take an order in seconds. The service really was brilliant.
Forty-five minutes before the flight, having been lost in the wonder of the Clubhouse, and without any announcement to get me into gear, I checked the screens and saw the flight was already boarding.
It was a short walk to Gate 19, and there were no queues when I arrived. My trip from arrival at the gate to aircraft took less than a minute, and I was warmly welcomed at the doors and asked if I knew where I was going. I did, and went to take my seat.
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First impressions of the cabin were that it was rather dark and gloomy. Pink, orange and red mood lighting was cool, but the cabin certainly didn’t feel fresh and spacious.
I took Seat 7A, a window seat in this 1-1-1 configured cabin. All window seats faced into the middle, with the port seats facing a wall (i.e., the back of the middle column of seats). These seats provided the most privacy and were best for single travelers, whereas the G and K seats faced in toward each other. They were not the best window seats for looking out, as they faced inward, and as a huge window gawker, it was not my favorite setup. Compounding this issue was the fact that 7A was actually missing a window directly behind it, so there was one less place to look out, and a little less light.
Conversely, the view across the cabin and out those windows was actually quite nice!
Seat 6A looked like a better choice for window positioning, whilst still away from the galleys and toilets at either end of the cabin.
The seats had a relatively small IFE screen compared to other products, a power outlet and USB socket. a small cocktail table and larger table for eating and working.
The seat only reclined partially in seat mode, and had to be flipped over to be made into a bed. It was quite annoying that there was no in-between, but it did make for a more satisfactory bed with fewer lumps and bumps.
Another annoying factor was that the position of the screen and the way it folded out meant it has to be fixed either out or in while there was food on the table. It was difficult -- and required clearing the whole tray table -- to push the screen out midmeal.
I asked the crew if they could flip the bed for me. It was indeed comfortable with a thin mattress and duvet and pillow, and both felt nice, and the pillow was just the right firmness. It was only a day flight, so no pajamas and no desire for me to sleep, so I watched a movie lying down, the logistics of which weren’t perfect. I was wanted to be a little more propped up, but otherwise think I could have slept well here.
Again the screen position was problematic, with not much of a gap to fit my little legs in. If I hadn’t skipped leg day so often, I might have been in real trouble.
There were three lavatories at the rear of Upper Class. The one closest to my seat was a decent size and had Noble Isle hand wash and hand lotion without any other indication of it being the premium cabin’s lav.
At the rear of the cabin was a bar, for use of Upper Class passengers during the flight. It was stocked with some snacks and drinks including a hefty bottle of Grey Goose vodka!
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The amenity kit bag was made by Hershel and contained the usual items, including socks, eye mask, Virgin Atlantic-branded pen, earplugs, toothbrush, toothpaste and Rituals-branded body moisturizer, lip balm and eye cream. None of the items stood out, but they were all handy on this relatively short flight.
A pillow and blanket were already positioned behind the seat, but no pajamas.
While the screen itself was small, its contents were not. There was a wide selection of movies and TV on demand, along with a selection of music, a moving map and mediocre noise-canceling headphones.
Wi-Fi was available for £4.99 for 40 MB or £14.99 for 150 MB. I bought 150 MB. It was painfully slow, though. WhatsApp messages were OK, but not photos, and Slack was a struggle. Instagram? Forget it. A 5MB file took 38 minutes to download.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Passengers were offered predeparture Champagne and orange juice. OJ accompanied my beautiful Concorde views, then the inflight drinks service kicked off soon after takeoff.
Potato chips were served along with the first round of drinks.
I went for a tomato juice and Diet Coke, asking for the tomato juice to be extra spicy. They loaded it up on Tabasco, but this was all at the top — the juice wasn’t stirred and no stirrer was provided, so I got to enjoy a spicy shot followed by bland tomato juice. A shame, and such an easy fix.
Apparently no Virgin aircraft had been delivered their menus that day. Instead, they flashed the menus on the IFE screen for 10 seconds (impossible to read!), and the crew went round and explained each dish.
Starters on offer were edamame salad, tomato soup or Balik salmon.
Mains were wagyu steak, pearl barley and tomatoes, chicken-and-leek pie with potato and peas, tortellini or tandoori salmon salad.
Then, the drinks cart was pushed down the cabin, and the lack of menu meant I took a stab at the wine based on their basic explanations. The Argentinian malbec was nice, though! As these drinks were served, the crew also popped down the cute Wilbur and Orville salt and pepper shakers.
The Balik salmon starter came with a celeriac-and-pea salad and was really tasty, and was served with a selection of bread.
The wagyu beef was not as I'd expected. It was served cold and was tough with a butchery smell. When I asked the crew if there were any chance of a change, they took away the beef right away and offered me the hot chicken or salmon. Within a couple of minutes, the dishes were swapped, and I had a steaming hot chicken-and-leek pie and mash in front of me. There was not a moment of hesitation from the crew.
To round off dinner, I had the cheese plate, and finally a peppermint tea.
Afternoon tea (my second of the day!) was served around 90 minutes before landing.
The FAs asked if I wanted anything else to eat, but without a menu, I was at a bit of a loss. So I took the easy option and asked for everything.
It was all good, And I particularly liked the roast beef-and-horseradish sandwich (just on the right side of dry) and the warm and fluffy scone.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="No" turndown-service="Yes" /]
Initially, the crew seemed to be having a whale of a time between themselves, but without much of the fun coming my way, I think I was just having a FOMO moment. I also noticed crew calling passengers “guys.” I actually quite like that informality, and informal is perhaps part of the Virgin brand, but I know some people hate this. However, as the flight went on and rapport built up, I ended up having a great time and feeling positive about the service.
Nothing was too much trouble, and everything was with a smile. The crew proactively offered anything I wanted, all in a relaxed manner. It was the making of a pleasant flight. Even though there wasn’t anything the crew could do about my lack of window (the one real bugbear for me on the journey), one of the lovely crew went out her way to did take my phone into the flight deck to get a snap of the sunset out the front windows because I couldn’t see out of mine. Now that is the kind of service an AvGeek needs!
The Upper Class experience out of Heathrow really is exceptional for a business-class product. The seat is not my favorite in the sky by any means, because I love staring out the window so much, but it is comfortable, even if switching to a bed is a production. The new Virgin Upper Class seat being rolled out on its A350s will be a real game changer, because it really is the seat and cabin that let down the whole experience.
Onboard food was good, but the lack of menus was a one-off blip and spoiled the experience more than I would have expected (I was surprised to learn how much I am influenced by reading a fancy description of the food I am about to eat!).
All in all, this is a solid product to cross the Atlantic. Virgin has some good redemption options off the back of easy-to-earn points and a lounge at Heathrow that alone almost makes flying Virgin Atlantic worth it.
All photos by the author.