Premium, upgraded: A review of Virgin Atlantic’s new Premium product on the A350
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The past two months have been busy ones for the commercial aviation industry in the UK. Earlier this summer, British Airways launched its first-ever A350 routes to Madrid before launching it on long-haul flights. Not to be outdone, crosstown competitor Virgin Atlantic soon thereafter began taking delivery of its own A350s.
While its new Upper Class Suite got the bulk of the addition — and it is a dazzling product, indeed — the carrier also gave its Premium product a facelift with the A350. After being one of the first carriers to introduce a proper premium economy cabin, Virgin launched its A350 with new seats, larger inflight-entertainment screens and a supposedly more comfortable experience.
But what was it really like? Would the A350 talk be just that: talk? I traveled along with my TPG UK colleagues Nicky Kelvin (Upper Class Suite) and Jean Arnas (economy) to test out the product myself on the aircraft’s third-ever passenger flight.
Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club program offers some tremendous value — especially on Premium itineraries. On this route specifically, you can often find round-trip award flights for just 35,000 Flying Club miles plus taxes and fees. It’s worth noting that taxes and fees can sometimes reach — or exceed — $500.
Because my itinerary was booked shortly after Virgin put A350 flights on sale, award availability wasn’t great. Instead, I opted to pay cash for the round-trip itinerary from London (LHR) to New York-JFK. Though Sept. 11 wouldn’t be the date of the inaugural flight, our thinking was the day following the first would be a more accurate representation of what the Premium experience would be like.
In total, the round-trip ticket cost $1,033 in Premium. Because it was purchased with the Platinum Card® from American Express, the flight earned 5x Membership Rewards points, for a total of 5,165 points. Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, those points were worth $103, not a bad return.
Additionally, because Virgin Atlantic is a partner of Delta, I was able to input my SkyMiles number in order to earn me valuable Medallion Qualification Miles on my journey to Platinum Medallion status.
I arrived at London Heathrow’s Terminal 3 about three hours prior to departure. The building on the left was reserved for Virgin Atlantic and its close friend Delta. Elsewhere in the terminal were Oneworld carriers like Qantas, American, Cathay, Japan Airlines and some British Airways flights.
The large check-in area had dedicated lines for Upper Class/Delta One, as well as one for Premium and a large section for economy. Because Virgin and Delta had an entirely different entrance for Upper Class/Delta One passengers, the check-in space for those passengers in the main check-in area was fairly limited.
For passengers traveling in Premium with Virgin, there were two options for checking in: using a kiosk to print out your boarding pass or visiting a check-in agent. The desks were well-staffed, and there was no queue, so I went with the more personal approach and spoke to an agent who was extremely friendly and welcoming.
Premium passengers were entitled to a generous two pieces of baggage, each up to 50 pounds in weight. After a seamless bag-check experience and obtaining my boarding pass, I ascended the nearby escalator to the security checkpoint. There was a neither-long-nor-short queue, but it looked worse than it was, and I was through in about five minutes.
Unlike passengers in Virgin’s Upper Class cabin, those in the Premium cabin weren’t entitled to enter the lounge, so my lounge experience isn’t factored into the score of this section. However, I did use my Priority Pass membership, which comes as a benefit of my Platinum Card® from American Express. In the terminal, there were two Priority Pass lounges: No.1 Lounge and Club Aspire. My TPG UK colleague Dan Ross has reviewed all of LHR’s lounges, and he’s determined that, between the Priority Pass options in T3, Club Aspire is the way to go.
I didn’t have much time to enjoy the lounge, but I found it to be a nice space overall. It was the small side, and I found it to be somewhat difficult to find an open seat., but there was an entire area, the Quiet Area, that I didn’t get the chance to explore.
As far as food, there was a decent selection, both hot and cold. Hot options seemed to be carb heavy: rice, two kinds of penne pasta and what appeared to be a chickpea dish. Meanwhile, the cold platters featured green salads, fresh vegetables and a couple other pasta-centric salad dishes. There was also a bar with bartender service. I didn’t eat anything, as I wasn’t hungry and wanted to save my appetite for when I got on board.
The lounge also boasted shower facilities, though those were subject to an additional charge. Overall, I found the lounge to be good for a rest before a long-haul flight. Though I didn’t get to spend much time or indulge in the food, I’d definitely return on a future flight out of T3.
I headed to Gate 22 about 10 minutes before boarding was set to begin. Unbeknownst to me, Gate 22 was about a 15-minute trek away.
Once I finally arrived at the space, I saw the shiny, new A350-1000 bird waiting for us.
This was a brand-new aircraft for Virgin. As in, my flight was just the aircraft’s third commercial service. Its inaugural operation was on the same route from LHR to JFK on Sept. 10, and it returned to London on the red-eye that night. Registered as G-VLUX and nicknamed “Red Velvet,” the aircraft was delivered to Virgin on Aug. 10. For the month between delivery and its first commercial operation, the aircraft operated several test flights within the UK, mostly from Glasgow (GLA) to Glasgow, according to flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.
Boarding took place via two entrances to the aircraft: one for Upper Class passengers and a rear door for Premium and economy passengers.
Cabin and Seat
Upon entering, I definitely got that new-plane smell. Everything was fresh, and you could feel the excitement of the cabin crew. No tears in seat upholstery, no nicked corners or stained carpets. The aircraft showed its youth — especially considering that we were parked next to one of the oldest aircraft in the airline’s fleet, an A340-600 that was brought out of retirement in February 2018.
The Premium cabin on the Virgin A350 comprised a total of 56 seats across a single cabin. The cabin was arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration. My flight was on the emptier side, so most passengers who were seated in the middle section of four seats had empty seats between them.
Each of the Collins Aerospace MiQ seats featured 38 inches of pitch and 7 inches of recline. 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. By contrast, on the carrier’s old A340s, 747s, 787s and A330-300s, Premium seats have 21 inches of pitch in a 2-3-2 configuration, though the 747 is also a 2-4-2 because it’s a wider aircraft.
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.
My seat, 21A, was a bulkhead window seat, meaning there was no one seated in front of me. That also meant that I had extra legroom and a slightly different product than the rest of the cabin.
Each of the bulkhead seats had the advantage of both a leg- and a footrest.
Meanwhile, the rest of the seats in the Premium cabin had just a pedal attached to the seat in front — there was no legrest.
I found the legrest and footrest on the bulkhead row to be useful. Although I didn’t sleep or lounge at all on this flight, I did recline the seat just to test the comfort of it. I found the footrest to be rather close in, but the added support was a huge win, especially on a long-haul flight.
My bulkhead seat came with three preset options for reclining the seat. There was the standard recline, the legrest option and a footrest option. Additionally, the headrest was customizable, so you could move it up or down to your liking, as well as fold the side flaps for extra support.
Additionally, because I was in the bulkhead row, my inflight-entertainment screen could be ejected from underneath the armrest. I’m torn about this. While it was nice to have the screen out when I wanted it and stored when I didn’t, I had to have it stored for taxi, takeoff and landing. So if you’re thinking about starting a film close to landing, be sure you have enough time to finish before you’re required to store the screen. Each of the Premium-cabin seats besides the bulkhead seats featured a built-in IFE screen in the back of the headrest.
For each of the seats in the cabin, the tray table ejected from underneath one of the armrests. It was a bifold tray table, which was perfect for just a small plate or to rest a drink. In its folded position, most passengers had enough room to squeeze out to use the lavatory. Fully open, it was somewhat flimsy, though my 15-inch laptop could fit on it.
Though there wasn’t a ton of storage in the seat, I found there to be about as much as expected for a premium economy seat. Especially in a middle block of four seats, it can be hard to provide a lot of storage, but Virgin equipped these seats with about as much as I would think possible. There was a small slot next to the seat, underneath the armrest. While not a huge space, and definitely not enough to store a laptop, it was sufficient for my passport, AirPods and my phone. Additionally, the seats not by the bulkhead had upper and lower seatback storage spaces primarily for literature like the new A350-1000 safety cards.
There were three lavatories in the Premium cabin, which I found to be a perfect number for the number of passengers on my flight. I think that even with a full cabin of 56 passengers, the three lavs would’ve sufficed. Though there was some wait during peak times (after meal services and before landing), they quickly dissipated.
Inside, they were pretty standard economy-size lavatories with no special features or extras.
In addition to a new seat with a large IFE system, Virgin paid attention to details that helped improve the passenger experience. With new aircraft, several carriers are doing away with overhead air vents for passengers. As someone who goes from being hot to cold and vice versa quickly, I’m a huge fan of being able to control the air flow at my seat. That small feature can make all the difference between a comfortable and uncomfortable flight.
Additionally, I was a fan of some of the small design features of the seat. For example, the tray table and two drink spaces on the armrest were colored in a faux-granite design. We all know tray tables are plastic in economy and premium economy, and it’s a small but noticeable decision for a carrier to either go with a basic plastic color or to add a little oomph to the aesthetics. A small decision goes a long way, in my eyes.
Overall, I found the cabin and seat to be comfortable. Though the seat was on the narrower side, because I didn’t have anyone seated next to me, it felt rather spacious. That said, there were significant improvements with this product, as well as design decisions that went a long way in terms of enjoyment.
Amenities and IFE
I found the amenities on the flight to be more than enough — especially on a relatively short long-haul flight like London to New York. At boarding, each of the seats in the Premium cabin was stocked with all of the amenities for the flight: a plastic-wrapped blanket, pillow, amenity kit and set of headphones.
I loved the amazing, customized “I (Heart) A350” pillows, which were clearly made just for the introduction of the aircraft into service. As far as the quality, I found the pillows to be perfectly reasonable with stuffing. Though I didn’t use it to sleep, I think it would have been more than sufficient.
Less than one week before launching A350 service, Virgin unveiled its brand-new amenity kits, called “Goodie Bags.” Both the Upper Class and Premium cabins now get a refreshed Goodie Bag amenity kit on select routes, including this A350-operated route.
Virgin calls the kit the most sustainable in the skies, and it felt like it. The exterior of the kit itself was made from recyclable kraft paper, which felt like a combination of cardboard and thick paper. It didn’t have the luxurious feeling of a leather or solid kit, but it does the trick for me knowing that it was helping to reduce single-use plastics and be less harsh on the environment.
Inside were more environmentally friendly products, such as a bamboo toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, paper-wrapped pen, eye mask and earplugs.
As previously mentioned, the IFE screen in my bulkhead seat came out from underneath one of the armrests. Each of the screens in the cabin, whether in the bulkhead row or in one of 48 other seats in the cabin, was 13.3 inches, larger than existing offerings with the carrier.
The screen itself was completely touchscreen, and, as you would hope with a brand-new aircraft, I found the responsiveness to be great. I quickly noticed that there was no additional remote-control option, which likely helped to open up some storage space in the seat. Instead, Virgin let passengers connect their phone to the screen via Bluetooth and then control it from there.
Included in the IFE system was an AvGeek favorite, the tailcam. It was a feature that the crew announced prior to takeoff. In addition to the tailcam was a selection of 104 movies and about 140 TV shows, as well as games and videos that explored Virgin destinations.
The headphones distributed were lightweight and insubstantial. They were flimsy and not noise-canceling in the slightest. Of course, in premium economy, you shouldn’t expect Bose total noise-canceling headphones, but they could’ve done better than the economy offering.
On each of the IFE screens were both a USB charging port and the headphone outlet.
In addition to the USB port with the IFE screen, there was a universal power outlet on the side of the seat next to the seat controls. Also there were the crew call button and overhead light switch.
The blanket was a deep purple with gold trim. The fleece material of the blanket felt almost worn, but I liked that the blanket had a special neck cutout, which made it easier to cover yourself in an upright position in Premium or economy.
Virgin’s A350s come equipped Inmarsat’s GX Aviation Wi-Fi. Upon boarding, crew told passengers that to celebrate the launch of the A350 into service, Wi-Fi would be free for all passengers for the flight. Wi-Fi typically costs 20.99 pounds (about $26) for the full flight.
Because it was free for everyone, I was worried that it would be on the slow side because of bandwidth issues. That wasn’t the case. Instead, other passengers and I were able to FaceTime with friends and family on the ground. There was some issue with getting the service up and running to begin with, but once it was, about 45 minutes into the flight, it worked seamlessly.
Food and Beverage
Immediately upon boarding, cabin crew came around the Premium cabin with a choice of water or prosecco. I got a glass of prosecco, which was tasty and light and fit on one of the armrests.
Crew then distributed menus for the flight, which included drinks, main courses and the teatime selections. After we took off at about 1:49 p.m. and reached 10,000 feet, the crew quickly came around the cabin for drink service at about 2:05 p.m. I had a glass of the Casa Piñero sauvignon blanc from Spain, which was bright and crisp. The drink was served with sour-cream-and-chive pretzels.
About 20 minutes later, the crew came around the cabin with meals. All three courses — appetizer, main and dessert — were served at the same time, and I appreciated that they expedited the meal service this way. To start, there was only one option: a Cajun pasta salad of fusilli, mixed leaves and mustard vinaigrette. I found the salad to be absolutely delightful. There was definitely a Cajun kick to it, and the twang from the mustard made it really enjoyable.
For my main, I ordered the vegetarian meal, asparagus and ricotta gnocchi with spicy tomato sauce, sweet peppers and broccoli. The gnocchi were huge, and I soon realized that was because they were stuffed with the ricotta and asparagus. The dish was absolutely lovely and roaring with flavor. With the ricotta and the spiciness of the tomato sauce and zest from the sweet peppers, it was a great dish.
To cap off the meal was a slice of passion fruit cake. Though the cake itself was on the dry side, the passion fruit icing really moved it along.
The only negative was the roll, which was plastic-wrapped and incredibly tough and dry. I tried a bite of it and didn’t go back.
Other main courses on this flight included stir-fried pork with vermicelli vegetable noodles and Beijing bean sauce, and chicken-and-mushroom casserole with buttered new potatoes and green beans.
Soon after trays were collected, flight attendants came through once more to offer liqueurs: Amarula cream, which retails for around $20 per bottle, or Baron Otard Cognac, which retails for around $40 per bottle.
During the course of the flight, crew members left out a small bin of chips and snacks for the taking in the galley.
Prior to landing, the crew came through the cabin offering water or juice as a prearrival drink. Shortly thereafter, it was time for tea service. Virgin partners with celebrity pâtissier Eric Lanlard for a tea service as a prearrival meal.
On this flight, the sandwiches included: mozzarella with green pesto, slow-roasted tomato and arugula; and salmon, soft cheese, arugula and cucumber. I got the mozzarella and an English breakfast tea. It was served with a salted-caramel éclair, passion-fruit-and-yuzu macaron and a scone with clotted cream and jam. I found the tea service to be so very pleasant and a phenomenal way to end the flight.
Just before landing, the cabin crew came around with a final treat: Swizzels Love Hearts.
Overall, the meal service was enjoyable and tasty. The meal service was quick, the crew was attentive and, most importantly, I didn’t have anything that I thought was bad — except for the tough roll.
I've flown with Virgin quite a few times, and I've never have a bad experience when it comes to service. And this flight was no different.
The cabin crew on board was absolutely phenomenal and uniquely Virgin. They were fun and conversational rather than cold and unapproachable. Throughout the flight, crew kept the same positive attitude and smiles throughout their service — a nice change from other, legacy carriers I’ve flown recently.
Not only was the service fantastic, but the crew members seemed equally as excited about the new A350 as I was. Several times prior to takeoff and upon landing, the crew took particular interest in reminding passengers it was a new aircraft and how to enjoy its new features.
Even with the new aircraft, I didn’t notice any signs the crew was unfamiliar with it. Service was fast and efficient, and everything appeared to be smooth. Service is one of those things that can either make or break a flight. And in this case, it was just about as good as it gets.
Virgin has remastered the premium economy experience with its Premium A350 product. Considering the value that can be had for redeeming miles for a Premium experience on this route, the product is a huge step up from standard economy and worth it on a route like this, a seven-hour jaunt between New York and London.
Though there are some flaws in the product, such as a narrower seat and poor headphones, I found the experience to be well worth the cost. Virgin has long been an industry leader in premium economy products, and this helps the carrier continue to make waves in offering a great experience for passengers in the Premium cabin.
Featured photo by Emily McNutt / The Points Guy.
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