Leisurely luxury: A review of Virgin Atlantic's A350 leisure configuration in Upper Class from Manchester to Orlando
How many business class seats should an airline install on jets it intends to use on routes with few business travelers?
That's a question airlines' revenue managers and onboard product executives have to contend with as they strive to get the balance of cabins and classes just right to optimize their earnings and their passenger numbers.
Sometimes, an airline will configure the same type of plane in two or more ways depending on the flights it expects them to operate. Take, for instance, Virgin Atlantic.
The airline launched its Airbus A350-1000 aircraft to much fanfare in 2019. The plane sported brand new Upper Class Suites, which were a huge improvement over Virgin's older so-called coffin class seats thanks to more personal storage and privacy.
The first seven A350-1000s Virgin took delivery of 44-seat Upper Class cabins and are deployed on business-focused routes like those from London Heathrow (LHR) to New York-JFK and Los Angeles (LAX).
This version of the aircraft also has 56 premium economy and 235 economy seats aboard, plus a communal space called "The Loft" where Upper Class passengers can work or relax together away from their Suites in a booth or along a banquette.
Since then, however, Virgin has fitted some of its latest A350s, delivered from late 2021, with a higher-density (meaning more seats on board) "leisure configuration."
These aircraft operate routes from the U.K. to vacation destinations like Florida and the Caribbean, and have 325 economy seats, 56 in premium economy spaces and just 16 Upper Class Suites. These planes also have a modified, smaller communal space for Upper Class flyers called "The Booth."
Although TPG has reviewed Virgin's standard A350 in all three classes, including a brief sojourn in The Loft, I was keen to try the leisure configuration and The Booth for myself on a recent flight from Manchester (MAN) to Orlando (MCO). Here's how the experience measured up.
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Virgin Atlantic currently operates twice daily flights from Manchester to Orlando until Oct. 30, 2022, with service going down to once daily after that.
The later daily departure, flight VS73, is operated by an A350 in the leisure configuration, though some days it is operated by an A330 with Virgin's older seats aboard.
The flight takes nine hours, departing at 11:10 a.m. and arriving in Orlando at 3:10 p.m. on the same day. The return leg, flight VS74, departs at 7:40 p.m. and arrives in Manchester eight hours later at 8:45 a.m. the following morning.
Currently, Virgin's two leisure-configured A350s only operate flights from Manchester and London Heathrow to Orlando.
As you might expect on a flight with just 16 Upper Class Suites on a busy summer route, award availability was virtually nonexistent. The least expensive cash fares I could find with a return leg to Manchester in economy were over $2,800, so I went ahead and booked that.
Virgin Atlantic recently introduced minimum guaranteed numbers of award seats in all classes, so finding award tickets should theoretically get easier.
Upper Class Suites should be bookable for just 47,500 Virgin Points plus a whopping $713.82 in fees, taxes and surcharges per person, each way on standard dates, or 57,500 Points on peak dates, plus the same fees, taxes and surcharges.
TPG's Andrew Kunesh recently found a neat trick to reduce the cost of those surcharges by booking Virgin tickets through Flying Blue instead.
However, the award availability I found on the Virgin Atlantic website was not coming up on Air France or KLM's award search engines, so you might have to call Flying Blue if you are hoping to use the program's miles to book an award through it and pay lower fuel surcharges.
On my paid ticket, I earned 8,452 Virgin Points, worth $126 by TPG's latest valuations, as well as 100 Tier Points toward elite status in the Flying Club program.
With my paid ticket, I was able to select my seat at no extra cost. I chose a window seat in the third row.
Having recently experienced the cramped and dated Terminal 1 at Manchester Airport, I was looking forward to a smoother experience at the recently renovated Terminal 2, which Virgin Atlantic flies out of.
My first impressions weren't good. I was greeted with a massive check-in line at Virgin's counters in all classes.
With three wide-body flights departing within hours of each other and baggage belts that continually stopped working for periods of 10 minutes or more, it took a good 30 minutes for me to reach the front of the Upper Class priority line.
Even in a chaotic summer of travel, that frankly felt too long for business class.
The flustered check-in staff explained a lack of baggage handlers at the airport was causing the belts to be switched off without warning for short periods and it was impossible to check passengers in if there was nowhere to place their luggage. I'd advise checking in online and avoiding checked baggage.
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With my boarding pass in hand, I found the fast-track security entrance which was, fortunately, a speedy and pleasant experience. I received smiles from the security staff, and there were constant reminders to remove hair dryers and straighteners from hand baggage as this usually triggered a secondary screening.
In the main airside area of Terminal 2, it was easy to see where refurbishment investments had been made. It's a really lovely space and the massive, multi-story LED screen was reminiscent of a luxury shopping mall display, even if it was just showing advertisements.
Unfortunately Virgin Atlantic does not operate its own Clubhouse Lounge at Manchester so there were no Peleton workout or pre-flight haircut opportunities.
Instead, Upper Class passengers, as well as business class flyers of other carriers including Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines, have access to the independently run 1903 Lounge. Guests need to pass through the Escape lounge, which was absolutely heaving with travelers quaffing complimentary alcohol on this particular Sunday morning.
The 1903 Lounge is named in reference to the year the Wright Brothers successfully operated the world's first flight of a powered heavier-than-air aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It was an elegant space with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the tarmac and runway that should be sure to entertain even the most casual aviation enthusiast.
Jacques Bardelot Champagne and Borgo Alato Prosecco were available at no extra cost and there was a sizable selection of spirits, including flavored gins and some Northern English beers.
A hearty full English breakfast from the hot buffet felt appropriate for a Sunday morning, topped off with brown sauce, a uniquely English condiment, as well as a strong coffee.
About 75 minutes before departure I headed to gate 210, which is located on a pier that appears to still be under construction. It's an odd space that feels cramped and temporary and was a shock after the stylish and spacious main airside terminal area.
The gate area was packed with (mostly British) families heading off on holidays to the theme parks of Orlando with plenty of Mickey Mouse ears donned by both excited children and adults.
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I appeared to be one of the few solo passengers on the flight, and I didn't see a single business traveler frantically trying to finish a conference call or dash off an email before boarding. This was a far more relaxed, jovial group in no hurry to ensure an efficient on-time departure.
That was fortunate because with the late arrival of the incoming aircraft from Orlando this plane was not going anywhere quickly.
The scheduled boarding time of 10:20 a.m. came and went with the cabin crew still waiting at the gate along with the passengers. The crew did not board until the scheduled departure time of 11:10 a.m. with the first passengers entering the aircraft thirty minutes later.
An hour after the scheduled departure time, the pilot finally announced boarding was finally complete since we had waited for a few stragglers, causing an even longer delay.
The wait extended as the pilot realized he had lost his takeoff slot and was so late that he would have to chart a brand new flight path to Orlando. Finally, 90 minutes after departure we finally left the gate to cheers from the crowd.
Cabin and seat
The Upper Class cabin's 16 seats are laid out in four rows of a 1-2-1 configuration.
This has to be one of the smallest business class cabins I've ever seen on a wide-body jet, and it felt intimate and exclusive.
What did not feel intimate was the massive premium economy cabin of 56 seats directly behind Upper Class. That cabin felt large and impersonal. Given the choice, I'd probably just save the money and sit in economy instead.
The Booth was right next to the boarding door, greeting passengers as they entered the aircraft.
My seat, 3A, was along the left side of the cabin and facing the window, making it ideal for a solo traveler. Couples flying together may wish to choose a center pair of seats, which face slightly away from each other but still allow easy conversation across the seat divider.
Instead of its recognizable fire-engine red palette, Virgin Atlantic chose a drab brown tone for the leather upholstery of these seats. The sharp lines and pearlescent surfaces make the seat feel modern and lightweight, though also a bit less high-end than finishes you might find on Virgin's other jets.
These suites are supposed to have privacy doors, but I observed with dismay the door barely extended more than a few inches from the side wing of its casing and did not come close to closing. For reference, here is the suite with the privacy shield fully extended.
For that reason, I'd consider these to be suites in marketing only and I actually think it's a bit cheeky to try to pass these off as enclosed spaces.
Perhaps because of the late arrival of the inbound aircraft, the seat had not been cleaned properly, and plastic ties from previous passenger amenity kits littered the shelf next to the window.
All that said, the seat was comfortable, if unremarkable in its style, and represents a quantum leap over the airline's old coffin-style Upper Class seats.
My favorite feature was the tray table, which folded down from the back of the seat in front, rather than sliding out from a hidden compartment. It swiveled several different positions, including my preference, where the top portion swung out from the bottom, creating two tables in one and allowing me to have my 13-inch laptop open while my table was set for a meal.
I can't think of any business class seat I've flown that provides this handy functionality.
Unlike my recent adventures with Finnair's revolutionary new non-reclining business class seat, this was a traditionally reclining business class seat that went fully flat (with the leg rest raising up) to meet a footwell that provided enough space to sleep properly.
I could recline it partially for watching movies or just lounging with a book, or completely for proper sleep. I had no issues napping for an hour or two during this daytime flight.
There was little storage space around the seat. The clear plastic shelf between my shoulder and the window felt more decorative than anything. It was too small for an amenity kit or tablet and only really useful for a drink or somewhere to rest your phone. Also, there were no bins below the window to store larger items, save for a small literature pocket.
Waiting for me on my seat was a large, fluffy square pillow and I soon discovered a thick duvet and mattress pad rolled up in the overhead bin. Such bedding isn't essential for a daytime flight but I appreciated the premium touch.
There was also a pair of Virgin Atlantic-branded noise canceling headphones which were of decent quality, though not as good as top-of-the-line Bose options.
The amenity kit was dubbed a "goodie bag" — you may also hear these kits referred to as washbags on British airlines (this simply refers to the fact it contains items you would use to wash or use in a washroom/bathroom).
Inside were sleeping socks, a Virgin branded Kraft paper pen and eyemask, earplugs, BambuuBrush bamboo toothbrush and toothpaste, as well as some mini REN toiletries. These sustainable options save the airline almost 1,000 tons of plastic each year versus traditional amenity kits.
I have found reusing empty amenity kits pouches to be a neat packing hack as they are ideal to store things like your cables, spare currency and adapters.
I still use my older black fabric Virgin Atlantic amenity kit from several years ago and the mini Away-branded amenity kits provided to United Polaris passengers right now are brilliant. I appreciate Virgin making their new kits from responsibly sourced, FSC-certified recyclable kraft paper but the look is not good — they are so crumpled they appear to have been trampled on by a galley trolley.
I chose to leave this kit on the plane when we landed — surely there is a design that can be both environmentally friendly and stylish?
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The 18.5-inch in-flight entertainment screen came packed with 177 movies, including "The Batman," "Ghostbusters: Afterlife," "Uncharted," and 136 different TV series — enough to entertain even the most restless Disney or Universal Studios fan.
The screen swings out from the seatback in front but doesn't tilt up or down. Also, the perspex covering caused a glare that made it hard to view from certain positions. I did enjoy playing around with the different flight map options including a nose and rear tail camera.
Wi-Fi was available throughout the flight with pricing from $3.61 (2.99 British pounds) for a messaging-only option and up to ($36.25 (20.99 British pounds) for the deluxe full flight option. Once connected, I registered speeds of an acceptable 13 Mbps download but only 0.67 Mbps upload.
Virgin Atlantic installed just a single bathroom for the 16-seat Upper Class cabin and this was located at the front right of the cabin.
While I was initially concerned this would be insufficient, there were no queues during the flight for the 12 passengers in Upper Class and it was kept clean throughout. I loved the window for a bathroom with a view!
Food and beverage
Upon boarding, I was offered a choice between Champagne, orange juice or water. I chose a glass of Ayala Champagne which has been Virgin's house brand for several years. It was fine, but not something I would seek out at my local wine store or give as a gift.
Also on the menu was a Hambledon English sparkling wine. I was excited to try something different but was advised the full bar would not be opened until after takeoff.
I did manage a glass of the English sparkling wine later in the flight and it was pleasant with notes of apple but I prefer true Champagne when flying in a premium cabin. My predeparture glass was served with a packet of pretzel thins, which were tasty but something you would get in a $3.62 (3 British pounds) supermarket lunchtime meal deal, not a four-figure international business class ticket price.
I would love to see a rosé Champagne option on the menu like British Airways and Qatar Airways offer in business class.
Printed menus were handed out to all Upper Class guests, which made it handy to refer to options during the flight.
For the post-takeoff lunch service, there were options for all three courses, which was a treat. I chose the grilled asparagus and artichoke for a starter, followed by breaded chicken breast with garlic truffle butter for my main course and a passionfruit and chocolate dome for dessert.
The starter was delicious — a nice, light Sunday lunch option. I grinned when I was presented with Virgin's famous airplane-shaped salt and pepper shakers. I asked the crew and with a wink they advised me they wouldn't tell anyone if they accidentally fell into my hand baggage.
The main course, by contrast, was drab and unappetizing at first glance. Everything on the plate was either white, yellow or light brown and it looked more like the leftovers of yesterday's lunch than a freshly prepared dish.
It tasted OK but was something I would throw together when I couldn't be bothered going to the supermarket, not something I would serve to visiting guests.
I was a little deflated after the main course and my spirits weren't lifted when the dessert was served. My dome fell similarly flat, though the raspberry crumb was a refined garnish. It was tasty with a nice crumbly cheesecake-type biscuit base but perhaps a dome is not a viable food shape at 30,000 feet as mine resembled a partially deflated basketball.
Rather than a traditional set light meal served 90 minutes before landing there was a choice of four "extra bites" available at any time throughout the flight:
- Cream tea.
- Barbecued pulled pork brioche.
- Warm crabcakes.
- Superfood salad.
The crew encouraged me to order more than one at a time and being a huge fan of both cooking and eating pulled pork, I decided to put Virgin's to the test.
It was a much bigger portion than I expected — easily a meal in itself. I'm pleased to report it was delicious and really hit the spot. The accompanying pickles and red cabbage slaw were a nice way to lighten up a traditionally heavy dish.
I paired this with a cup of earl grey tea served in a chunky Robert Welch mug, another longtime Virgin Atlantic signature. I would prefer a daintier cup and saucer but it was overall a great second meal.
Related: The next time you travel, take your kids to afternoon tea
I excitedly enquired about using The Booth during the boarding process and the crew advised me I could book this for a 45-minute block on a first-come, first-served basis. As the already small cabin was not full, the crew didn't think I'd have any difficulty using it so I booked a slot about four hours into the flight to make sure.
I seemed to be the passenger most interested in the social space on this flight as, when my booking time arrived and the wonderful Jaqui came to collect me to take me to it, she had set up all of the available activities for my use.
She presented me with a menu of activity options, including wine tasting, cognac tasting, cocktail tasting and the option to have a meal served there.
It was nice to be able to see the exact cocktail, cognac and wine options from the menu right in front of me, but I would not expect the crew to set up such an elaborate display for all passengers.
Cognac isn't really my thing, but I certainly enjoy a fancy cocktail or two on my holidays. The two options were a pre-bottled margarita or a mai tai from Tom Savano. I cheekily asked if I could taste both (for research purposes only, obviously) which was met with a "Why wouldn't you?!" from the crew members who went into the galley to pour them into glasses with ice and garnish.
Both cocktails were excellent and I would gladly purchase either if I saw it for sale anywhere on the ground.
The wine tasting consisted of cans of sparkling rose wine from The Uncommon based in the southeast of England. These ended up falling flat, and I would probably not recommend them, though if you like trying new wines, why not?
The social space was fun to relax in for 30 minutes or so thanks to the personalized attention. However, it felt like it was designed for couples to spend some time away from their seats, and I was a bit lonely hanging out there solo, so I returned to my seat just before my allotted time was up.
The Booth was largely unused the rest of the flight. It's a much smaller space than the Loft to reflect the much smaller Upper Class cabin that can utilize it. It's not quite as visually appealing or inviting, not helped by the dark brown leather which gives it a cave-like atmosphere. I think I'd prefer the Loft if given the choice, even though I'd be battling more fellow guests to use it.
That said, I can't help feeling that the Booth would be great fun with a partner, friend or coworker. While only two passengers can fit in the space, they can work with power plugs available, or watch the inflight map on the two large screens on the Booth wall, though unfortunately, one was out of service during my flight.
With such a small cabin I had a dedicated cabin crew member the entire flight and was lucky enough to be looked after by the fantastic customer service manager for the flight, Jaqui (crew in these senior positions can be identified by their brown, rather than red uniforms).
Jaqui has worked for Virgin for some 30 years and was the ideal balance of professional and genuine. She was also a truly hospitable hostess, sneaking me another beverage with a sly wink and regularly offering me more food and snacks until I could not eat more.
Since I was one of the only solo travelers on the flight, she sat with me in the Booth for a good 20 minutes both to discuss the concept of the space and to wax lyrical about the airline, Orlando, the aviation industry and her varied travel memories. She had flown to Orlando hundreds of times but still enjoyed the city's sunshine and laidback lifestyle.
Why do I go on so long about Jaqui? Because I would call her a true asset to her airline who literally made flying fun for me, and I hope she continues to fly across the Atlantic for many years to come. I certainly hope to see her on another Virgin Atlantic flight myself.
I enjoyed being on a shiny new aircraft with high-end international business class seats for a leisure route such as this.
The 16-seat Upper Class cabin was intimate and exclusive and a very pleasant way to fly — I certainly didn't feel like a number on a production line.
The seats are significantly better than Virgin's older 787 and A330 seats, but they're not really "suites" as their doors don't close more than a few inches. The brown color scheme was a little drab and it would be nice to have a bit more personal storage, but the seats themselves get most of the basics right.
The food tasted fine but wasn't particularly sophisticated. The Booth, on the other hand, was a smart use of space that might otherwise go to waste. I also appreciated the amount of thought Virgin put into the activities and amenities for visitors to entertain themselves there. The brand partnerships did not feel intrusive or tacky, instead, spending a half-hour in The Booth was fun way to pass the time.
I've never had bad service on a Virgin flight and this was no exception, which set exactly the right tone on a leisure route to a vacation destination.