After recently travelling on both Virgin Atlantic’s B787-9 and the A350 products to the US, I had the opportunity to experience both the brand-new and older Upper Class products in quick succession, and the differences were noticeable, but actually not in a way I had expected. Now this might seem a little controversial, but..
Out with the old and in with the new.
As you can see from the trip report above, my flight was pretty decent, and lives up to the expectations I’ve always had of Virgin Atlantic (and I ended up on a 787-9 rather than A330 last minute). Actually I’ve been a frequent flier of Virgin since 2007, and have clocked most likely in excess of 70 Upper Class trips over the years, so it’s a product I know well.
What was noticeable to me was the difference in vibe between the 787-9 and A350-1000 products, and I can simply only put it down to the layout. While there are haters of the older Upper Class seats, that face the aisle, and have the flip down beds, they actually force an atmosphere which is akin to a private members club. Hear me out.
Private members clubs are popular, because they allude to privacy and exclusivity; while at the same time, they are the place to be seen for those who want to reinforce some semblance of a social standing. They are successful, because the formula works, a hidden club where you share in the exclusivity, together. Now that’s what the older seats do. You face each other, the bar onboard becomes a social magnet, and on my New York flight, there were people chatting, conversing, it was convivial and fun.
What Virgin has done in response to passengers’ needs – on paper at least – is correct, ticking all the boxes of privacy, aisle access, window facing seats, and still fully flat beds, without the faff of having to fold it down. But also responding to trends of wellbeing, they’ve thrown the bars out, and opted for social spaces, which on the A350 was used by one solitary passenger, who looked like he was waiting for the toilet, and actually asked him if he was waiting when I passed by.
He was by himself, no crew interaction, there is very little need for that space, and it’s without purpose, and it seems the airline still wants to continue the same approach even with their A330 neos. The man had basically swapped one seat, for another.
But what has happened, is that the magic – that I remember so fondly of Virgin Atlantic Upper Class flights – has diminished on these new aircraft. That’s because they’ve cut out those chance encounters and conversational environments, which makes Virgin Atlantic actually closer to its competitors rather than leaps and bounds above.
I’m not saying that the older seats are acceptable in today’s travel world, as there are better seats out there, but Virgin Atlantic needs to work a little harder to re-inject the magic, which is best found through interaction with their fantastic crew. Even the A350 Upper Class seat restricts that relationship with its high walls and privacy screens, and the A330 Neo will be an even bigger challenge with fully closing doors.
Bringing back the bars, or creating – and promoting – signature social space services (such as wine tasting or a tapas dining concept) will be imperative to bring passengers back to the social space, and reinvigorating this once most exclusive club in the sky. In the meantime, where possible, I’ll still be opting for the 787 whenever it’s available over the A350 – and that’s something that has surprised me.