Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class business class product used to be one of the most fun business class products around. After the turbulent time Virgin Atlantic has been through with restructuring to avoid bankruptcy, what is their onboard experience like now in Upper Class ?
Many airlines have been using Covid-19 as an excuse to cut back on airport and onboard services as they struggle for survival.. Given that they follow the same government guidelines, it’s incredible how much they differ between airlines!
The flight in this article was from Barbados back to the UK in early November. Barbados, along with many Caribbean islands, is a safer choice for travel during Covid-19 due to their strict protocols. Bridgetown airport airport appeared pretty much deserted, and there were no more than two other passengers in the check-in and security areas. There is no fast track at Barbados security, but it would be a little pointless when it’s this quiet. Many shops were closed, but it’s hard to tell if it was due to the late departure time or COVID.
There was a least a lounge for Virgin Upper Class passengers, although the decor was a little dated. The new Covid-safe style of “buffet” was in evidence. This consisted of a small range of snacks, such as sandwiches and crisps. The staff helped you to what you needed from the buffet, and there was also a separate makeshift tended bar to get a beer or glass of wine.
After a quick stroll across the tarmac to the Boeing 787 aircraft, it was time to see what the pre-departure experience was like. Sadly the welcome glass of champagne has disappeared, and instead, you are handed a bottle of water. Fortunately, most of the usual amenities were there, such as Virgin’s environmentally friendly “goodie bag” made from responsibly sourced recycled kraft paper. It contains such goodies as Ren toiletries. a Bamboo handled toothbrush by Bambuu and some rather snazzy socks. A slightly less fun addition was the new ubiquitous airline “hygiene” pack, which contained wipes, hand gel, and face masks.
Before take-off, the cabin crew introduced themselves. You could immediately tell that this would be a great flight from their friendly and fun demeanor. Virgin companies encourage employees to bring their personality to work, and it shone through on this flight. Many had only recently returned from furlough, and having spent a few nights in Barbados, they were all in high spirits. After a taxi to the runway by tug, which seemed more extended than for a flight departing Heathrow, it was finally time to get airborne.
The cabin was around 40% full, and seats had been blocked between traveling parties. This Boeing 787 had the older Virgin Atlantic seats, which flip over into a flatbed. They lack any substantial storage space at the seat and can be quite hard when in bed mode. However, they do provide a wide sleeping space and a large solid table for working or eating. The best seats are on the A’ side of the plane, where more privacy is afforded by facing the back of the middle seats. Virgin Atlantic now have a new Upper Class Suite which feature on their Airbus 350s.
One unique feature of the Boeing 787 is the dimmable windows. Passengers can control how much light enters their window with a push of a button. Initially, these were not quite dark enough to block light entirely, but recent 787 models have had windows that have a darker setting.
Virgin have tried to walk the delicate balance of COVID safety with customer experience. With some business class flights having plastic glasses and food from a box, the Virgin dining experience was a welcome relief. The service started with a welcome drink. There was no actual champagne, but instead, there was Prosecco or the excellent English sparkling wine, Hattingley Valley. Drinks were served from proper glasses even if they were standard airline glasses rather than the usual Virgin stemless wine glasses.. Unfortunately, one of Virgin Atlantic’s most fun features, the onboard bar is not available.
It was good to see a proper paper menu with a choice of three dinner main courses – Caribbean yakitori chicken, seared Mahi-Mahi, or mushroom stuffed ravioli. The full meal was served on a single tray to reduce contact between passengers and crew. There was no starter at all and no choice of dessert. However, there was also an individually wrapped bread roll and cheese with crackers making it more than enough food for most people. The hot main courses are served in disposable cardboard containers. The Caribbean yakitori chicken looked something of a mess, but was similar to a very flavorful Bajan version of an Indian biryani rice dish.
Full-size wine bottles were used instead of the plastic mini bottles many airlines are using, and top-ups were plentiful. Fortunately, the renowned Virgin Atlantic plane-shaped salt and pepper shake were still on the tray. These famously say underneath “pinched from Virgin Atlantic”. If you ever find these “falling” into your carry-on, it’s highly advised to empty them first unless you want a bag full of salt and pepper!
The crew was eager to make up beds for passengers while you got yourself ready for bed with the help of the Ren toiletries provided in the washrooms. Full bedding was supplied with a mattress topper, duvet, and sizeable plump pillow.
The breakfast was also impressive with three main courses: full English, banana pancakes, or a roasted pepper omelet. A pastry and fresh fruit salad accompanied the main course.
Entertainment was provided with the high definition TV and a large selection of movies, TV shows, music and games. It is hard for airlines in 2020 to have fresh film content as so many releases have been delayed, but Virgin had a great choice. Noise-cancelling headphones were also provided at each seat. Wi-fi was available and, although a little patchy at times, was reasonable value at $19.95 (£14.99) for 150mb.
Overall, Virgin Atlantic has done a great job of walking the line between safety and ensuring a premium product for their business class customers. Their recent enhancements, such as non-expiry of frequent flyer miles and tier points on reward bookings, are likely to help win back customers. However, until the US reopens to travelers from the UK, it still leaves Virgin Atlantic in a precarious position due to their US heavy route network.