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Virgin's Upper Class has a reputation for unusually good service.

My flight experience between San Francisco and Heathrow confirmed that their reputation is well deserved.

 
 
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The Virgin (Airways) Experience Part 2
San Francisco to Heathrow
Upper Class

Unique touches such as an onboard bar, an onboard masseuse, and a courtesy limo transfer, combined with luxurious lounges makes Virgin Atlantic Airways' Upper Class the airline experience to measure all others against.

NOTE :  Virgin's Upper Class has now been completely remodeled, with lovely new lie-flat sleeper seats.  For more details, read my new review of their Upper Class Suites (as they are now called).

 

 

Providing a high quality experience in return for a high priced ticket shouldn't be difficult. But, after consistently disappointing experiences with British Airways, it was with a fair measure of uncertainty I found myself trying out the Virgin Atlantic Airways Upper Class service.

I shouldn't have worried. The entire experience, from a no hassle no wait check-in through to a similar no hassle no wait baggage collection at the other end, and everything else in between times, was all excellent.

Why can't all airlines be this good?

Pre-pre-Flight

I first flew from Seattle down to San Francisco on Alaska Airlines, and wondered if they could check my bag directly through to London. Even though I had an E-ticket with Virgin Atlantic, this was no problem, so at San Francisco I was spared the hassle of having to collect and recheck my bag. So far, so good.

Pre-Flight

There was no measurable wait at all before checking in for the flight, and the helpful desk staff quickly and competently went through the usual rigmarole, handling the several curve balls I threw at them confidently and competently.

Indeed, there wasn't a long line for their other two classes either (I write this having just waited 38 minutes in line to check in for a BA flight!). Checking in seemed easy for all passengers in all classes.

And then, for the first really big surprise. The Virgin lounge - well, actually, they call it their 'Clubhouse' - was a delightful place to relax or to work in. I've never been in an airport lounge before that offers table service - friendly waitresses were always hovering around, waiting for a chance to freshen your glass of whatever you might wish to be drinking, or to place another serving of mixed nuts in front of you.

And please don't think that the food is limited to mixed nuts! They have a printed menu with a range of hot and cold foods available - with table service, fine china, and distinctive personalized cutlery. I self-indulgently enjoyed the luxurious experience, which was completely different to the last time I was in a crowded small BA lounge, where there literally was standing room only (not enough seats for everyone!).

Virgin's Clubhouse at Heathrow is extraordinarily lavish. In addition to food and drink, and a lovely luxurious lounge on two levels, they also have amenities like a free beauty salon and free shoe polishing.

One slight complaint about the Heathrow Clubhouse - there was no provision for computer internet connections, and when I used one of the very few phones to dial up to a local ISP, I discovered that the phones don't allow for free local calls. Instead, it was necessary to pay a fairly hefty per minute fee via a credit card. While Virgin offers a full mix of indulgences and luxuries for other travelers, they don't seem quite so in-tune with the needs of business travelers.

Other than this minor point, full marks for the pre-flight service. But of course the one or two hours in the lounge is only a small part of the equation - what about the ten hours on the plane?

A Truly Upper Class Experience

Virgin have two and a half classes on their flights to Britain. They price their best cabin (Upper Class) as if it were a business class service, but in reality the quality of the service and food (and drinks) is closer to first class on other airlines. This of course makes it a great value.

Upper Class seating is split between the very front of the main deck and the front half of the upper deck (their mid 'Premium Economy' cabin shares the other half of the other deck).

The cabins have a curious feel to them - slightly retro, slightly garish - a mix of bright red leather, some chrome, and quite unusually styled seats (but perfectly comfortable). The cabins were refurnished about two years ago, so it is a modern retro look (if that isn't an oxymoron).

The Seats

The seats were perfectly comfortable for sitting in. They are very cleverly designed so that when the person in front of you reclines their seat, the seat back doesn't end up in your face. Instead, the seat pivots forward rather than back, leaving the person behind with unaltered room, and still giving plenty of comfort (and space) for the person with the reclined seat.

The seats recline a long way, but don't go perfectly flat into a sleeper bed. I actually found that I did not like the seat in its fully reclined position - I felt as though I was slipping down and off the seat, and so moved it more upright, so as to make the part which one sits on more horizontal, and then slept perfectly comfortably. Of course, the very large after dinner drink that the flight attendant gave me might have helped with my sleep, too!

The seat was surprisingly narrow in its fully reclined position, due to the way it lowers itself down. However, while in a more upright position, this was not a problem at all, and its lovely wide seat table was big enough for both my large laptop computer and a mouse as well.

On Board Extras

There are many 'extras' on board, but two are perhaps best known. The first of these is an on board beauty therapist who offers five different types of massages, typically running 15-20 minutes each, to Upper Class travelers. These are conducted in the privacy of a special massage area with a comfortable massage table/bed in a corner of the main deck.

The second famous feature of a Virgin Atlantic 747 is its bar area. This is a real bar, within the main deck's Upper Class area, and it has about 12 bar stools arranged around it. Passengers are free to leave their seat and go to sit at the bar, where they can enjoy a drink and also chat with other passengers and the friendly bar tender. This simple transformation of the flight so that you don't feel restricted to your seat for ten + hours, and instead can get up, move around, and even sit elsewhere, is a tremendously liberating experience.

On my night flight to London, the passengers were a surprisingly abstemious lot and within four hours of leaving San Francisco, the bar was empty and everyone was asleep. On the day flight back from London, the bar was more popular for the entire journey.

The bar, whether you choose to drink copious alcoholic drinks or merely the occasional fruit juice, is a lovely extra feature that helps to transform the flight experience from yet another awkward inconvenient regimented travel hassle to a more leisurely relaxed experience.

Each seat has a standard computer power adapter. On British Airways, you have to buy a 90 ($145) power adapter to use with their seat power system, but with Virgin Atlantic, they lend them out to their passengers for free.

Entertainment

Virgin currently has a mix of different types of entertainment systems on their planes, and depending on which plane you happen to find yourself on, you might end up with anything from their incredible state of the art mega channel system (reviewed here) to more mundane systems with perhaps 'only' fourteen different channels of movies. All planes are being progressively fitted with their latest and greatest systems.

The video screens were large in size and clear, but they were permanently fixed into the seat back in front and it was not possible to adjust the angle to best match where one was located as one moved the seat up and down. A strange oversight.

A nice extra was that Virgin provides noise reducing headphones to its Upper Class passengers. I didn't actually find the noise reducing to be tremendously good and preferred to use my Bose noise reducing headphones, but for someone not traveling with these, the Virgin alternative is a lot superior to regular airline headphones and makes it easier to hear the movies over the plane sounds.

Eating and Drinking

I had already enjoyed a very good hot meal in the Virgin lounge shortly before the flight departed, and so was delighted to discover that on board they offer an 'open dining' type service.

Open dining means that you can order any food you like, and at any time that you want it. You eat at a time of your convenience, not at a time of the crew's convenience.

When I felt ready for dinner I had a choice of several different main appetizers and main courses, and they even offered vegetarian dishes on the main menu rather than as a special meal that needed to be preordered. I had a lovely piece of salmon, served with some absolutely perfectly cooked asparagus. The food was as good as you can ever hope for on a plane.

They provide a generous drinks list, including champagne, some good still wines, and plenty of spirits. The flight attendants happily ensured that my glass was always full, and were very generous on the size drinks they poured.

They also offered not only all the usual fruit juices, mineral waters, and sodas, but they also had an onboard gourmet espresso maker. What a rare treat to enjoy a cup of 'real' coffee on a plane!

I was amused to see that instead of serving Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola, they serve their own 'Virgin Cola' - one of the many different enterprises that the Virgin Group of companies is involved with is producing a competing brand of cola in the UK. I've never noticed it anywhere else, but of course it was proudly offered on their flights.

Snacks were offered several times during the night, and a nice breakfast (with some of their lovely espresso) the next morning completed the food service.

Still More

Everything on Virgin is done with a bit of extra flair and zest. Sometimes this seems a bit self-conscious, but usually it succeeds in making the flight experience more friendly.

For example, the pre-flight safety video was presented in a very amusing manner that actually had people laughing on board.

Their duty free selection was extensive and fairly priced. I ended up buying a lovely little gadget - a 11.50 ($17.50) hand powered cell phone charger - that I've never seen for sale anywhere else, before or since.

Without a doubt, the part of a flight experience that can have the largest impact, either positive or negative, is always the crew onboard. No matter what else an airline might do, a bad crew can make any flight a miserable experience, and a good crew can make a bad flight tolerable or a good flight great.

Everyone on both my flights was genuinely friendly and helpful. It was also pleasing to note that the crew didn't 'disappear' from shortly after dinner until shortly before breakfast, as happens with some airlines and crews. The Virgin crew were always moving around the cabin, and seemed to be always pleased to chat or help in any way they could.

The amenities kit had a nice collection of various beauty products in it.

One of my pet hates is when the crew wake you ridiculously early for breakfast the next morning, so that you end up spending the last hour and a half or more sitting in your seat, now wide awake, but wishing you were still asleep. Unlike other airlines, Virgin waited until 65 minutes prior to landing before waking us up and serving breakfast - this gave me an extra hour of sleep compared to BA.

Post Flight

Virgin give their Upper Class fliers special 'Fast Track' passes to avoid waiting in the regular lines to go through Immigration. It is then only a short wait until the priority luggage comes from the plane, and your flight is then completed.

Summary

A wonderful experience in all respects. Well done, Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Note : See also my reviews of Virgin's Premium Economy class and of British Airways' competing Business and Premium Economy classes.

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Originally published 25 April 2003, last update 08 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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