Airways Upper Class Suite
A new approach to
lie-flat sleeper bed type of airline travel
By day it is a very
comfortable leather seat, with every seat enjoying direct
aisle access (even the window seats.
By night, it is an unusually comfortable lie-flat bed.
All the time, it is the Upper Class Suite on Virgin
Atlantic Airways - the latest and perhaps greatest approach
to airline seat comfort.
Virgin Atlantic's previous
Upper Class cabin provided an excellent quality experience, but
suffered in comparison to BA by not having lie-flat sleeper
Their new Upper Class Suite
cabins offer a convertible seat/bed that is, in most respects,
appreciably better than the BA alternative.
A mix of other services before
and after each flight round out what is generally a very
positive flying experience.
History repeating itself
Much the same as when I was
reviewing the earlier Upper Class product in April 2003, I was able to easily check my bag in
with Alaska Airlines in Seattle and not see it again until
London, even though my Virgin flights were on a separate
e-ticket to my Alaska flights. This makes it very
convenient to travel by just about any other US airline to the
city from which Virgin has service.
And, in San Francisco, there
was again a
zero wait to checkin for Virgin's flight on to Heathrow.
Good airlines have short checkin lines - it shows a heartening
concern for customer service and an ability to manage and
control their airport services. Bad airlines have long checkin lines and sometimes even have to cancel flights due to
their inability to process people through checkin fast enough
(as was the case with BA a couple of months back).
Service Cutbacks? Not
My last visit to the Virgin
Clubhouse in San Francisco was a wondrous experience, and I was
concerned that in the tougher economic environment these days,
service cutbacks might have diminished the quality of this
I did not need to worry,
because their Clubhouse continues to be the ultra deluxe
experience it always has been. Same as last time, I was
offered a menu and was able to order from it, as if I were
dining in a fine restaurant. The food was excellent, and
remains completely free, as do drinks from their well stocked
The Clubhouse now offers
free Wi-fi internet access as well.
It remains spacious and
uncrowded, and I noticed another thing that I've never come
across in other airline lounges. The passengers in the
lounge seemed to be generally happy and cheerful - could it be
they were even enjoying their Virgin travel?! A group
of people got to know each other at the bar and were laughing
and joking among themselves and with the Virgin staff.
Full marks to Virgin for all
pre-flight services. And now, on to the plane itself.
Even that was well managed - the Clubhouse waited until all
other passengers had boarded before inviting us to go to the
plane, so we didn't have any crowds or waiting in line when
boarding - although it was a bit alarming, while still several
minutes away from the boarding gate, to hear announcements over
the airport pa system saying 'The Virgin flight to London has
On the return flight,
Virgin's London Clubhouse continues to define 'state of the art'
in terms of airport lounges and the comprehensive range of
amenities offered, stretching now even to things such as having
suits tailored and also video game stations. Although much
busier than the San Francisco clubhouse, there was still spare
space, lovely food on offer, and the same positive buzz about
the place. The London Clubhouse is on the far side of
security, making it easier and more predictable, time-wise, to
get from the Clubhouse to the gate.
The Innovative New Lie-Flat
The concept of lie flat
sleeper seats is no longer new. It is probably ten years
since BA first introduced them in their first class, and maybe
three years since they added them to their business class as
well. Other airlines have been increasingly copying the
concept, and they are now almost an essential feature of any
airline's premium cabins.
Virgin's lie-flat seat is a
relative latecomer, but this has worked to their advantage,
because they have been able to draw from the positive and
negative features of past designs of sleeper seat and then,
adding a dash of innovative flair, come up with something very
different and perhaps very much better, too.
Seats are laid out in a
herringbone type fashion. Seats are facing generally
forward, but at an angle of approx 45°,
angled in to the center of the cabin (upstairs) or center of
aisle (in the twin aisle downstairs section).
angle makes for an interesting sensation when taking off and
landing. The acceleration occurs at an angle to the
direction one is sitting, and so it feels a bit like the plane
is turning rather than proceeding straight ahead. This is
not an unpleasant feeling and only very briefly experienced, and
for the rest of the time, there is no unusual sensation from
being on an angle.
minor disadvantage of the angled seats is that it is difficult
to look out the window. This is only an issue if there is
something to see, of course, and most of the time, it seems the
plane is either flying at night, above cloud, or over the water.
tray table is very large. There was plenty of room for my
laptop and mouse also. The table was also solid and good
to work on.
seats have laptop power outlets, and unlike BA, Virgin lends you the
necessary power adapter. (BA will sell you one at an
above market price, but won't lend you one, even after you've
paid top dollar for a business class seat.)
A common problem with all other
sleeper seats is they are awkward compromises between a
seat that is comfortable to sit in and a bed that is comfortable
to lie in. A comfortable seat has a certain type of design, firmness, shape
and contour. A comfortable bed has a different
approach to its design. One single surface can not - and,
demonstrably, does not - adequately perform a dual role as both
bed and seat.
Virgin have come up with a
brilliant solution to this conundrum. To convert your seat
to a bed, you don't just lie it down flat. You push a
button and the seat flips head over heels, and so instead of
having the seating surface to lie on, you have the other side of
the seat to sleep on - a surface that is more comfortable and
amenable to sleep.
However, even this approach
embodies some necessary compromise. With BA, the seat just
keeps on reclining until it eventually ends up horizontal.
You can set the recline to any amount from horizontal to upright
On Virgin, your Upper Class
suite can be configured either as seat, which will recline a
long way, but not all the way, or alternatively it can be
configured as a lie-flat bed. This is the seat's unique
distinguishing feature and strength, but also a possible
weakness. With the BA approach, it is easy to transition
between lying down and sitting up, as often and whenever you
In the Virgin Upper Class
Suite, if you want to swap between bed mode and seat mode
you must get off the seat/bed and push a button and then wait as
the unit changes from one format to the other. This isn't
a huge deal, but it does force you to make a 'policy decision'
as between choosing either to be sleeping or awake.
Virgin's creative solution
to the bed/seat compromise has earned it six different design
awards (so far!).
Sleeping on the Bed
The bed seemed appreciably
longer than BA's business class bed, and I subsequently found
out that it is a massive 7.5" longer. This is a huge
I am just over 6' tall and
could fully stretch out and still have space at the top and
bottom of the Virgin Upper Class Suite bed, whereas I feel
uncomfortable wedged in with the BA bed.
It is important to realize that you need a bed
longer than you are. When you lie on a bed, your
feet are often pointed down, adding to your length, and you
typically want a bit of spare space at each end as well.
And so the claims by other
airlines about their 'long' beds need to be taken with a grain
of salt and the realization that you need several inches more in
bed length than you are tall. In Virgin's case, their
Upper Class Suite is the largest fully flat bed of any airline,
and varies in length between 79.5" - 82".
It was also wider at the top
than at the bottom, with a generous 33" of width at your
shoulders, narrowing to 22" in the middle parts and slightly
less at the far end where your feet go. This 33" shoulder
width is 12" wider than BA's 21" business and first class bed-seats.
The extra shoulder area
width can be quite important if you don't want to lie
with your arms narrowly wedged straight down your sides.
The extra room enabled one to toss and turn and find exactly the
best position to lie in for maximum comfort.
As for the actual comfort
issues, the Virgin approach to a lie-flat
bed is definitely the best I've come across so far, and in
particular I was unaware of any joins or seams in the mattress
surface. It was plain that my fellow passengers were also
enjoying their bed-seats, with most of them happily tucked into
their beds and fast asleep for most of the flight.
The bed comes with two
pillows (one large, one small), a bottom sheet and a substantial
duvet. In addition, Virgin gives each passenger a
tracksuit type pair of trousers and long sleeved top to sleep
in. These are available in different sizes, making them
more comfortable than the 'one size fits all' approach on other
Making a Seat into a Suite
It isn't just hype to call
the Virgin Upper Class seat a suite. A reasonable degree
of privacy on either side gives you your own space without
intrusions from fellow travelers.
Although you have lateral
privacy, you do have eye contact with the passengers seated
opposite which is a new sensation while flying. However,
you also have a much greater sense of open space, because your
view forward is over an empty aisle and to other people
comparatively far away. This view makes the perception of
wide open space better than on any other airline, and is vastly
preferable to a view of the seat back in front!
The foot rest, or as Virgin
grandly call it, the ottoman, does double duty as a guest seat,
complete even with safety belt, enabling you to have a friend
come and sit opposite you to talk and even to share a drink or
Virgin have just announced
an extension to their suite concept. They are making it
possible for the paired suites downstairs to be combined into
double suites, enabling people to, well - insert your own choice
of innuendo here! :)
Which are the best seats to
Virgin has upper class seats
both in the front half of the upstairs cabin and in the
forward-most part of the main cabin.
Interestingly, the beds
upstairs are 2.5" longer than the beds downstairs (82" compared
to 79.5") - if you're very tall, you will find the extra 2.5"
I had seat 1K on the way
over - normally row
1 is the ultra-VIP row because it is in the very front of the
plane with the most privacy and commonly is also the first row
to be served meals and drinks. But with Virgin, instead of
numbering the first row downstairs as row 1, they do this for
the first row upstairs, and this is not a good row to be in.
Immediately in front of this row is the corridor to the cockpit
and two toilets, so there is a fair amount of traffic with
people walking to and from the toilets.
This is a particular bother
at night, because every time the toilet door opens, you get a
sudden burst of light that potentially wakes you up if you're
only sleeping very lightly. If
you are in the upstairs cabin, the best seats are probably one
row from the back (the very back is at a flight attendant work
station and so is likely to also have noise, traffic and light
issues. I had this row on my flight back and it was an
However, my recommendation
is not to go upstairs at all. There is one very big minus
factor with the upstairs seating - very inadequate overhead
locker space, and no side locker space. Forget about
trying to fit a regular full size wheeled carryon into the
overheads, and there's no underneath the seat in front of you
type space either. I came on board with a relatively small
carry bag, and even that couldn't fit into the overhead
compartments, which were nearly full anyway with bedding for the
sleeper seats. Of course I moved the bedding away, but the
overhead size was just too small to fit a bag in. The
flight attendant took my bag from me for take-off, and then
objected to me having my bag alongside my seat during flight
(she said the captain wouldn't allow it, but in reality, the bag
was not intruding into the aisle but did make it slightly more
difficult for her to reach over to place and remove things from
The downstairs cabin has the
usual enormous sized overhead bins, making it a better choice if
you're bringing much onboard with you. In the downstairs
cabin, the best rows start at the very front. The last row
is probably not a good choice, because immediately behind it is
the passenger bar, and although this is screened off from the
cabin, if you have some passengers enjoying
themselves too much, you might be distracted by their talking
Food and drink
A roomier and more
comfortable seat is one reason to choose business class.
Better food should be a second reason. Even though I'd
recently had a meal in their Clubhouse, I choose to have dinner,
On the flight to London, for dinner, there were four
main choices of entree - Osso Buco, pesto crusted chicken
breast, poached salmon or a vegetarian curry.
entree, there were three appetizer choices - a salad, cheddar
cheese soup, or smoked duck wraps. And afterwards, there
was a selection of three cheeses plus two choices of dessert.
I had the salad, which had
nice fresh crisp lettuce, the Osso Buco which had indifferent
meat in a wonderful sauce, and some cheese.
A selection of fresh rolls
were also offered - I had a lovely warm moist cheese roll, so
nice that I had a second when they were offered a second
Dinner was described as
available any time during the flight, but the cabin crew seemed
to prefer one to order it shortly after takeoff - a timing that
made sense to me much more than 2am or some other hour, and so I
didn't test to see if it would also be cheerfully served at some
strange time. Everyone else in the cabin also chose to
have their dinner immediately after takeoff.
On the day flight back from
London, we were treated even more generously for our 'lunch'
which had a four course meal served, with four different choices
of entree. I had a wonderful braised lamb shank with a
glorious sauce - truly a gourmet experience, and with an
unusually generous quantity of food as well.
Rather than offer a plastic
knife and metal fork and spoon, Virgin have chosen to use only
Virgin also offered what
they referred to as 'snacks' during the flight.
were actually quite substantial - for example, a roast beef,
Portobello mushroom and caramelized onion panini, or a Boboli
pizza topped with Mozzarella, roasted tomatoes and basil, or
Asian shrimp cakes served with cucumber salsa.
I think most people chose to
sleep off their big dinners rather than take advantage of these
On the day flight back,
there were a range of 'small bites' available at any time during
the flight. These comprised your choice of potato skins
filled with cauliflower cheese, parmesan and breadcrumbs, naan
bread pockets with chicken tikka filling, and a steak and
We were given forms to fill
out, shortly after taking off, on which we could specify what we
wanted in the way of breakfast items. The cabin crew said
they'd then bring this to us about 90 minutes prior to landing,
and as it turned out, breakfast service started a mere 60 minutes prior
to landing, which was very good - it maximized the undisturbed
sleep we could enjoy.
Breakfast, alas, was a
disappointment. First up was a leathery dry waffle with
artificial rather than genuine maple syrup. I'd hoped
these might have been cooked fresh on board.
The next item was a citrus
fruit assortment, optionally with yoghurt on top. I
specified, on my breakfast card, no yoghurt.
Unfortunately, when it arrived, the dish was drowned in yoghurt.
I also asked for Earl Grey
tea. It is hard to know exactly what type of tea was
poured into my cup, but it was overwhelmingly over-brewed
and any bergamot flavor was lost in with the tannin.
In the past, one used to joke about 'railway tea' - these days,
the more modern joke seems to be 'airline tea'. However,
every cloud has a silver lining, and Virgin has gourmet coffee
machines on board, so I had a lovely double espresso instead of
On the flight back from
London to San Francisco, instead of breakfast we had a lovely
'afternoon tea' with a mix of sandwiches and cake.
Virgin offer their Upper
Class passengers a good selection of wines and spirits to enjoy.
There were three different reds, three different whites, and a
non-vintage champagne. Drinks were all generous in measure
and refills offered frequently.
of the features of Virgin planes is their walk up/sit down bar
in Upper Class.
Their new cabin redesign has
slightly reduced the size of the bar, but it is still there,
with five stools around it for passengers to sit at.
The bar was well used by
four of my fellow passengers on the flight over, and I chose to sit on the fifth
stool and sip a fine single malt for a while before retiring to
On the flight back, there
were a changing number of people making shorter stops at the
I should also give kudos to
the personable Virgin flight staff, who generously took the time
to show an interest in their passengers at the bar and chat with
them during the flight. A friendly bar tender makes all
A very relaxing way to fly.
Other in-flight experiences
Although the Upper Class
Suites have been on planes for less than a year, mine already
had two minor problems on the flight over. The frame around the tv monitor
was coming off - plainly some people had tried to swing the
monitor out of its storage position just by pulling at the
screen frame rather than by pushing the release button and
moving it by its swing arm.
More bothersome was a
malfunction in the seat adjusting motor. Pushing the
button to make the seat go up often didn't result in any motion,
or, when it did work, it would just jerk up an inch or so and
then stop again.
On the flight back, I had to
change seats due to a problem with the video monitor that
couldn't be resolved. However, the video was perfect at
the second seat, and the seat motors (and everything else)
worked perfectly at both seats.
The video monitors were
large (10.4") and had a good quality picture, with a
variety of different channels to choose from (at least 20 and
perhaps more), presented in
various different groupings of common themes. But,
strangely, for the first hour or so of the flight, Virgin
restricted them to showing only one channel of programming - you
couldn't even switch to the moving map, and neither could you
turn this mandatory programming off.
We left San Francisco in the
fading light of late afternoon, and as we traveled east, it
quickly became darker outside, and I went to turn on my at-seat
light. I looked up - but there were no lights in the usual
place underneath the overhead bins.
I looked to my video control
unit, but there was no light switch there. And neither was
there a light switch on the seat arm.
Eventually, I realized that
there was only one light, a tiny little bauble mounted on the
side of the seat. This gave a pathetic amount of light,
and none of it seemed to shine where I wanted it.
Plainly, I was not the first
person to have this problem, because a flight attendant came
around offering battery powered mini book lights to anyone who
wanted them. I took one, but it was hard to position this
anywhere to get useful light from it, either, and so spent most
of the flight in a dark gloom that made it very difficult to
work on the computer or to read.
The light was also
positioned so that it was shining into the corner of my eyes.
And, the lights from passengers opposite me were also shining
into my face while I was sitting up, adding further to the
discomfort of the bad lighting.
The bad lighting is a
strange oversight and serious weakness that urgently needs
improvement. Plainly neither the seat designers nor the
six bodies who gave it design awards ever sat in a real seat, on
a plane, for an overnight flight. And - good news - Virgin
tells me they're aware of the lighting issue, and some
significant improvements are due 'imminently'.
Lighting wasn't a problem on
the flight back due to it being daylight all the way.
Virgin still have their
in-flight masseuse who offers a choice of six different massage
therapies to Upper Class passengers. I've never accepted her offer of
services, but I know many readers have and found it
to be a great addition to their inflight experience.
Between my flight over and
my return flight, Virgin upgraded their amenities kits.
They are now even more full of goodies than before, and in
distinctive new tri-fold pouches. In addition to the usual
small toothpastes and various 'smelly things' they now give
their passengers small gifts, too - reminiscent of the tradition
that used to be in place on the Concorde. My small gift
was a set of cufflinks - quite nice, but instead of having the
Virgin name or logo on them, it had a meaningless logo of their
affiliated tailor (Ozwald Boateng). Suggestion to Virgin -
promote yourselves, not your tailor!
One nice little freedom was
the freedom from having to put one's seat back upright for
takeoff and landing. You are free to have your seat in any
position you wish at any time in the flight.
The seatbelt on the seat
side of the bed/seat has an airbag built in to it. There
is a sleeve with the airbag along part of its length.
Hopefully these airbags aren't as volatile as car airbags, and
hopefully they won't be triggered by a sudden bit of inflight
turbulence or a particularly rough landing.
On the flight to London, I suddenly realized, when
hearing an announcement just after we landed and were taxiing
in, that no-one had passed out landing cards to complete, or
priority passes to go through the special immigration lane with a
I asked the flight attendant
in charge of the Upper Class cabin why she hadn't given me
either. Her reply surprised me. Instead of honestly
saying 'I forgot' she said 'Oh, I think you had your headphones
on when I was handing them out'. I guess I was lucky my
headphones didn't also interfere with her ability to serve me
food and drinks!
On the return flight, the
crew were much more attentive to handing out US Customs and
One of the special extra
features offered by Virgin to its Upper Class passengers is an
arrivals lounge at Heathrow. You can go there and have a
shower and generally freshen up after your flight - this is
great for business people wishing to go directly to meetings,
and good for all other passengers, too - a nice hot shower is a
wonderful restorative after a long flight.
keep this service a close secret and seldom tell their passengers about
it. On this flight there was no mention of it at check-in,
in their San Francisco lounge, or upon arrival. It seems
strange to offer a great extra service and not to then promote
Indeed, one of the
passengers was trying to work out how he could get admission to
the Arrivals Lounge. He had asked at the Clubhouse in San
Francisco and was told that he could get an invitation card from
on-board the flight. And so he asked on the flight, and
was told that he had to get the invitation from the Clubhouse in
Luggage very quickly
appeared on the luggage belt, and soon I was leaving the
airport, refreshed after a comfortable flight, and ready to then
hop in a rental car and drive 250 miles. It would have
been much harder to do this if I'd been in the 'back of the
On the flight back, my two
bags came off the luggage belt as the second and third bags off
the plane. Amazing.
Virgin Atlantic Airways'
Upper Class Suites continue Virgin's tradition of offering
innovative and high quality products and services.
My return flight was perfect in all respect, although my flight
over was marred by some small disappointments and
problems. On balance the experience and product was very
positive, and better than that offered by their major
competitor, BA. It also is an improvement over their
previous Upper Class cabin.
Virgin now have a
dedicated website to provide more details of this new cabin.
Note : See also my reviews
of Virgin's Premium Economy class
and of British Airways' competing Business
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5 Nov 2004, last update
28 May 2011
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