When Virgin Atlantic was launched in 1984, its business class product (”J class” in airline language) was a complete breakthrough in terms of executive travel.
Marketed as Upper Class it was to a far higher grade than anything else on offer for those who could not afford first, nor wished to travel vast distances at the back end of the aircraft.
Amongst its innovations were a pre-flight airside lounge of outstanding quality, hand held video players and chauffeur-driven transport to and from the airport (to which a motor cycle alternative ”LimoBike” was later added - ABTN has never tried this variant). Food and service-wise Upper Class was a quantum leap and they even served ice cream, unheard of from the restricted serving area of an aircraft up to that point.
British Airways' (BA's) reaction was to introduce Club Class, universally now called ”C class” by all airlines, in a bid to attract back customers lost to the Richard Branson enterprise.
ABTN travelled in the 2007 Upper Class recently. It is priced as a J class product but there are not many first class operations its equal. It is a total package, from the time you arrive at Heathrow until you return to the real world and start your road journey home at the end of the trip. The complimentary option of a private car service makes it even better.
One word of warning. Give yourself a little bit more time at Heathrow Terminal 3 presently. The whole of the area opposite departures is being redeveloped causing horrendous traffic problems. Once actually at T3 the plush new ”drive-thru zone” does make life very easy for those coming by road.
ABTN organised its seat via an office computer and then printed out a boarding pass. A quick drop off of the luggage and it was through ”Fast Track”, something of a misnomer presently. Security included shoes off. Then via the shopping arcade and up the grand staircase to the Virgin Clubhouse.
It is this new extravagant facility that is a real eye-opener. Massive inside (it needs to be ” Virgin is a very popular airline these days), the bar is open all day as is the a la carte dining. The ”Cowshed” salon is particularly popular for a hair cut, manicure or perhaps a massage ” book in advance is our suggestion, it is all on the Virgin website. They do a fine shave too, perfect for a long flight! The impressive Clubhouse menu in itself a good read offering all manner of beverages, a deli and excellent food.
No prices of course, the whole package is free and part of the total Upper Class treatment. For those who wish to work, there is a business area and also a concierge to sort out any problems. And don't forget the shoe shine man. Tipping is frowned upon.
With Heathrow you have to be lucky with the gate as the departure area can be a long walk. The skill is to leave the Clubhouse once you know that boarding has started. Upper Class passengers get priority.
If you have not travelled Upper Class before the aircraft layout can be quite daunting. Let the cabin staff put away your coat or jacket, serve up pre-flight cocktails and show you how the ”toys” work.
Virgin has developed it own pod seats together with manufacturer Contour. Air New Zealand now has the same units and Delta Air Lines is to refurbish its long haul fleet with a very similar product, a tremendous accolade.
On the Airbus A340 series, they are set individually at an angle and best described as one, one, one. The seats actually go fully flat and as a true bed need the help of the cabin staff to set up. As an individual sofa they are extremely comfortable with any number of setting permutations. You can keep yourself to yourself or invite a companion to join you for a meal. There is room on board for a bar to sit at, with special Virgin cocktails, and a station for the on-board masseuse, another Virgin innovation.
Virgin was probably the first airline to offer ”any time dining”, very important for international travellers who often prefer to switch quickly to their destination time than the actual point of take-off, or in some cases to the home country time. You can eat or just nibble when you like.
The airline offers a soup as one of the starters and normally a choice of four quality main courses served on china with metal cutlery. There is of course a cheeseboard and a dessert selection, which still includes ice cream. Berry Bros & Rudd are the wine and spirit suppliers with an interesting selection of champagnes and red and white wines from around the globe. For pre-dining drinks we selected the Virgin special Bellini, which it is claimed was invented in 1948 at Harry”s Bar in Venice.
For the inbound passenger at Heathrow, ”Revivals” is another top grade innovation, this time land side, designed to invigorate the weary traveller and set them up for the day's activities. Revivals offers a breakfast service, showers and housekeeping facilities for clothes pressing and carrying out minor repairs. On the third floor of T3 arrivals, it is ideally positioned to meet your chauffeur and speed you away on your homeward (or office) journey.
For many years the whole Upper Class award-winning concept has been improved and fine tuned, a thoroughly relaxing way to travel from continent to continent. However, for many it is the Clubhouse concept that really makes the difference. It”s not open to alliance members, Virgin being a stand alone airline, and it is also not available to short haul passengers with their own requirements. Some executive lounges give the impression of a busy railway station, but this is a quality showpiece of a very high standard.
Virgin Clubhouses are situated at Gatwick, Heathrow, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, New York JFK and Newark, San Francisco, Tokyo and Washington airports.
Next week Virgin returns to Chicago. It will be interesting to see how the incumbent Heathrow operators react. BA is on the route but so is United Airlines, the same carrier that dropped New York precipitating the current imbalance of UK/American operators out of Heathrow. Plus American Airlines and Air India. Added to the new bilateral and the opening of T5 the next 12 months are going to be very interesting.