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British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are going head-to-head in a battle for trans-Atlantic business travellers, with each airline rolling out its latest business class suites on the toughly-contested London and New York corridor.
BA will begin flying a Boeing 777-200 upgraded with its Club Suites on the London-New York route from October 27, 2019, as BA177/BA174, although the services could be somewhat sporadic until the second retrofitted Boeing 777 takes wing by year's end and the schedule itself is subject to change.
The Club Suites will be highly prized by trans-Atlantic passengers for their greater privacy, direct aisle access and increased at-seat storage and working space, compared to BA's current Boeing 777 Club World business class.
At the time of writing British Airlines has not revealed plans to send more of its Club Suites fleet to New York, although BA has a heavy refurb focus in 'Phase 2' of its Club Suites rollout across 2020.
"We are absolutely clear that we are committed to introducing the product on all long-haul aircraft, except those that we are retiring like some older Boeing 777s and the Boeing 747s," says British Airways CEO Alex Cruz. "We want to go as fast as we can. If we have more seats, we will actually stop an aircraft to install them."
Read: Take an up-close look at British Airways' new Airbus A350 Club Suite business class
Virgin Atlantic is moving faster, however.
The challenger will debut its first Airbus A350-1000 on the flagship London-New York route on September 10 (as flights VS153/VS138), with a second from September 24 (VS9/VS10) plus two more on November 5 (VS3/VS4) and December 9 (VS45/VS46).
Each of the A350s boasts Virgin's new Upper Class business class, with 44 seats in 11 rows of 1-2-1 across the entire cabin.
Behind the Upper Class cabin is Virgin's new inflight social area, although instead of a stand-up bar it's now more of a flexible mixed-up space called The Loft. This includes seating for five passengers, drinks and snacks plus a large-screen TV with audio beamed over Bluetooth.
Photo tour: Up close with Virgin Atlantic's new Airbus A350 Upper Class suite and Loft lounge
Virgin plans to have seven of its 12-strong Airbus A350 fleet based at London/Heathrow and Manchester by late 2020. The remaining five, due for delivery to the end of 2021, will be based at London/Gatwick and come with fewer business class seats and no Loft.
It's what Virgin Atlantic's Vice-President of Customer Experience, Daniel Kerzner, describes to Executive Traveller as "a leisure configuration" to reflect Gatwick's role in hosting Virgin's holiday routes such as to the Caribbean.
It's estimated the Upper Class cabin on those A350s could be reduced to as low as fourteen – the same as on the ageing and fuel-thirsty Boeing 747s they will replace – with a commensurate higher seat count in premium economy and economy class, to achieve what Kerzner describes as "right-sizing the product and the offering to those routes... consistent with what we have currently out of Gatwick."
Those A350s will also forego The Loft of their business-minded siblings, swapping it for what Kerzner describes only as a generic "social space".
"In the case of the leisure aircraft, we're looking at how do we create a unique social space for that aircraft... we're still in the design finalisation stages of what that will look like."
Virgin is also planning a different Upper Class seat design for its Boeing 787 and Airbus A330 fleet, as the new Upper Class was a bespoke design for the A350's extra-wide cabin, "and we're dealing with a very different fuselage width (on the Dreamliners and A330s)," Kerzner says.
This will necessitate a different seat again, and one which the airline expects to roll out in the early 2020s.
"The 787s are approaching their mid-life span with us", Kerzner flags, noting that the airline's first Dreamliner took wing in October 2014, "and that is the logical point for an airline to invest money into the cabin and the product."
"So what we are doing is taking a lot of the learnings, the insights, the feedback that we'll be getting on this product, and we're now starting to think about what does that mean for our Boeing 787s and our Airbus 330s."
However, Kerzner is reticent to suggest the Boeing 787s and Airbus A330s will see a modified version of the new A350 Upper Class.
"On the question of will this be that product, the thing we've brought to our design thinking at Virgin is not to accept a previous product just because that is our previous product."
"We've raised the bar with the A350. Whatever we do in the future will raise the bar again. When we think about the future we're going to think about how do we take this product, how do we learn from it, and how do we take it even further."