Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Report
Aircraft Type: B747-400
Class: Upper Class (Premium Business Class)
Route: LGW – LAS
Date: 18th September 2012
Best for: Style-conscious gadget-lovers and movie stars.
Most likely to sit next to: Someone that either has been in a movie, owns a media company or is equally as cool as Robert Downey Jr. (but never cooler)
Business or pleasure: For people who like doing business in a Martini bar. All you need, in-seat power, big tables but no WiFi (unless you are on the A330 to New York).
Routes: Cooler than the Antarctic. Everywhere globally you want to go and no where you don’t. 33 and expanding too.
Frequent Flyer Programme: Flying Club. Very rewarding, very cool, easy to earn heaps of miles, even without flying.
Best bits: Entertainment and groovy champagne glasses that are more Austin Powers, than Austin, Texas.
Worst bits: Flights aren’t long enough. If you are going to offer so many good movies, you need to fly slower.
I’ve flown Virgin Atlantic a fair few times, but due to my training, hadn’t flown in over a couple of years. So to be able to get back into the seat, literally, was a great way of seeing how the airline has changed in 2 years. The flight was part of an itinerary to get me across to Hawaii, connecting in Las Vegas onto a United flight to complete the journey. Booking my ticket in economy and upgrading to Upper Class only 3 days before my flight was surprising, but welcome, as reward seats on such a small cabin on a popular route are extremely popular.
The Gatwick lounge used to be a bit of an afterthought compared to its Heathrow counterpart. Since its renovation, it is smart and stylish, yet still noticeably an inferior product compared to the major London Clubhouse. The new premium security channel whisks you through to Bucks-Fizz throwing distance of the entrance to the lounge. The entrance is a little hard to find, but it’s squeezed between two shops in the main terminal on the 1st floor. The moment you enter the long corridor to the reception desk, you feel the mass of Spanish getaway travellers looking for 2 for 1 sun-cream deals slipping away as if you are entering another (slightly more civilised) world. The lounge offers the usual wonderful products associated with Virgin Clubhouses including a spa, offering a few complimentary services (come in earlier than you think to book a treatment) along with pay-for treatments with a list as your soon to be fully lotioned, pampered and buffed arm.
The menu is filled with breakfast favourites, but isn’t as full as the Heathrow dining options, due to the purely morning & early afternoon departures. It did take me a while to get served, and did have to request to order, rather than have someone coming up to serve me. There were a variety of seating options, dens, business spaces and lounge areas and a (perhaps redundant) shoe shine service, which when offered noticed I was the only one wearing shiny shoes. Being home of the leisure routes, Converse was more the order of the day here.
Once ordered, the food was great, as was the drinks offering. WiFi was fast and the view of the apron was filled with shiny red-finned Virgin planes. Although I arrived exactly 2 hours before my flight, I only had an hour in the lounge, as boarding of the aircraft in Gatwick seems to be fairly eager, with my boarding time scheduled exactly 1 hour before departure. If you wanted to enjoy your time in the lounge, check in about two and a half hours before your flight. Leaving to board, I departed to a chorus of ‘enjoy your flight’ from super-friendly dressed-in-red lounge staff.
I have to start this with a disclaimer. My flight was unfortunate enough to suffer a tech fault with one of the engines, which ended up with me suffering a 3 hour delay, causing me to miss my connecting flight to Hawaii and making a 20 hour total trip time go well past a day and a half. That said, the ground staff at Vegas were accommodating, and I was well looked after with a hotel provided without question, so no complaints and obviously it’s a rare occurrence so can’t let it effect my opinion of the flight for a trip report.
When boarding, I was greeted by the flight attendants and directed to my seat, once entering the Upper Class cabin I was greeted by the Upper Class crew who took my Jacket, and offered to explain how the seat worked. I was lucky to be in one of the refurbished cabins in the Gatwick fleet (the whole fleet should be refurbished by the end of this year) and sat in seat 9A. For what it’s worth, the smaller the number, the better the seat, but beware seat 6 (the most forward seat) as unless you are travelling in a couple, you may find the person sat opposite you a little too close. Anything greater than seat 10 and you are pretty much sat at the bar. (which to be fair, rarely gets used for anything more than preparing drinks).
Champagne and nibbles were offered at the gate, and a menu, amenity kit (now an iPad cover filled with all the usual goodies) and usual in-flight literature were all waiting at the seat to be ransacked by eager excited fingers. Here’s a tip. Sleep suits aren’t offered on day flights, but are available but limited, so ask for one when you board, or you may end up with one far too tight, or as baggy as a bin liner. When we eventually took off, within 15 minutes my pre-ordered drink was delivered to me and my order was taken. The menu wasn’t anything new, and certainly doesn’t compete with the Asian carriers in terms of quality or wow factor, but there were a few tasty morsels. The salmon I had with Horseradish cream was excellent, the desert was wonderful, but the main course of hanger steak did disappoint as it was overcooked and lacking in taste. Afternoon tea and grazing meal options were also offered within the flight, food wasn’t ever going to be in short supply.
The wine selection was wonderful, a South African Chenin Blanc was light and refreshing, and the selection of 6 different wines along with Lanson Black Label champagne offered enough variety to appeal to most tastes. What would have been lovely would have been cocktail offerings, after all, a bar with no cocktails? Even some American carriers offer cocktails.
Staff were attentive, and responded promptly to call bells, and whilst the cabin was almost full, it felt like you were the only person in the cabin. The biggest winner though is Virgin Atlantic’s entertainment offering. A wealth of TV programs and films have enough to keep you entertained even if you were to travel with them more regularly than the crew themselves. The new touch screen JAM system (weirdly dubbed Vera – no explanation why) is a marvel. Its handheld controller is a lot more responsive, and users of an iPhone will find it natural to use. Those who have flown with Virgin before may know their previous systems. All 3 of them, range from close to useless to slow to respond, and this is a great leap forward, with almost-instant response and user interface being the real noticeable changes.
Virgin Atlantic is a far superior product to that of its counterpart, British Airways, at a similar price point to that of Club World. The new fleet at Gatwick is great, in many ways, better than some of the Heathrow fleet. (A340-300 in particular) A newly renovated Gatwick Clubhouse offers a haven in what can be an otherwise chaotic South Terminal. The staff (both onboard and ground crew) are fantastic, and passionate about their job, compared to what can be a surly army of archaic cabin crew of its arch-nemesis. The level of comfort and ‘cabin-cool’ are evident from the moment you step on-board. The prices of regular Upper Class fares can be pricey, and it can be worthwhile waiting for one of their regular fare sales or just upgrading using your miles. But one thing is for sure, I am now more than ever looking forward to my return flight back!
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