LONDON — Virgin Atlantic has been quietly bringing together a plan of action that will see the airline create a business plan that could become a thorn in British Airways side.
With its partnership with Delta Air Lines finally bearing fruit, and its acquisition of Airbus A350-1000s and A330-900s, Virgin is now set to use in full extent the strengths that it always has had, cabin service and
Airways was invited on one of the inaugural flights from London-Heathrow to New York, where we took a close look at the carrier’s brand-new Upper-Class product installed on its Airbus A350-1000s.
Virgin Atlantic’s facility at London-Heathrow Terminal 3 is an oasis, the staff down to a person, is unfailingly professional and polite, helpful, engaged and cheerful. Truly the airline is blessed with remarkable employees. The only other airline I can compare the staff interaction experience is Southwest Airlines.
After a quick early morning check-in, we were escorted to a dedicated security line for Upper-Class ticket holders. This perk has always seemed to me to be a bit superfluous, and I have always wondered if it does represent convenience at all. Our line moved no faster than the rest, and as we were just a few, we were under even more scrutiny. The security staff does not belong to Virgin, and they were dedicated to go through every single bag.
This did not make for a very good initial experience. Coming out of security you are thrown back into the haphazard melee of Terminal 3, followed by a long walk to the sanctuary of Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse. Once inside though, things got better.
The Clubhouse had a wide
The bar was fantastic and definitely tempted me into a gin and tonic way earlier than I normally partake. And once again, the staff was there to attend to your drink order. There were also enough bartenders to keep up with the of passengers in the lounge, this is something that almost never happens in any other lounge.
I have been in nearly empty sky clubs and have had one bartender seem completely overwhelmed. Virgin Atlantic had cordoned off an area of the yellow lounge for the press, and as such, I didn’t really get to experience the lounge fully. But what I did see was impressive.
Boarding Our Aircraft
Getting my first close-up look at Red Velvet, G-VLUX, gave me the same impression the first time I boarded a Boeing 777-300(ER). It’s a stunning, beautiful jetliner. Walking down the jetway, the anticipation built as I got closer.
Stepping across the threshold, and turning to the Business Class cabin, I was left with a sense of occasion and awe. The cabin was lovely, and the integration of the surfaces and materials is seamless. We all know that today, most of the seats are plastic. However, the prime quality of the materials is such that they don’t feel like it.
The slightly off rose-colored gold, red and a beautiful mocha leather, came together in a way seldom seen in a Business Class product. The amenity kit was refined and efficient, it was nice to see that sustainable products were used throughout.
Going through it, one is amazed at how thorough they were in making sure that sustainable materials were used, and in a similar fashion to Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic offers an à la carte amenity kit system. Either ordering what you want ahead of time or ordering it from your seat. Waste not want not.
New semi-private suite configuration for Upper Class
In Virgin Atlantic’s Airbus A350-1000s, the Upper Class has 44 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. The old Business Class cabin was in an inward-facing herringbone configuration, which sometimes may lead to uncomfortable moments of having another passenger’s feet right next to your meal tray, which happened to me on my flight to Heathrow on the Boeing 787.
Not only are you not having to experience your neighbor’s feet, but the outer seats in the configuration face the window, instead of the aisle, allowing for a much more peaceful and palatable experience. The new cabin arrangement is a big improvement on the previous configuration.
The new Upper Class installed on the A350-1000 is a semi-private suite. The seat is a comfortable 20 inches wide and 44 inches of seat pitch. The walls of each seat are higher, with a small pocket door in the seat that partially closes, giving a sense of privacy. Personally, I felt like it didn’t really add too much to the overall experience not quite the same thing as Delta’s One product.
For those of you who might be bigger in size, however, it does make a challenge for getting out of the seat without having to grab onto the Upper-Class seat immediately in front of you.
The seats themselves are comfortable and convert to an 82-inch flatbed quite easily and each comes with a full-size pillow and a duvet. You can even pre-order personalized PJs for your snoozing pleasure.
The main problem with these new seats is that the tray tables seem to have been designed incorrectly. When I folded down the tray, it went directly into my stomach. I had to push it away to eat at an awkward angle.
When I first used it, I thought maybe I had not used the mechanism itself properly, but as I was looking around there were quite a few puzzled faces. This is not merely a matter of not accounting for the size of larger customers, this was a design modeling failure.
Even people who were height weight proportionate were having difficulty with the setup. Virgin Atlantic is well aware of it and plans to have a fix that will only take ½ hour per seat to rectify.
The engineer on board said that these modifications will not require any cutting of the plastic and that it is a mechanism that will be easily changed out that will not require the aircraft to be pulled out of service. I was told that the A350-1000s already delivered to the airline will be refitted by October.
Being that this was essentially a press flight, the cabin was barely containing the mayhem, with people walking around and comparing notes and reconnecting.
The cabin crew had to work under those conditions. But once again, they never fail to impress with how deftly they handled the meal service. Kudos to Edward, who served me two mains, the Louisiana crabcakes, and the Herefordshire short ribs.
The crabcakes were just okay, they did not taste at all fresh. I am from Seattle where we consider the Dungeness crab as almost a pest, and I admit that we are spoiled up there. The short ribs, however, were impeccably brazed and seasoned. I always have a good time cooking them myself, and I am always impressed when an airline can execute them.
I opted out of dessert, but a few hours later, I did start to get a bit of a craving for something sweet. No sooner did I start to think about that, then pastry chef Eric Lanlard came by with a beautiful box of goodies that looked right out of a Wes Anderson movie.
Inside this work of art, was amazing chocolate and salted caramel éclair and a red velvet macaron.
Beckoning back to the time when widebodies in the 1970s had small lounges where passengers could congregate in, Virgin’s launched in its A350-1000s a new generation sit-down bar named The Loft.
In-flight entertainment system
True to its Virgin roots, the IFE was impressive. Each private suite has an 18.5-inch touch screen. Gone is the remote chained to an armrest. Instead, passengers can hook their own smart devices up to the plane’s IFE using Bluetooth and control their entertainment from the comfort of their own phone or device.
The IFE has several convenient features, including being able to order food or snacks on demand. Our flight was plagued with technical glitches. Most iOS users seem to have few problems, but android phones were mostly not connecting. The Wi-Fi was also a little finicky, but then again that’s true for every carrier right now.
Premium Economy and Economy Cabin
Virgin Atlantic was among the first airlines to offer the premium economy product, and they have certainly always been ahead of the curve regarding comfort and introducing features other than just increased legroom. While most Premium Economy cabins are small, Virgin fitted 56 seats in its A350-1000s.
Once again, the color palette is used to great effect in this section. It looks warm and luxurious
In the A350, the 2-4-2 layout takes advantage of the extra 5 inches that it has over the 787. This is a great alternative to Upper Class. The perks that go along with the seats make the price quite a value.
The rear of the cabin has two classes of economy, Economy Delight and Economy Classic. Economy classic comes in it 31 inches of seat pitch and 17 inches of width. Economy delight comes in at an additional three inches of pitch, but more importantly, Delight offers priority check-in and boarding.
The service and the crew
I can’t say enough for the cabin crew of this flight, and every Virgin Atlantic flight I’ve taken, these employees are top-notch. They strike a delicate balance between friendly and cheerful without being intrusive and annoying. As I’ve said in my previous reviews, I find that someone who’s overly chatty or friendly can be just as bad as a crew member that is reserved and aloof.
Flying on the 787 from Seattle to Heathrow and then the A350 from Heathrow to New York, I was amazed at how many of the crew members had been with the airline for at least 10 to 20 years.
I remember Richard Branson years ago saying that people should not make a career out of being flight attendants. I’m so glad that most of the cabin has not taken their founders advice. These people are some of the best flight professionals I’ve ever come across.
And that’s including Singapore and Korean. My buzz never had a chance to waiver, as my gin and tonics were filled quickly and with a smile.
The realities that lie ahead
It’s somewhat charitable to call Virgin a boutique airline. Let’s just be truthful and say this is an airline that is small. It’s had a couple of opportunities at attempting to be bigger and become the second flag carrier at Heathrow. These attempts have come to little or nothing. This time feels different.
There are external events that need to occur, such as the completion of the third runway, and equitable allocation of slots in the future. British Airways and IAG may not be as glamorous as Virgin, but they are smart, and they use their size to a devastating effect.
Have no illusions, Virgin Atlantic is going to have to work very hard to be taken seriously in the marketplace. They don’t have a lot of time to re-establish themselves at a larger Heathrow. If there is a time that this airline could become the second flag carrier, the time is now.
The partnership with Delta looks to be beneficial for Virgin, and one hopes that Delta through its JV with Virgin can assist the carrier in developing the acquisition of Flybe into a more successful feeder product than Virgin Atlantic’s narrow-body product was. They desperately need a narrow body network that is bigger and more efficient. It will be interesting to see if they upgrade Flybe’s equipment.
Plans for the future
We were all wondering what was going to happen after Delta purchased a 49% stake. Well as of the last two weeks, we have found out that Virgin Atlantic’s plans are ambitious, to say the least.
Virgin is going to increase the frequency of its Los Angeles to Heathrow service to 17 flights a week, that’s up from 14. Seattle will see an increase to 11 from seven flights a week Boston will also become more of a focus city.
This all dovetails perfectly with Delta’s increase in service. Their return to Gatwick and increasing frequencies to Manchester and Heathrow will work out quite nicely for both carriers.
Virgin’s plans for 84 destinations by 2026 seem overly ambitious. This plan is contingent on Virgin getting a huge number of slots at Heathrow well over 100.
Obviously, Air France/ KLM in acquiring a 31% stake, shows that they are confident that at least some of this will happen. If Virgin Atlantic is successful in its plans, it will mean big things at Heathrow.
Virgin Atlantic has a lot to overcome to even get half of what it’s asking for, a lot of analysts feel that the contingencies for their route expansion being implemented is unrealistic at best.
They are going to require a great deal of funding in the coming years to acquire additional aircraft. It will be interesting to see if this works out to be the beginnings of a counterbalance to IAG.
Another significant opportunity is Virgin Atlantic’s codeshare with Brazilian powerhouse GOL is going to give them access to a lot of South America.
Virgin Atlantic is a small airline by any standard. As of right now, they have 47 aircraft in the fleet and when the 747s in the A340s leave as the A350s come online that will actually represent a decrease in capacity.
The real question regarding equipment is what is to become of the 787s and how will virgin proceed with upgrading these five-year-old aircraft. The problem with having a brand-new upper-class interior in just 12 of your aircraft so far is that you create the sense that there are two distinct airlines at work under one name.
The 787 experience versus the A350 experience is day and night. The current word is that the 787 is under review. Personally, I can’t see them getting rid of the much-needed capacity, but if they are in a position to take more A330nes and a few more A350s I could see the 787’s being gradually phased out.
I believe the A330-900 is a purchase that obviously dovetails quite well with Delta’s fleet plans as they both fly the same Airbus widebody types. They are both excellent aircraft and there is no real advantage in keeping the 787’s.
The A350-1000 will also offer additional revenue regarding palletized cargo and the A330 fleet will offer a commonality and flexibility that the 787’s do not. The A350s will be bifurcated into two subtypes.
There’ll be the standard A350 that we flew on and then a high-density leisure market model. These aircraft are going to be deployed on Gatwick to Florida and other Caribbean destinations. One can’t help but think that if this aircraft is successful, that more will be needed.
Also, let’s not forget that the A340-600 is still very much part of the fleet. This has been put out to pasture once already, only to be brought back out of storage and back into service due to the 787 operational woes.
The Rolls-Royce engine debacle continues to throw airlines and turmoil. It has created new business for supplemental airlines like, Hi Fly and has costed money to All Nippon and Virgin Atlantic. It will also be interesting to see how much longer the A340 will soldier on.