Crowd pleaser: A review of Virgin Atlantic's A350 in economy from London to New York
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="74" ground-experience="5" cabin-seat="17" amens-ife="11" food-bev="17" service="24" pros="Lovely crew, sleek cabin and great new IFE system." cons="Somewhat tight seats in economy and so-so food." /]
The entry of Virgin Atlantic's A350 to the market has been hugely exciting for the commercial aviation market in the U.K., and with both Virgin and British Airways taking delivery of more and more of these brand-new, state-of-the-art aircraft, things are looking up.
Naturally, a huge amount of the media attention has gone to the swanky new Upper Class suites, but most people fly economy on these planes. Being a man of the people, I took on the task of giving the economy experience a try on the aircraft's second day of flying between London Heathrow (LHR) and New York-JFK.
We purchased a round-trip ticket with cash for this flight, and paid a total of $571 with the Platinum Card® from American Express in order to take advantage of the card's 5x bonus category on flights purchased directly through the airline or through Amex Travel.
Virgin tends to release plenty of award tickets, especially in economy. For this route, you need just 10,000 miles for a ticket in the off-peak season. However, with each award ticket comes a hefty amount of taxes and fees -- in this case about $250. In peak travel times between the U.S. and Europe, it could make sense to use your miles, but considering the taxes alone were about half the cost of the ticket, we spend the cash instead.
If you do go the mileage route, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles are easy to come by, as the program is a 1:1 transfer partner of all three major transferable currencies (American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou), so points earned with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card can be easily transferred into into your Flying Club account to book award flights.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="5" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="G-VLUX" age=".08" departure="13" departure-2="49" duration="07" duration-2="19" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I really like Terminal 3 at Heathrow, which makes Virgin a much more appealing airline to fly on long-haul routes. Connections via public transit to this terminal are plentiful (and cheap!), but as I was near Paddington Station in central London, I decided to take the Heathrow Express, which took 15 minutes to get to T3.
At T3, it was easy to find the huge red Virgin and Delta desks, even from outside the building. Once inside, it was also easy to distinguish between the classes (economy, Premium and Upper). Economy was by far the biggest area, but at 10 a.m., when I was checking in, it was fairly quiet, and I didn't experience any queues. The economy check-in experience was separated into two stages: check-in and drop-off.
At check in, I was welcomed with a smile from the check-in agent. She had already been on the A350 and was as excited about it as I was, which made me even more eager to get on board.
Within five minutes, I had a boarding pass in my hand and a smile on my face but then realized I still had to deal with my luggage. I am not a fan of self-checking my luggage. Despite being a frequent flyer and fairly used to new technologies, I find the machines complicated to use, impersonal and unreliable.
It took me some time to figure how to scan my boarding pass. Then, after getting my luggage tag, I had to figure out how to peel off the proper part, affix it to my bag and then send my bag away, still not 100% sure I had done it correctly.
As this was an economy ticket, I didn't have any lounge access, nor Fast Track security, and had to endure long security lines. After clearing security, I embarked on the long walk to the gate. It was about 15 minutes, even though I was walking briskly. Once I finally arrived, there was no queue, so there was no problem with not having priority boarding.
Overall, despite the long walk to the gate, the Virgin-controlled aspects of the ground experience weren't anything memorable, but they were totally adequate.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="17" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="3" configuration-2="3" configuration-3="3" width="17.4" pitch="34" lavs="8" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I was welcomed to the aircraft by two members of the cabin crew, both immaculately dressed and wearing warm smiles. As I boarded, I passed through The Loft, an upper-class lounge with two loveseats facing each other. Of course, the area was beautifully lit in Virgin's red-and-purple color scheme. I love the fact that Virgin came up with a new concept for its new aircraft, and I would totally recommend flying the A350 just to check it out, even if you're flying in economy.
My first impressions of the economy cabin were that it was sleek. The seats themselves were quite nice-looking, with adjustable leather headrests, improving the economy experience on long flights.
One thing is for sure: The seat was ... cozy. With a 3-3-3 configuration, the aircraft felt jam-packed, even though on this particular flight the economy cabin was not that busy.
I was lucky to have nobody next to me, but my shoulders were almost touching both of the adjacent seats at the same time. The seat definitely felt narrow.
I paid extra to "upgrade" to Economy Delight, Virgin-speak for extra-legroom economy. However, the few extra inches of legroom didn't feel like much of a difference to me. I also checked out a normal economy seat and, frankly, both were tight.
I wasn't trying to sleep on this relatively short daytime flight, but I think the red-eye flights back to London wouldn't offer an easy night's sleep. I've been lucky to have recently flown four different A350s (Lufthansa, Malaysian, British Airways and now Virgin). After flying all of these, Virgin's lavs for economy and premium economy felt like the smallest of the bunch.
All in it all, though beautiful, the cabin and seats themselves felt a little tight, but it was not too far off the typical economy experience on the A350.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="11" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="11.6" movies="104" tv-shows="140" live-tv="0" tailcam="Yes" wifi="0.36" wifi-2="0.58" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Complimentary headphones, blanket and pillow were provided. The headphones were actually great for economy. Although they felt cheap and plastic, they were comfortable and worked well.
The blanket was actually a really nice Virgin red with a special cut to wrap around your neck. It was a really clever idea that actually worked. The pillow was extremely small, but I appreciated having it.
Each economy seat featured a seatback inflight-entertainment screen, along with two USB outlets, though no AC power was provided. The IFE screens themselves were fast and responded well to touch, and they featured a wide selection of films, TV shows, music and more.
I especially loved that the airline provided the ability to watch the tail cameras from economy seats, too. In celebration of the new aircraft, Virgin provided free Wi-Fi to everyone on board. It took a while to actually load, and it wasn't especially fast. However, it did function decently enough and was free, so I counted it a win overall.
No other amenities were proactively provided, but I was later told that you could ask for other amenities in economy. So if you need an eye mask, a toothbrush or something else, you can request them from the crew.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="17" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="2" meals-purchase="No" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I was given a menu for food and drinks, which seemed to have tons of drink options but not much in the way of food, though in economy it's not going to get much better than the standard "chicken, beef or pasta." I went for the chicken, which was presented really poorly but was actually fairly tasty. I ate the whole thing.
The tray itself was probably the smallest economy tray I've encountered, though admittedly it did come full, with cookies, a chocolate dessert, my chicken, a bowl of salad and, disappointingly, plastic cutlery.
The second meal, the afternoon tea, was served a little over an hour before landing and was presented in a much nicer way. The pink box was really attractive, and its contents were tasty! It was better than the first meal, though it was significantly smaller.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="24" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="The service on this flight was exceptional, and it's an aspect of the airline that really sets it apart from the rest." /]
The crew, especially for a flight in economy, was friendly, attentive, fast and efficient. I also loved the effort put into their appearance -- it's a huge part of the Virgin magic.
All of my interactions with the crew were very pleasant, and they responded quickly to me pressing the call button -- with a smile, of course. I asked for another drink, and it was absolutely no problem. Admittedly, this was the second day of flying a brand-new aircraft so perhaps the service was extra good, but it seems that my experience mirrors that of most people who fly Virgin more frequently.
This was my first time flying Virgin Atlantic, and I was not disappointed. I really loved the cool vibe that they put into every little detail on the A350. The colors, the presentation, the crew uniforms and their look overall were eye-catching. The seat, though tight, was actually striking in its design and comfortable enough for economy. The food was OK, and although there was no amenity kit, it was great that there were bits made available on request.
Overall, it was a great flight, and I wouldn't hesitate to fly economy again on the Virgin A350, especially on shorter, transatlantic hops.
Photos by the author, unless where otherwise noted.