In our occasional series ABTN takes a close look at one of the most provocative and successful products flying today.
Since its inception in 1984, Virgin Atlantic has led in one very vital airline area ”officially known as ”J-class” or ”business class”. Branded ”Upper Class” it has always offered much more than the standard business class of other carriers and one can confidently say it has been the perpetrator of vastly improved ”C-class” in airlines all around the world. From the start of your journey the Upper Class passenger is pampered; he can be collected by a private limousine (or limobike for the brave), from his home or office and checked in at Heathrow/Gatwick at a special drop off point and then via Fast Track (which Virgin claims to be their idea), into the Virgin Club House, where besides fine facilities, you can wine and dine, have your shoes polished and be spoilt with a massage, hair cut or manicure. It is then down to the gate via the special boarding access and onto the aircraft. If you are flying on a 747 and want a quiet life, book upstairs (for economic reasons Virgin divides this area into two, with premium economy at the back ” the best seats on the aircraft. There is only one level with the A340). There are masseurs on board and if you require the service, it is best to book in early. Virgin offer a drink before take-off and are probably the only airline to have a proper bar on board where one can sit, drink, relax and even take canap”s.
The latest incarnation of the Upper Class seat is without a doubt, the finest J-Class product currently available (Air New Zealand is also taking the product ” see above ” the seats look more or less the same ” except that the Virgin video screens are on an arm rather than within the seat structure). It has very simple controls and a unique ”bed” mechanism, for which you have to stand next to the seat to operate ” it will go completely flat without the ”bumps” and vagaries of some other systems. At 22” the seats are slightly wider than most and set at a 45 degree angle to the cabin wall (BA is 20” and SAA 21”). It is here that it goes slightly astray as one cannot really look out of the window, and whilst it suits the 747 admirably, clearly some thinking needs to be done on the Airbus 340. The rest of the seats are singles with a limited number of pairs. This so-called bed layout is available on the 747 but is really only suitable for ”necking”, which is probably a good thing.
If you are travelling with a companion, life is not that easy. With the single seats you are separated from your partner. However do not despair. Upper Class has easily the best dining facility in a non-first class set up with a board stored vertically which becomes a large and firm table, ideal for dining and working on. Your colleague can sit on a proper stool and eat with you. It is far removed from the flimsy offerings of some.
The service on Virgin is keen, attentive and friendly. There is no demarcation with the cabin staff; some airlines specialising in ”it is not my job”, if you ask for something different. Food wise, Virgin offers what they call the ”Freedom Menu”, eating what you like, when you like. You get Daily Specials, Lighter Bites and what they call Bigger Bites. Outbound from Heathrow, canap”s are served soon after take off, together with aperitifs. Order the main meal to suit your own timetable. This can include pan-seared duck breast served with pilaf rice, green beans, toasted almonds and black currant sauce, beef steak served with roasted potato wedges, saut”ed onion rings, broccoli and Stonegrain horseradish and mustard sauce, or for the vegetarians, a mushroom Wellington.
There is a cheese course and typically, fresh strawberries as a dessert. Virgin was probably the first airline to serve ice cream in flight and this remains very popular. There is a selection of three fine wines both red and white and the bar offers a full range of drinks, including Jack Daniels, Grahams Port, various varieties of gin and of course, a good selection of beer. Some passengers are known to spend the whole flight sitting at the bar, being served various bits of food as they go along.
Out of Kennedy Virgin Atlantic has recently opened a new Clubhouse in a prime location in the new Terminal 4 building. It has a dining area which is proving more and more popular with travellers who prefer to eat on the ground before getting a very good night's sleep in the new bed seats. Few meals seem to be served in flight outbound from JFK in the evenings. Our photo sequence was taken at Heathrow T3.
ABTN is enthusiastic regarding the Virgin Upper Class Suite (its official title) but does have reservations, especially in the Airbus A340. The design and material used in the seat construction is somewhat bland, plastic looking and a mark II version could be made to look much better, with virtually no increase in cost, one assumes. The one plus one plus one layout on the Airbus, just does not work with a long corridor/dormitory effect. Virgin should take a look at the excellent Cathay Pacific cabin on the same aircraft, where the galley effectively divides the seating area into two, making each section look much smaller and more user friendly and in fact far easier for cabin staff in terms of service, since there is not such a long walk to the furthest seats. The bar could be accommodated either side of the galley. No complaints on the 747, which is truly excellent. With the A380 Virgin will gain from the experience and no doubt will produce a winner.
Virgin”s latest innovation is the Revivals Lounge in Heathrow Terminal 3, landside in the arrivals hall. Currently open until 1330 it is the perfect place to freshen up after a long flight. There are showers, a beauty saloon, and a courtesy housekeeping service for pressing cloths and minor repairs plus a shoeshine. For those who have slept through breakfast a deli bar is offered and then it is into your chauffer driven car or on to the Heathrow Express for a day”s work.