I spent last Monday in a shed in Crawley. This is not my normal Monday routine, but when the shed is the headquarters of Virgin Atlantic it becomes more interesting!
I had been invited to tag along to an event aimed at food bloggers (Simon Calder was also tagging along) to highlight the food and drink options offered by Virgin. It coincided with Virgin’s in-house food festival, with many of their food and drink suppliers setting up stalls in the large open plan HQ building.
Here are some facts and figures Virgin offered up – I can’t begin to imagine how large the equivalent BA numbers would be:
Virgin employs a team of 30 to run all of its inflight services, covering everything from duty free to toiletry bags and catering
It serves 12 million meals per year to 5 million passengers
It washes 4 million blankets per year, all in the UK
It goes through 8 million plastic glasses per year – and under UK reguations, they cannot be recycled because they have been used for drinking. All go to landfill.
It spends £3,000 per month on toilet roll
Suppliers have to sign up to strong commitments on sustainability, animal welfare, fair trade, GM ingredients etc
Food is now tested to ensure that it still looks attractive when served under the coloured ‘mood lighting’ on the new 787 aircraft!
The menu is tweaked on virtually every route to accommodate local preferences
Whilst the company likes to work with niche brands, they prefer to serve unique flavours or pack sizes so that passengers do not mentally start working out what identical products would cost in a shop
The catering offer is completely overhauled every 12-18 months. The company looks at what is trending with the public and then creates a ‘vision’ which it shares with its suppliers, asking for ideas on how it could be achieved. In Upper Class, for example, there has been a shift towards a more formal dining style from the more relaxed brasseries approach.
Within these total overhauls, there are changes to the Upper Class and Premium Economy menus every three months and to the Economy menu every six months.
With Delta taking a 49% share in the airline and feeding more American customers onto Virgin flights, the airline has made a move to include more US brands.
Presentations over, it was time to tour the mock up aircraft cabins that Virgin has installed to help with crew training.
We first headed to an Upper Class bar (installed in a mock up fuselage with full seating) to see how the new on-board cocktails are prepared using special mixer packs.
Lunch time arrived, so – slightly bizarrely – we headed over to a Premium Economy cabin mock-up where we all took a seat and were served the current Premium Economy menu, cooked in a real in-flight oven! (I had the chicken tikka.) Premium Economy meals come with black plastic versions of the ‘Wilbur’ and ‘Orville’ steel salt and pepper shakers used in, and regularly stolen from, Upper Class.
It was then back over to the Upper Class cabin where we were shown how the galley staff cook, prepare and serve the food. It was interesting to see how it is packaged when it arrives on the aircraft and how quickly the crew can turn it into something presentable.
I also had the chance to try out the Virgin Atlantic economy seat:
Not great when you are six foot two! I think I’ll stick with flat beds.
Finally, Virgin let me play at working on the check-in counter!
If there is an overall message from the day, it is that Virgin is working hard to support niche food and drink suppliers and to provide something a little different on-board. (My Premium Economy salad came with a pomegranate and raspberry oil, for instance. Berry Bros provide the wine.) Thanks to the team at Virgin for inviting me.
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