Lofty heights: A review of Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class Suite on the A350 from London to New York
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="87" ground-experience="10" cabin-seat="21" amens-ife="11" food-bev="22" service="23" pros="Flawless ground experience, a great new seat and nice soft-product amenities (especially the mattress pad)." cons="Slow meal service, awkward tray table positioning and lack of storage." /]
It's been a big year for commercial aviation in the UK, to say the least.
Just days ago, British Airways put its brand-new Airbus A350s into long-haul service with flights between London (LHR) and Dubai (DXB). And, just two days ago, archrival Virgin Atlantic began flying its new A350s from its base in London to New York-JFK. With British Airways delivering on its promise to provide a modern and competitive business-class product, I was keen to get on board Virgin's A350 to see if it could bring its formerly lagging business product up to the level of its competition -- or even surpass it.
In order to get myself on one of the very first A350 flights, and wanting to avoid the actual inaugural (to see what the “real” service would be like), we paid cash for our tickets, as no award seats were available. Generally, I find award availability through Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club to be pretty good, and had there been availability on the flight we needed, it would have cost 47,500 miles plus 447 pounds (about $550) in taxes and fees.
Besides offering generally solid award availability, it's easy to accrue Virgin Miles in Flying Club, especially as it's a 1:1 transfer partner of all the major transferable points currencies (American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou). 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 card membership. Just by earning the welcome bonus on the card, you could earn enough points for a one-way Upper Class flight between London and New York.
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From the very first point of contact, Virgin excels in its ground experience at Heathrow. It really is the gold standard of business-class ground experiences. As an Upper Class passenger, I was afforded use of the Upper Class Wing. Had I purchased a ticket in a more expensive fare class, I would even have been offered a limo service to the airport, but, alas, I was on a cheapie.
I took a cab to the airport and told the driver to pull up to the barrier at the Upper Class Wing, behind which lay a separate entrance to Heathrow's Terminal 3.
The agent asked for the passenger name and flight over the intercom, and once confirmed, the barrier swung open. We glided up a curved ramp to the entrance of the Wing.
The car pulled up, and incredibly friendly Virgin ground staff sprung into action. One opened the door for me, and another took the bags out of the trunk and brought them inside, and then I was led to the check-in desk.
The check-in area was light and airy, and I particularly loved the giant A350 model right by the entrance.
Check-in formalities were completed within a couple of minutes, and I was ushered through the Upper Class security channel, which was empty, and again cleared within a couple of minutes.
After security, I was spat out into the main terminal, from where I made my way over to the Clubhouse, Virgin’s lounge at Heathrow -- and the flagship in its system.
The Clubhouse really was spectacular for a business-class lounge. We have covered this lounge extensively before, and I have sung its praises. It was particularly busy on this day, busier than I’d ever seen it, but it didn’t stop the service from being quick and friendly, and there were still a number of seats available in all of the different areas.
I ordered a cappuccino and a breakfast bowl. Both came quickly and were excellent.
A quick back massage and a jaunt onto the roof terrace to watch planes was all I had time for before heading down to Gate 22, one of the farthest spots in T3.
I arrived at the gate and took the separate Upper Class channel, although boarding had started and the whole area was already rather quiet.
There was no delay at any stage, and I proceeded to board via the separate jet bridge for Upper Class passengers.
Virgin Atlantic's ground experience -- especially at Heathrow -- was almost unbeatable. It had a wow factor and made me feel like a rockstar.
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After an incredibly warm welcome by the crew, I entered the cabin. It felt cool, and with its pink and purple mood lighting, felt very ... well ... Virgin Atlantic. The seats at first glance looked comfortable and exclusive.
The cabin was arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, which provided direct aisle access to each seat in all 11 rows. The middle pairs faced away from each other, and all window seats faced out to the windows, allowing a dreamy viewing position if you loved staring aimlessly down to earth.
I was seated halfway down the cabin by the window in Seat 6A. There was really not a bad seat in the house, although Row 1 definitely had an edge, as its footwell was larger than in other rows.
You may want to avoid seats right at the back of the cabin to avoid being disturbed by any merriment coming from the Loft.
The seat itself was very comfortable, upholstered in leather and trimmed with orange, brown and pink hues.
There was a tray table that flipped down and then slid out in front of you. It was large enough for eating and working, and my 15-inch laptop fit comfortably on top of it.
But it was difficult to get in and out of the seat when the table was down, so moving around during a meal service wasn't possible. I also found the table a little too close to my body for comfort. I'm pretty slim, and it was still relatively uncomfortable for me. The chair could be moved forward, but what I really wanted to do was either move the seat farther back or the table farther out of the way.
There was a small, sliding half-door that made the seat a "suite." It was a nice gimmick but didn't make a huge difference in terms of privacy. I left it open most of the time but still found the seat sufficiently private, so this wasn't much of a concern at all.
I really loved that Virgin decided to put air vents over each seat. It was so nice to be able to control a direct flow of air toward myself, and this seems to be disappearing on a lot of other products.
There was an armrest that could be adjusted up and down and be pushed right down to create more space for sleeping.
The footrest was a little far away for me to use it properly, though the seat could be adjusted various ways. By raising the bottom part of the chair, I made the footwell unnecessary.
There was a distinct lack of storage at the seat. There was a small space to store a water bottle behind the area where the table folded up, and two small shelves at the side of the seat. I kept a few items in the footwell, but other that that, there weren't any closable bins or compartments.
There were two USB ports and one universal power outlet.
The seat converted into a fully flat bed and could be topped with a thick and comfortable mattress pad. In the sleeping position, I found it a little tight around the feet, but around the knees and especially shoulders, it was much more spacious.
I lay down to test the comfort, but the real test was an attempt at a full night's sleep to see how a snooze really goes down on this aircraft.
A lovely feature on this aircraft was The Loft, a new concept for Virgin Atlantic, a sort of lounge to replace the bar that its other aircraft have. It sat between Upper and Premium and was for the exclusive use of Upper Class passengers. It featured seats with seatbelts, allowing passengers to stay there even when the seatbelt sign was on, and a large screen. When I visited, it had the moving map on, but it could also show movies and TV shows and allowed Bluetooth connections to listen to audio.
I spent an hour or so drinking and chatting in The Loft, and it was a wonderful place to pass the time as we steamed across the Atlantic.
There were two toilets at the front of the cabin for Upper Class passengers. They were relatively small but had excellent REN handwash and moisturizer and a window. Everyone loves a loo with a view!
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A large, soft pillow, headphones and an amenity kit were all waiting on the seat when I arrived. A mattress pad and duvet were in the overhead compartment above each seat.
The amenity kit contained a BambuuBrush toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask, earplugs, pen, socks (great ones!) and REN-branded hand cream, day cream and lip balm. We covered the lovely kit when it first came out, but on board it really did the trick, and the sustainable element was a step in the right direction for any airline.
The headphones were quite comfortable, but there wasn't a great connection because of extra material surrounding the socket. I think this caused the sound quality to suffer.
The inflight-entertainment screen was large, and the only shame on my flight was that it wasn't communicated that it could be swung out at all times, and so made available gate to gate. Virgin Atlantic designed the seat to ensure that the screen could be flipped out even for taxi, takeoff and landing, and the airline has said that it is going to make sure customers are aware of this great feature.
There was a wide range of movies and TV shows, games, and a moving map. Most importantly, it had a gorgeous tailcam. This was my entertainment of choice almost throughout the flight!
I loved that I was able to control the IFE system from my phone by pairing.
Because of the launch of the A350, Virgin gave complimentary Wi-Fi access to all passengers in every class (the usual cost of the full unlimited Wi-Fi package is 20.99 pounds, or about $25). I thought this would cause bandwidth issues, and although it took a while for the crew to get the Wi-Fi up and running, once it was, it worked well.
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Flight attendants served predeparture orange juice, water and Champagne. I elected to have water this time around.
Shortly after takeoff, the first drinks orders were taken, and I went for a gin and tonic, which was served with popcorn.
For my lunch starter, I had both the tomato soup with creme fraiche, which was hot, soothing and delicious, and the citrus seared prawns with watermelon salsa. It was an interesting pairing, the prawn and watermelon, and I found it to be fresh and lovely.
I had preordered my main course, which was braised beef with horseradish mash, honey carrots and kale. The beef was tasty, as were the accompaniments.
The raspberry sponge pudding tart was the perfect dessert to round off the meal, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bite. It was a real throwback to the best school dinner puddings I ever ate.
With around 90 minutes to go before landing, afternoon tea was served. The combination of sandwiches was good, although the thick bread on the beef sandwich was a little much. The macaron, eclair and warm, fluffy scone were all excellent, and I washed it all down with a strong cup of English breakfast tea.
Another great tech feature on this aircraft was the ability to order food and drink directly from my screen. Midway through the flight, I selected a cup of three-mint tea. I clicked the lemon option and then had it delivered to my seat rather than The Loft. The drink arrived within a couple of minutes, and I'll let them off the hook for forgetting to pop in the little citrus slice I requested because it was such an innovative idea -- and it actually worked!
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In the cheekiness stakes, Virgin romps ahead of all the competitors. Virgin views itself to be a fun, sexy and cheeky British brand, and in that regard they certainly do not disappoint.
There were a few small cracks showing, but a lot of these could be forgiven, as this was the crew's first time flying the aircraft and they didn't have the benefit of any short-haul familiarization flights.
One place this showed was in the meal service. It took a good 90 minutes for orders to be taken, and the starters were not served until about two hours and 10 minutes after takeoff. I wasn't in a huge rush, but I was hungry, and really wanted my food by the time it came. I would put this down to teething problems, but it will be interesting to see how this compares to the short night flight from the East Coast back to London, where slow service can prevent a proper night's sleep.
Aside from this, the crew was outstanding. I didn't want for anything, and plenty of offers of drinks were issued, but more than anything I had a real laugh. I don't think this kind of vibe is for every kind of traveler, but it really strikes a chord with anyone young at heart, and the crew made this experience one to remember.
The A350 is a beautiful aircraft, and the new Upper Class Suite is a huge step forward for Virgin, allowing it to compete again on the international business-class stage. The ground experience at Heathrow was (as usual) exceptional, the food good, and the service, save for a couple of blips, an absolute blast.
Especially because of the good value redemptions to be had via Virgin's Flying Club, this is a product I would highly recommend trying, and is a welcome improvement to the existing product and great newcomer to the skies. Virgin should be proud of what they are rolling out, and I hope they keep the new plane filled with Virgin fun. If they do, I will certainly be back for more!
This story has been edited to indicate that the IFE can be used gate to gate.