Virgin (Airways) Experience Part 1
Heathrow to San Francisco
Premium Economy Class
Flying becomes enjoyable again with lots of room and
In addition to a
greater degree of comfort, one of the best features of a
flight with Virgin is their friendly helpful staff.
With some embarrassment, I
confess to having been a Virgin virgin until now.
After reading so many positive
things about the airline for so many years, I was expecting to
find that they too had succumbed to complacency and the 'ugly
airline' syndrome which many of their competitors suffer from.
With some skepticism, I decided to give them a try.
Good news - I need not have
worried. They're as great today as they ever have been in the
past. An excellent airline in almost every respect.
These days if you're flying
on most Star (but no longer oneworld, who ended this service in
Oct 03) alliance carriers, you can check in for your Heathrow
flight at Paddington. The check in lines are usually short, and
because the checkin time is the same at Paddington as it is at
the airport itself, this can allow you to start your journey the
better part of 30 minutes later than if doing an airport checkin.
Atlantic Airways (to give them their full proper name) does not
offer this service.
Good news awaited me upon
arriving at Virgin's Terminal Three checkin counters. No lines
of people waiting to check in. Indeed, for the Economy Class
counters, I counted an amazing total of six checkin agents all
waiting to serve passengers, and all with no passengers in front
Unlike BA, Virgin also offer
a separate priority checkin line for their Premium Economy
cabin. A friendly agent quickly checked me in; leaving me then
with plenty of time to browse through the various shops in
Terminal 3 prior to boarding the flight to San Francisco.
Another positive difference
between the BA product and the Virgin Premium Economy product
was that the Premium Economy passengers are allowed early
boarding prior to the main coach class passengers. With BA,
their Premium Economy passengers are boarded last of all!
Virgin split their Premium
Economy seating, with 20 of the 32 seats upstairs and 12
additional seats downstairs between the coach and Upper Class
areas. Seating is two plus two upstairs, and similarly
downstairs (with service area between the two sides).
The seats are wider than
coach class seats, and recline further back. They also have leg
rests and massive sized video screens set in the back of the
seat in front. Best of all, the leg room is increased up to a
generous 38" (same as BA).
However, although the seats
were much nicer and larger than in coach class, they were not
well designed for using a laptop. The tray table was too high,
and only supported on one side (it came out of the armrest
rather than folding down from the seat back). This meant that
when typing on the computer, the whole tray table and computer
were springing up and down, making it very unsatisfactory to
The greater height of the
tray table not only interfered with the ergonomics of working on
the keyboard, but also made the laptop screen more susceptible
to the impact of the seat in front being fully reclined, and
even with the increased seat pitch, working on my large sized
laptop was difficult with the seat in front fully reclined.
Clearly the seat designers
do not expect people to want to work on the flight. However, in
the 20 seat section that I was seated in, I counted six other
people using computers for much of the flight, and most of us
ended up with the laptop on our knees rather than on the tray
table - also unsatisfactory, but an improvement over the tray
I was seated upstairs. The
first half of the upper deck held part of the Upper Class
section, and the rear half was Premium Economy. Due to the
curvature of the roof, the overhead lockers were not very
capacious, but there were also side lockers between the window
seat and the actual body of the plane, providing extra storage
A generous selection of
newspapers was available at the rear of the cabin. A useful
amenities kit even included a pen and notepaper, as well as the
usual things such as socks and eye shades.
Food and Drink
Just like in the better
airlines' business or first class cabins (but not on BA in
either their premium economy or business class!), immediately
upon boarding the flight one was offered a glass of real French
champagne (or orange juice or water if preferred). This was a
nice first impression that was followed up with consistently
good food and drink service throughout the flight.
We had two meals served,
with a choice of three entrees (one of which was vegetarian) for
the main meal. In addition, two snack services also occurred,
and drinks were regularly offered. Although the food was not
significantly better than any other airline meal, the regularity
of food being offered was splendid.
Amazing, this premium food
service is also offered in their regular coach class as well.
We were also provided with
hot moist towels twice during the journey - and they were true
towels, not those horrible paper things that some airlines
provide and which end up leaving paper fragments all over your
In Flight Entertainment
Virgin is now equipping its
planes with a truly state of the art 'V:Port' system (as of
March 2003 on 6 of their 26 planes, and in the process of being
added to all remaining planes).
This provided a staggering
52 different movies to choose from, any of which could be
watched at any time. It was just the same as having your own DVD
player and movies - any movie could be started at any time, and
you could pause it, fast forward or rewind it, and, of course,
stop it if you didn't like it. No longer does one need to suffer
the agony of the 'really good bits' being interrupted by
in-flight announcements or meal services!
In addition to the library
of movies, there were also umpteen video and audio channels
(literally too many to count) plus a bunch of computer games and
a moving map showing flight information.
Sadly, all these wonderful
capabilities were obstructed by a counter-intuitive interface
that was difficult to master. I suspect few people will make
full use of all its features.
Every seat also had its own
phone, which could be used both to communicate with anywhere in
the world (albeit at a rather steep $9 per minute!) and also to
have conversations with other people on board - you simply dial
the other person's seat number into the phone. 'Local' calls on
the plane were free.
For the workaholics among
us, one of the other benefits of Premium Economy is an in-seat
power supply for laptop computers. This was another area where
Virgin shined in comparison to BA. With BA's identical in-seat
power supply, you have to either provide your own special power
adapter cable (your normal 110V power supply doesn't work) or
else buy one onboard for $100. Virgin will lend you one for
free, a much fairer attitude.
Virgin, like BA too, close
down everything way too far in advance of landing. We had to
return our computer power cords 50 minutes prior to landing, and
the video systems were turned off 40 minutes prior, with
passengers being required to be in the 'seat backs upright and
safety belts fastened' position for the entire remaining 40
minutes. There seemed little reason for this.
The cabin crew on both my
flights were positive, helpful, and friendly! Unlike some other
airlines, Virgin's staff appear to be consistently nice and
personable. One feels that they are pleased to have their
passengers on board, and one is certain that the staff are
always delighted to be able to assist with any request.
Unlike other British
airlines that suffer from uneven staff attitudes, Virgin's
onboard staff don't disappear for most of the journey. Even
though it was a very full flight in all three classes, the
Virgin crew were omnipresent, always moving through the cabin,
and always smiling and quick to assist, never giving the
impression that they were too busy or unwilling to help.
The flight pushed back from
Heathrow five minutes early and arrived into SFO a gratifying 20
minutes ahead of schedule. Wonderful.
Premium Economy passengers
don't get any extra luggage allowance, but unlike some US
carriers, you can still check two suitcases, each weighing up to
70 pounds. However, you are given priority luggage handling,
although in my experience (on all airlines), priority luggage
tags often make no difference at all to the speed at which your
suitcases arrive at the other end!
Virgin's Premium Economy
fares are set at similar levels to those on BA. Normally they
are measurably more expensive than a discounted coach fare (ie
as much as $1500 extra) but sometimes they have specials which
allow you to upgrade - even from super discounted coach fares -
for as little as $500 extra.
If your company won't spring
for a business class fare (which costs in the general range of
about $8000) then Premium Economy, even at its full price, is a
remarkable bargain, especially if it enables you to get some
productive work done on board and gets you to your destination
feeling more refreshed and ready for business.
If you are paying for your
own travels, a $1500 premium for extra comfort for 20 hours of
travel may be something to carefully consider, depending on your
budget level. But any time you can find Premium Economy
available for only a $500 premium (ie $25/hour of travel) this
is a 'no brainer' that most people would be well advised to take
advantage of. With only 32 Premium Economy seats on board (and I
noticed that all seats were sold on both my flights) you'll want
to grab such deals as urgently quickly as possible!
Members of Virgin's 'Flying
Club' frequent flier program get 150% of flown miles when flying
Premium Economy. On a 10,000+ mile roundtrip, the extra 5000
miles are a substantial extra benefit.
Virgin Atlantic Airways
My reviews on BA's
Economy equivalent and BA's business class.
My review on Virgin's
Class (business class).
A Quick History of Virgin
Virgin Atlantic Airways
commenced flying with a single leased 747 in June 1984, and
since that time has grown to become Britain's second largest
Founded by British
high-profile extrovert entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, the
airline has always differentiated itself from its major
competitor, BA, by choosing the exact opposite of the 'stuffy
Brit' image that some people might ascribe to BA. Instead, and
building on Branson's involvement in the entertainment industry,
the airline has adopted a rather 'hip' image, combined with
genuine friendly and good customer service.
These days Virgin operates a
fleet of eight 747-400s, 10 A340-600s and four A340-400s. It
also has six of the A380 'super jumbo' planes on order, due to
enter service from 2006. At one stage Sir Richard was talking
boldly about putting double beds into the new A380s, but their
exact configuration and amenities are not yet confirmed.
Singapore Airlines purchased a 49% share of Virgin in 1999.
Nowadays Virgin flies to 20
destinations in 11 countries, including from Manchester,
Heathrow and Gatwick to nine cities in the US (Boston, JFK,
Newark, Dulles, Orlando, Miami, LAX, Las Vegas and SFO).
Although too independent and distinctive an airline to closely
join any of the airline alliances, they do have some code
sharing with their shareholder Singapore Airlines, plus
additional codesharing with Continental, bmi British Midland,
and Malaysian Airlines.
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21 March 2003, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.