Virgin (Airways) Experience Part 2
San Francisco to Heathrow
Unique touches such as
an onboard bar, an onboard masseuse, and a courtesy limo
transfer, combined with luxurious lounges makes Virgin
Atlantic Airways' Upper Class the airline experience to
measure all others against.
: Virgin's Upper Class has now been completely
remodeled, with lovely new lie-flat sleeper seats. For
more details, read my new
of their Upper Class Suites
(as they are now called).
Providing a high quality
experience in return for a high priced ticket shouldn't be
difficult. But, after consistently disappointing experiences
with British Airways, it was with a fair measure of uncertainty
I found myself trying out the Virgin Atlantic Airways Upper
I shouldn't have worried. The
entire experience, from a no hassle no wait check-in through to
a similar no hassle no wait baggage collection at the other end,
and everything else in between times, was all excellent.
Why can't all airlines be this
I first flew from Seattle
down to San Francisco on Alaska Airlines, and wondered if they
could check my bag directly through to London. Even though I had
an E-ticket with Virgin Atlantic, this was no problem, so at San
Francisco I was spared the hassle of having to collect and
recheck my bag. So far, so good.
There was no measurable wait
at all before checking in for the flight, and the helpful desk
staff quickly and competently went through the usual rigmarole,
handling the several curve balls I threw at them confidently and
Indeed, there wasn't a long
line for their other two classes either (I write this having
just waited 38 minutes in line to check in for a BA flight!).
Checking in seemed easy for all passengers in all classes.
And then, for the first
really big surprise. The Virgin lounge - well, actually, they
call it their 'Clubhouse' - was a delightful place to relax or
to work in. I've never been in an airport lounge before that
offers table service - friendly waitresses were always hovering
around, waiting for a chance to freshen your glass of whatever
you might wish to be drinking, or to place another serving of
mixed nuts in front of you.
And please don't think that
the food is limited to mixed nuts! They have a printed menu with
a range of hot and cold foods available - with table service,
fine china, and distinctive personalized cutlery. I
self-indulgently enjoyed the luxurious experience, which was
completely different to the last time I was in a crowded small
BA lounge, where there literally was standing room only (not
enough seats for everyone!).
Virgin's Clubhouse at
Heathrow is extraordinarily lavish. In addition to food and
drink, and a lovely luxurious lounge on two levels, they also
have amenities like a free beauty salon and free shoe polishing.
One slight complaint about
the Heathrow Clubhouse - there was no provision for computer
internet connections, and when I used one of the very few phones
to dial up to a local ISP, I discovered that the phones don't
allow for free local calls. Instead, it was necessary to pay a
fairly hefty per minute fee via a credit card. While Virgin
offers a full mix of indulgences and luxuries for other
travelers, they don't seem quite so in-tune with the needs of
Other than this minor point,
full marks for the pre-flight service. But of course the one or
two hours in the lounge is only a small part of the equation -
what about the ten hours on the plane?
A Truly Upper Class Experience
Virgin have two and a half
classes on their flights to Britain. They price their best cabin
(Upper Class) as if it were a business class service, but in
reality the quality of the service and food (and drinks) is
closer to first class on other airlines. This of course makes it
a great value.
Upper Class seating is split
between the very front of the main deck and the front half of
the upper deck (their mid 'Premium Economy' cabin shares the
other half of the other deck).
The cabins have a curious
feel to them - slightly retro, slightly garish - a mix of bright
red leather, some chrome, and quite unusually styled seats (but
perfectly comfortable). The cabins were refurnished about two
years ago, so it is a modern retro look (if that isn't an
The seats were perfectly
comfortable for sitting in. They are very cleverly designed so
that when the person in front of you reclines their seat, the
seat back doesn't end up in your face. Instead, the seat pivots
forward rather than back, leaving the person behind with
unaltered room, and still giving plenty of comfort (and space)
for the person with the reclined seat.
The seats recline a long
way, but don't go perfectly flat into a sleeper bed. I actually
found that I did not like the seat in its fully reclined
position - I felt as though I was slipping down and off the
seat, and so moved it more upright, so as to make the part which
one sits on more horizontal, and then slept perfectly
comfortably. Of course, the very large after dinner drink that
the flight attendant gave me might have helped with my sleep,
The seat was surprisingly
narrow in its fully reclined position, due to the way it lowers
itself down. However, while in a more upright position, this was
not a problem at all, and its lovely wide seat table was big
enough for both my large laptop computer and a mouse as well.
On Board Extras
There are many 'extras' on
board, but two are perhaps best known. The first of these is an
on board beauty therapist who offers five different types of
massages, typically running 15-20 minutes each, to Upper Class
travelers. These are conducted in the privacy of a special
massage area with a comfortable massage table/bed in a corner of
the main deck.
The second famous feature of
a Virgin Atlantic 747 is its bar area. This is a real bar,
within the main deck's Upper Class area, and it has about 12 bar
stools arranged around it. Passengers are free to leave their
seat and go to sit at the bar, where they can enjoy a drink and
also chat with other passengers and the friendly bar tender.
This simple transformation of the flight so that you don't feel
restricted to your seat for ten + hours, and instead can get up,
move around, and even sit elsewhere, is a tremendously
On my night flight to
London, the passengers were a surprisingly abstemious lot and
within four hours of leaving San Francisco, the bar was empty
and everyone was asleep. On the day flight back from London, the
bar was more popular for the entire journey.
The bar, whether you choose
to drink copious alcoholic drinks or merely the occasional fruit
juice, is a lovely extra feature that helps to transform the
flight experience from yet another awkward inconvenient
regimented travel hassle to a more leisurely relaxed experience.
Each seat has a standard
computer power adapter. On British Airways, you have to buy a
£90 ($145) power adapter to use with their seat power system,
but with Virgin Atlantic, they lend them out to their passengers
Virgin currently has a mix
of different types of entertainment systems on their planes, and
depending on which plane you happen to find yourself on, you
might end up with anything from their incredible state of the
art mega channel system (reviewed here) to more mundane systems
with perhaps 'only' fourteen different channels of movies. All
planes are being progressively fitted with their latest and
The video screens were large
in size and clear, but they were permanently fixed into the seat
back in front and it was not possible to adjust the angle to
best match where one was located as one moved the seat up and
down. A strange oversight.
A nice extra was that Virgin
provides noise reducing headphones to its Upper Class
passengers. I didn't actually find the noise reducing to be
tremendously good and preferred to use my Bose noise reducing
headphones, but for someone not traveling with these, the Virgin
alternative is a lot superior to regular airline headphones and
makes it easier to hear the movies over the plane sounds.
Eating and Drinking
I had already enjoyed a very
good hot meal in the Virgin lounge shortly before the flight
departed, and so was delighted to discover that on board they
offer an 'open dining' type service.
Open dining means that you
can order any food you like, and at any time that you want it.
You eat at a time of your convenience, not at a time of the
When I felt ready for dinner
I had a choice of several different main appetizers and main
courses, and they even offered vegetarian dishes on the main
menu rather than as a special meal that needed to be preordered.
I had a lovely piece of salmon, served with some absolutely
perfectly cooked asparagus. The food was as good as you can ever
hope for on a plane.
They provide a generous
drinks list, including champagne, some good still wines, and
plenty of spirits. The flight attendants happily ensured that my
glass was always full, and were very generous on the size drinks
They also offered not only
all the usual fruit juices, mineral waters, and sodas, but they
also had an onboard gourmet espresso maker. What a rare treat to
enjoy a cup of 'real' coffee on a plane!
I was amused to see that
instead of serving Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola, they serve their own
'Virgin Cola' - one of the many different enterprises that the
Virgin Group of companies is involved with is producing a
competing brand of cola in the UK. I've never noticed it
anywhere else, but of course it was proudly offered on their
Snacks were offered several
times during the night, and a nice breakfast (with some of their
lovely espresso) the next morning completed the food service.
Everything on Virgin is done
with a bit of extra flair and zest. Sometimes this seems a bit
self-conscious, but usually it succeeds in making the flight
experience more friendly.
For example, the pre-flight
safety video was presented in a very amusing manner that
actually had people laughing on board.
Their duty free selection
was extensive and fairly priced. I ended up buying a lovely
little gadget - a £11.50 ($17.50) hand powered cell phone
charger - that I've never seen for sale anywhere else, before or
Without a doubt, the part of
a flight experience that can have the largest impact, either
positive or negative, is always the crew onboard. No matter what
else an airline might do, a bad crew can make any flight a
miserable experience, and a good crew can make a bad flight
tolerable or a good flight great.
Everyone on both my flights
was genuinely friendly and helpful. It was also pleasing to note
that the crew didn't 'disappear' from shortly after dinner until
shortly before breakfast, as happens with some airlines and
crews. The Virgin crew were always moving around the cabin, and
seemed to be always pleased to chat or help in any way they
The amenities kit had a nice
collection of various beauty products in it.
One of my pet hates is when
the crew wake you ridiculously early for breakfast the next
morning, so that you end up spending the last hour and a half or
more sitting in your seat, now wide awake, but wishing you were
still asleep. Unlike other airlines, Virgin waited until 65
minutes prior to landing before waking us up and serving
breakfast - this gave me an extra hour of sleep compared to BA.
Virgin give their Upper
Class fliers special 'Fast Track' passes to avoid waiting in the
regular lines to go through Immigration. It is then only a short
wait until the priority luggage comes from the plane, and your
flight is then completed.
A wonderful experience in
all respects. Well done, Virgin Atlantic Airways.
Note : See also my reviews
of Virgin's Premium Economy class
and of British Airways' competing Business
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25 April 2003, last update
28 May 2011
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