Virgin Atlantic: One Night Stand or Going Steady?

Virgin Atlantic dares to be different where competitors are becoming indistinguishable from another.

Last week I flew Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class on their old A340 and new A330 to India and back on a business trip.

My virgin Virgin experience I loved the novelty of the experience, a fashionable mix of trendiness and old-world cruise liner formality.

Virgin Atlantic 10

A330 Upper Class Seat

I liked:

  • A pleasant lounge, at Newark, no less.
  • The cabin is airy and has cool lighting.
  • Pleasant flight attendants that seem to be having fun in their work. The new Vivienne Westwood uniforms appeared on the way bac: the brown valet-style suit of the men more a success than the red suits of the women that are a bit overdone when paired with too much makeup.
  • Formal, courteous British cabin announcements.
  • Direct aisle access and a seat comfortable in sitting position.
  • The footrest doubles as a sitting stool replete with seatbelt, useful for families and lovebirds.
  • The privacy wall sections of the old A340, 1k-7k, and then the opposite A-seat sides for the rest of the cabin. (on A330 all seats face each other).
  • Meals served with real plates instead of on a tray, and little touches like airplane-design salt and pepper shakers.
  • Good food, especially the Indian options. Avoid the ‘British steak.’ By the way, a bacon sandwich is bacon and bread, that’s it.
  • Quirky snacks in the bar.
  • Turndown service and bed mat (the seat is an unusual design where the back folds down to make a bed).
  • Responsive AVOD on the A330, best ability to go forward and back in movies of any I have tried. Limited selection, though. A340 is not touchscreen, though also pretty responsive.
  • AVOD works from gate to gate. Compare to an airline like Delta that is disabled until after takeoff then crap-loaded with half an hour of Delta stuff and advertisements before you can start using it.
  • Clubhouse in London, a lounge designed for pleasure and fun for guests of all ages.
  • Chauffeur service to/from airport on my return (my outbound was not a qualifying fare, and neither do awards qualify though there is an expensive miles option).
Virgin Atlantic 01

Newark Clubhouse breakfast

Virgin Atlantic 02

Newark Clubhouse

Virgin Atlantic 03

A340 Upper Class

Virgin Atlantic 04

A340 Upper Class seat

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A340 footrest/seat

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Indian main course

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Succulent dessert

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Breakfast and a good AVOD

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London Clubhouse

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Arriving Mumbai Airport in style

On the return, exhausted from work, the sheen was off a bit and many of the things that I enjoyed that first time became little annoyances:

  • Upon departure they list the number of crew and passengers on board. I am not particularly superstitious, but the only time I ever hear that is on the news and it isn’t good.
  • The most lengthy ‘fasten seat belt,’ announcements of any airline. They can take a minute or more of instructions. And really loud, especially when doubled-up with verbose Hindi. Delta and Virgin Atlantic, of the airlines I fly, have the most superfluous announcements.
  • Converting the seat to bed is a project that often requires help of a flight attendant. The seats on both my return legs were acting up and required manual intervention.
  • There is virtually no storage space other than the floor shoe cubby.
  • Part of the airy cabin effect is because there are no overhead bins in the middle. It makes for a tight squeeze if the cabin is full of Americans with their gigantic luggage (me guilty as well).
  • Flight attendants are hyper-vigilant and very grabby. If you have so much as a slip of paper out around takeoff or landing they will jam it into the wall. Also aggressive in throwing bedding over your head to stow behind the seat, whip open window blinds, check seatbelts sleeping, etc. I prefer having flight attendants say something rather than grab stuff. The first time I was caught off-guard. My Kindle was under the paper and nearly broke.
  • Power supply on the old A340 requires borrowing a huge Kensington power brick.
  • Meal services are very, very slow. About an hour into the flight they start up and since they individually plate everything and carry one by one from the galley, expect to not finish a full meal until about 2.5 hours into a flight.
  • Daytime flights from London to New York upon arrival they serve an afternoon tea that looks cute until you realize it is a way to avoid serving a proper meal and you arrive hungry.
  • Connecting in London is miserable. Virgin Atlantic does nothing to expedite security, not even participate in so-call Fast Track. There were 5 people ahead of me in line and I was stuck for 40 minutes as the clods barely moved in slow motion to flag every darn bag, for hand inspection, even a tray with someone’s jacket. British inflexibility and over-caution on full display: they can’t staff up “because there is only one table.” Eventually a guy with a cart slowly wheeled over, took one bag away, and never returned. Nearly missed my connection. Nice to be able to think, as an American, that my country’s airport security theater is not quite the worst in the world. I take Paris CDG’s bus gates over this.
Virgin Atlantic 05

A340 power brick

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‘British steak’

Virgin Atlantic 13

Afternoon tea

Lots of pluses, kudos for a cool experience, plus some minuses. What are we left with?

Absolutely go for it at least once if you have the chance. Virgin Atlantic is dedicated to being an experience to remember and they deliver better than any competitor I have tried. Great to set the mood for that vacation across the Pond.

If you want a basic, no drama, get a quick meal, eat and rest without the flourish experience, you might prefer more staid options.

For connecting passengers, weigh the value of the Clubhouse versus all the hassle of London. As an experienced Indian women ahead of me at boarding put in when requesting the gate agent track her bag, “My luggage never makes it out of London.”

Readers, what’s your take on Virgin Atlantic?

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  • Joey

    RTC, I loved this post! Your take on being the Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (or perhaps Plucky & Devil’s advocate) reviewer of VS is just bloody fantastic! 😉 I have never flown Virgin Atlantic but will be doing so later this year and am now looking forward to it.

  • Jamie

    Bacon sandwiches are always just bacon and bread, in England. Well, butter is usually on the bread, and you should normally add “brown sauce” (hopefully HP brand) or ketchup (known as tomato sauce, tomato ketchup, or even “red sauce”). I’m american, but I have grown to love them. I usually prefer them the way I make them at home, on a crustier slice of white bread, rather than the wonder bread type they usually put them on on airplanes.
    We flew Virgin Atlantic in coach a couple of years ago, and it is hands down the best coach flight I’ve had between the UK and US. I’m not that much of a frequent flier, so that’s a sample of about 5 and the only non-us carrier was BMI, but still. I think I’d pay around $100 for Virgin over AA or US in coach. It’s still an economy seat, but nice IFE, friendly staff, better food. It was an all around more pleasant experience for us to kick off our vacation with.

  • Craig

    Thanks for the review! It makes me want to try Upper Class at least once.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Jamie – I have flown Virgin Australia in coach, not yet Virgin Atlantic. I really enjoyed the experience and I think $100 sounds about right for a premium.

  • Liz

    @RTC, we’ll be flying Upper Class to LHR, arriving 6:45 a.m. and then catching a British Airways flight to CDG. We weren’t planning on checking any luggage. Carry on only. Realistically how much time do you think we need for the connection? Any tips would be very much appreciated!

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Liz – I have bit tried switching terminals at LHR, everything at LHR is unpredictable but predictably slow, without luggage and with boarding passes in hand might cut it as low as 90 minutes, though 120 is a better play.

  • Liz

    Thank you!

  • FACTS

    Delta no longer has advertisements before the content on AVOD/IFE begin to work. Also, the entertainment system on Delta begins when the boarding door is closed and ends when the boarding door is open (one exception – system paused to play safety demonstration after door closure).

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @FACTS – good to hear, since going revenue-based I have greatly reduced my Delta flying.