London Heathrow - New York JFK
Upper Class (business class)
- Private airport services give a seamless experience on the ground
- Fantastic dining and beverages in lounge and in-flight
- Doors don't slide all the way closed
- Not enough personal storage space
- New forward-facing seats improve on old herringbone design
Early this year, Virgin Atlantic took the covers off its new 'Upper Class' business class product on the also-new Airbus A350-1000s, which are streaming into Virgin's hangars through to 2021. The A350s are already being rolled out en masse on the competitive London-New York route as a shot across the bows of British Airways and its own new Club Suites business class. So how does Virgin's Upper Class seat fare on a trans-Atlantic trip? Executive Traveller reports.
Departing out of Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class passengers have access to a private entrance reserved especially for the airline’s premium flyers. Here you’ll find short lines for check-in and security, so you can maximise your time in Virgin Atlantic’s well-stocked Heathrow lounge.
Upper Class passengers also have access to a chauffeured transfer at both ends of the journey, as well as the option of a ‘Limobike’ transfer in London, a motorcycle transfer that helps you avoid London traffic - but if that’s too hair-raising for you, take the Heathrow Express train that deposits you from Paddington to the airport in 15 minutes. If arriving by public transport, you'll check in at Zone A in the main T3 area, then take the lift up to the Upper Class Wing.
- Frequent flyer program: Choose to earn points and status credits on Virgin Atlantic flights through Virgin Australia's Velocity Frequent Flyer scheme, or join Virgin Atlantic's own Flying Club program.
- Chauffeured transfers: Complimentary at each end of the journey for passengers travelling on paid tickets, although not on bookings made using frequent flyer points.
- Priority check-in, boarding & airport services: Yes, use the special Upper Class entrance at Heathrow for access to private check-in and security.
- Checked baggage allowance: A generous 3x32kg bags (96kg), plus a further 23kg bag for Flying Club Gold members (no extra allowance for Velocity members).
- Carry-on baggage allowance: Two bags, with maximum dimensions of 23 x 36 x 56cm, at a combined total weight of up to 16kg (max. 12kg per single item).
Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse Lounge at Heathrow offers travellers premium dining options, a cocktail bar, and ample room to relax or work while awaiting your flight.
The Clubhouse is adorned with purple and red lighting, mimicking Virgin Atlantic’s branding for Upper Class.
There are plenty of versatile spaces, whether you need to hunker down and get some work done, or just want to relax with a cocktail.
Unlike many lounges that offer simple buffets and self-serve drinks, much of the offering at the Clubhouse is provided by table service, which makes for a much more upmarket experience.
The offering is topped off with spa treatments and personal grooming services, so it’s worth getting to the airport early to fully experience what the Clubhouse has to offer.
Virgin Atlantic has plenty of daily flights between London Heathrow and New York’s JFK airport, but if you want to experience the new Upper Class on the Airbus A350-1000, you’ll need to book for these particular flights:
- VS137 LHR –JFK
- VS138 JFK-LHR, except Thursdays (from October 27, scheduled maintenance will switch to Tuesdays.)
- VS9 LHR – JFK
- VS10 JFK – LHR
- VS3 LHR – JFK
- VS4 JFK – LHR
- VS45 LHR – JFK (begins December 9, 2019)
- VS46 JFK – LHR (begins December 9, 2019)
As always, it’s best to double-check the aircraft and product offering at the time of booking, and being aware that it may be subject to change.
On board, you’ll be greeted by Virgin Atlantic’s signature purple and red hues.
The Airbus A350-1000 Upper Class cabin offers up 44 Upper Class Suites in a semi-suite design, behind which 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.
First things first – Virgin Atlantic’s new Airbus A350 Upper Class seats do have a sliding door.
Unfortunately, this door doesn’t close all the way, as you’d find on British Airways’ new Club Suite and other business class seats on Qatar Airways, Delta Air Lines and China Eastern. Instead, the door comes around halfway across, creating a semi-suite rather than a truly private ‘cocoon’.
With the seats facing forward, rather than the older angled 'herringbone' design, it also means that sitting in the middle seats as a solo traveller will mean that you’re quite close to your seatmate.
A middle divider affords some privacy between the two seats, but solo travellers will still prefer the window seats when available.
The layout of the seat has you angled towards the aisles, facing the 18.5-inch HD in-flight entertainment unit screen, which is tucked away in a corner-shaped recess.
The IFE screen can be controlled by your smartphone via Bluetooth, which we found more convenient than using the clunky native controls – it can also be used gate-to-gate, which was unexpected but welcome.
Your tray table is adjacent to the screen, and can sit to the side if you just want to use it as extra storage…
…or you can slide it so that it sits in front of you for meal service.
When the tray table is in front of you, it’s a very tight fit even for someone that’s not particularly large. Virgin Atlantic has acknowledged this design flaw in the new seat, and will be rectifying it in the coming months.
Seat controls are placed to the side for easy access.
There’s a few nooks and crannies to store your personal belongings, or the odd glass of champagne…
…as well as side storage for laptops or other slim items. Apart from this, there’s really not as much storage space as we would have liked. Stowage bins above are available, but more at-seat storage would go a long way in improving the experience.
If you need to work during the flight, you’ll find two USB ports and a universal power outlet.
The new seat reclines down into a fully-flat bed (rather than needing to be flipped over), and was surprisingly comfortable. We appreciated the leather upholstery of the seat, which felt more comfortable than similar fabric options on other aircraft.
With a mattress pad in place, we were able to sleep in various positions without feeling like we were in a coffin.
You can also pre-order pyjamas for your flight, which seems to be a good compromise between offering this to passengers who actually need them and removing them altogether as many other airlines have done.
A ‘Goodie Bag’ is also offered, which contains a range of environmentally-friendly amenities.
In terms of leg room, the front row offers up more space than the other rows since it extends into the bulkhead, rather than another row, but the other rows have adequate space to stretch out and relax.
For daytime sojourns, you may not get much use out of the seat’s bed mode. If you want to break up the flight, head for ‘The Loft’, where you can socialise with other passengers and partake in drinks and snacks, as well as fresh fruit.
There's also a 32-inch HD TV in The Loft for watching a movie or live sports, with audio piped over Bluetooth headphones.
If you’re travelling with someone, you can also choose to dine together here, but with only 5 seats available you’ll need to time your trip to The Loft otherwise you may miss out.
On boarding, we’re offered a glass of Canard-Duchêne champagne and some nibbles, with the full meal service beginning an hour after takeoff.
For appetisers, we had a choice of:
- Tomato soup with crème fraiche
- Citrus seared prawns with watermelon salsa, coriander, mint, and sweet chilli & lime dressing
- Cumin roasted cauliflower, asparagus, tomato, cucumber and minted yoghurt dressing
The citrus seared prawns were a fantastic choice – delicious, light and with a complex flavour that accompanied the prawn perfectly, it’s one of the best appetisers we’ve been served in-flight.
For mains, our options were:
- Louisiana crab cakes with barbecue corn salsa and spiced sour cream
- Herefordshire short rib, portobello mushroom, fondant potato and red wine sauce
- Thai vegetable curry with jasmine rice, charred baby aubergine and coriander
- Chicken and leek pie with parmesan mashed potato, crushed peas, honey carrots and gravy
Again, our option of chicken and leek pie was tasty and well presented, with crispy pastry and delicious accompaniments.
To cap things off, we had a raspberry sponge pudding with double cream, although if that doesn’t take your fancy a chocolate hazelnut tart with white chocolate mendiant is also available.
A range of cheeses are also available, all served with water crackers and other accompaniments – we went for the Rutland Red and the Cropwell bishop Stilton, but a Cotswold brie was also on offer if that’s more to your liking.
The meal service itself was delivered reasonably quickly (around 2 hours in total), which is admirable considering the presentation and quality of the meals.
If you’re hungry in between the first meal service and the afternoon tea, a beef burger is also available on-demand.
Around an hour and a half before landing, the ‘Mile High Tea’ curated by Eric Lanlard was served. This unique take on the traditional afternoon tea brings some modern touches to the traditional afternoon tea, including:
- Hot smoked salmon, cream cheese, cucumber, beetroot wrap
- Salt beef, pickle, cheese, malted roll
- Brie and chilli jam malted roll
- Sweet potato falafel beetroot wrap
- Warm Mediterranean vegetable tart
- Warm scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam
- Chocolate and salted caramel éclair
- Red velvet macaron
Feeling quite satiated from the earlier meal, we didn’t try any of the afternoon tea items but they were well received by our seatmates and surrounding passengers.
A range of coffees, teas, juices and soft drinks are available, as well as white wines from Europe and the USA, and red wines from Europe.
For something a bit more celebratory, a number of cocktails were also available, including passionfruit mojito, tropical mimosa and a sunset martin, while those that want to avoid alcohol can choose between several mocktails.
Overall, the food and beverage offering is both varied and of exceptional quality, with a good range of choices from healthy to hearty.
Entertainment & Service
There's a solid selection of Hollywood flicks, cinema classics and television boxed sets, and the HD video screen is clear and crisp.
We especially enjoyed being able to control the entertainment system by pairing our phone via Bluetooth, and being able to use the IFE system from gate-to-gate is handy when you're trying to finish off that last episode.
On-board cameras also provide views from the tail and elswhere on the aircraft.
Service on Virgin Atlantic is top-notch, and while it's friendly and a little tongue-in-cheek at times, it never feels too casual.
As one of Virgin Atlantic’s key routes, the airlines goes all out in providing a superior experience to Upper Class passengers – from the private airport services at Heathrow, to the superlative Clubhouse lounge, it’s difficult to not be impressed with the soft offering in Upper Class.
Unfortunately, the hard product needs some tweaking to achieve the same status. With more personal storage space, a rectified tray table and doors that close all the way, this would be a contender for one of our top business class experiences. As it stands, its still a very good experience, but not quite perfect.
The author travelled as a guest of Virgin Atlantic on the celebratory flight of the new Upper Class product on the Airbus A350-1000.