In the past Virgin Atlantic was seen as the coolest of underdogs – the carrier for those in the know, flown by the rich and famous across the Atlantic. Onboard massage therapists, inflight bars, even a business class lounge with a Jacuzzi used to be signature parts of the passenger experience. Times have changed however, and the airline over the past decade has seen consolidation of routes, introduction of multiple different Upper Class products and a partnership with Delta that gave it a fighting chance to compete with its behemoth competitor BA.
While the rest of the industry over the past decade has been shredding weight, counting pennies and looking to turn their huge losses in to modest profits, Virgin in its continual inevitable style has given the illusion of business as usual. Clubhouses are still filled with A-listers and over the years I’ve sat to numerous celebrities and familiar faces in Upper Class cabins which had the same impact to me as buying a packet of asparagus in a supermarket. It just seems normal.
But how does the carrier do it? There’s a certain magic at play, a hard-to-describe recipe of all the right things and this was all the more evident at Virgin’s celebration A350 flight last week from Heathrow to New York featuring its all new (5 years in the making) Upper Class product and new Loft social space.
Rocking up at Heathrow was no ordinary affair. My Upper Class (business class) ticket entitled me to a chauffeur service which arrived early at my house, brimming with mood lighting and ample leg room, this could very much have been premium economy, and was quick to whisk me from south-west London to Heathrow’s still-gleaming Terminal 3.
No ordinary arrival for me though. I was driven up the Upper Class wing, a bespoke service – unparalleled in London – which allows the passenger to arrive in a private check in area that seems more Joe 90 than Heathrow. Doors opened and baggage magically carried off, the only thing that I had to concern myself with was exiting the car with an air of sophistication like this happened for me every day. In my mind, paparazzi were strobing their cameras and I was donned in a full-length ball gown.
The arrival wasn’t because this was a celebration or I was a guest of the carrier, just because I had a full fare Business Class ticket, in fact, the only nod to this special flight was a pin badge offered to me with my boarding passes. No questions asked, just a boarding pass delivered and with a smile, I was told to head down the private security lane. Airport? What airport?
Sadly, security check over, and keeping a low profile, I slipped through the usual duty-free pretending like any A-lister, my personal assistant had already packed all I had needed, so I headed straight to lounge H. An un-inspiring name for one of the most lauded lounges in the world, the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. Glitz and glamour sure, like a grand dame, this lounge might start to show the age around the edges, but with a soft focus, the lounge packs the punch it once did (sans Jacuzzi) but filled to the brim with cocktail-laden apple-watch wearing elites that manage to split their time between the West Coast and London.
While the press assembled in a cordoned-off area, it was business as usual for the rest of the lounge, with an Aveda spa and hairdressers buzzing, a giant a la carte table-service dining area packed full of ravenous passengers, funky retro furniture spread across the lounge, a large fully stocked and tendered bar, even a mezzanine which was serving some nifty Bombay Sapphire concoctions. They even have a roof terrace, an actual outdoor roof terrace. This wouldn’t be out of place as a set for a James Bond super villain’s lair. In fact, if my life ever takes a darker turn, you might find me plotting my revenge somewhere in this lounge, maniacally rubbing my hands and stroking a small soft toy cat.
I write this as if I’m a kid trapped in an grey-haired adults body, and there is good reason. Virgin makes everyone feel like a kid again. Their crew both on the ground and in the air seems to genuinely have fun. This isn’t work for them, this is sheer pleasure. It reinforces the adage brought to life by Daniel Kerzner, VP Customer Experience for Virgin Atlantic. “When you do something you enjoy, it isn’t work.”
This is the secret ingredient, Virgin has never been the slick machine that Asian carriers strive to become. It thrives from having a personality, from being a reliable friend, but the one who always dresses better than you and always seems to have the right joke at the right time. It’s the cool kid in the playground that gets all the attention for the right reasons. And that’s why the carrier packs well above its weight. It might be a fraction of the size of BA, but it is one carrier that everyone on the street knows of and wishes to fly.
One or two Virgin Redheads later (to caveat, that’s their signature cocktail) we headed to the plane. While we had seen the reveal of the new product in their HQ rigs a few months earlier, nothing could prepare us for the real thing. Naturally they laid on a few extras, and delightfully had run an internal competition to reward their staff members with seats on the plane too. It was the perfect showcase for the way this brand does things a little differently.
On entrance you immediately are greeted by the Loft the social space that replaces its signature bar that had appeared on every aircraft until they took over some Air Berlin A330-200s to help with their leisure routes during the 787 engine debacle that still is messing with airlines across the globe.
The Loft comfortably fits six people sat down, or on a celebration flight like this, a gaggle of almost 20 people clamouring for some face-to-face time with Daniel Kerzner, the figurehead behind this radical transformation for the carrier.
The Loft is the signature ‘residential’ zone for the carrier, akin to allowing for different social interactions, and less awkward than the three-in-a-row bar stools that can be found on the plane, meaning that usually someone is gooseberry whenever a couple are travelling together.
But the new seating in Upper Class diminishes that opportunity, as the new 1 x 2 x 1 configuration, (new to Upper Class) means that for the first time, passengers can actually fly together. Albeit, facing away from each other ever so slightly when fully reclined, reducing the chance of playing footsie, but increasing the ability to actually talk to one another.
Unlike BA, Virgin’s seats don’t go fully private. Sure there is a privacy screen, but it’s almost redundant, as the seats are designed in a way that when you are sat, it’s virtually impossible to see another person. This is the antithesis of the existing product, which allowed for eye contact with the rich and famous as all seats sort-of faced each other.
The seats are a sea of ‘almond gold’, deep purple, hints of red and orange and silver, all wrapped up in a pearlised off-white shell. This is certainly bling, and there have to be almost 20 different fabrics and finishes at play, meaning exploring the seat is like making your way through a Habitat showroom.
The magic is still at play (in fact I found a page of a script from the previous occupants tucked in the literature pocket which made me dream of its previous occupant). You feel almost surreal sat in what feels luxurious, it’s the opposite of the staid reliable and paired-back BA Club Suites on the same airframe. This feels like a special moment, which truly comes to life when Virgin flick the switch with their perfectly themed mood lighting which bathes the cabins in pink and sunset hues.
The seats are comfortable, yet for many regular fliers, the idea of having your feet in a footwell might be restrictive.
But thanks to a brand new seat pad, new bedding and swanky new pyjamas, the restriction at your feet is a distant memory as you can easily drift off to sleep.
There was one issue with the seat, or perhaps with the seats user. The tray table, while a little clunky and loud to operate, seemed to be made for the same celebrities that fly the aircraft, who are on a constant diet. The table can only really be used by anyone who has used the gym in the past couple of days, and prides themselves on washboard abs, as the distance between belly and table is marginal at best.
But Virgin haven’t been shy and tried to hide the fault. They are quick to point out that the table will be replaced with one that offers more space, and should be rolled out in just a few weeks time.
It’s this honesty and nimble approach to their product, being a smaller carrier, that allows them to take feedback quickly and react to it, refining their product as they go along.
In fact, taking the product to the skies brought learning to the team who designed it. “We were surprised by how people interacted with the social space, and also with the seats themselves. The amount of natural light that flooded the cabin (thanks to the large windows) also came as a surprise, making the cabin take on different personalities throughout the flight,” says Kerzner.
The airline is so cool, that even its onboard magazine Vera had a facelift to celebrate the A350 launch, which helps set the scene and brings a bit of celeb magic to the cabins. It’s not just Upper Class that gets the celeb treatment though…
The Premium Economy and economy cabins look as impressive as Upper, with huge screens and a new IFE system that allows the user to pair their phone to the IFE system, turning it in to a remote control, saving the airline weight and giving the passenger more control.
Of course, the food and drink offering is impressive, and while not as refined as some Asian carriers, the dishes pack a punch, and a watermelon tomato and prawn salad starter stole the show. I spent at least 10 minutes savouring it, trying to work out how to replicate it at home.
But it’s not just the usual fare. Anyone who has done a London – East Coast business class flight will know that an hour or so before landing, the harder than hard stale sandwiches come out, somehow referencing an afternoon tea, the same way that frozen supermarket chains try to make a steak dinner sound appetising.
But that’s all changed. Thanks to Eric Lanlard’s gloriously camp afternoon tea (this time served by the French pâtissier himself) and with a little help from the higher humidity cabin, the sandwiches felt fresh, and chocolate treats presented in a bright pink carry case meant that I was Alice stepping in to Wonderland on a truly transatlantic trip.
While there are still a few refinements to make to the product, it is suffice to say, that this aircraft is a flight of fancy, in every way. It makes British Airways A350 look like a corporate office for those who would rather play it safe than celebrate something ‘a little less ordinary’.
How has the carrier positioned itself? Sure, it’s still as brilliant and original as it was when it started, but it’s fundamentally listened to its passengers, grown up with them, and understood what they want, and given something they never realised they could have. Bravo Virgin. “This is just the start though,” states Daniel with a wry smile. “Our next aircraft are going to learn from this, and continue to evolve.” It seems that this airline isn’t standing still for no-one.