My day exploring the world of airline food with Virgin

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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!

Virgin 1

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.

Virgin 2

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.

Virgin 3

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.

Virgin 4

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.

Virgin 6

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.

Virgin 5

I also had the chance to try out the Virgin Atlantic economy seat:

Virgin 7

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!

Virgin 8

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.

(Want to earn more Virgin Flying Club miles?  Click here to see recent articles on Virgin Atlantic and Flying Club, and click here for the latest news on earning and spending other airline and hotel points.)

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  1. “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”
    Lesson for BA there – if they did the same I wouldn’t have worked out that the pottle of berry yoghurt they’d just served me in First could be had for 70p down at my local Waitrose!

    • At least BA shop in Waitrose 🙂
      You know things are tight when you start getting Aldi items in F.

      • Nothing wrong with Aldi/Lidl bombers (beer), Saved many a party from flagging in my skint younger days.

        • Die hard tesco points man here…. and only recently realised how much more cheaper Lidl was for the same products. I convince myself to continue going Tesco because they have better parking, more products, and possibly some 3V cards in stock!

          • What’s happened to them? I did a cross country drive yesterday for work and checked two stores at random and neither Stevenage or Kettering had 3Vs! My locals haven’t had any for a while either (Lichfield/Uttoxeter)…

  2. Interesting insight, thanks Rob – seems bonkers re not being allowed to recycle cups purely because they’ve been used for drinking! – they had no issue doing this year’s ago when I was at school or at anywhere I’ve worked, perhaps VS are reading the rules too strictly?

    • only one solution to this.” In the name of saving the planet, give me the bottle, so I can spare out a cup!!!!!

      • Looks false/ obfuscation to me, ie Virgin is clearly deliberately sending the glasses to landfill because it’s easier/ cheaper. Rules can be interpreted in various ways.

        Mineral water bottles can be recycled yet are not particularly different, ie when a person swigs from the bottle, ‘backfill’ from that person goes into the bottle, contaminating it. Which is why if you re-use the bottles, refilling at home, you should rinse them first – and dispose of within a reasonable time.

        With Virgin flying to so many destinations, it would be easy to recycle them in another country in any case if they were committed to being green.

      • Yes. I don’t know what is more horrific, all that plastic going to landfill or a stupid regulation that insists it does

    • At home and work I put these plastic glasses into the recycling, but I strongly suspect the rubbish men just tip the recycling into the general waste anyway.

    • That seemed odd to me too. Does the same apply for the plastic drinks cups that every office in the country uses? We must get through billions of them every year!

    • flyforfun says:

      My company has just started using vegeware as it’s compostible. They do cups as whole lot more.

      I suspect it’s the cost that’s stopping airlines from using them, but if they can’t recycle, they should use something like this instead.

    • It’s bizarre that recyclable cups cannot be used.

      Having said that when I was at school we just rinsed the cups in the same tub of water they were served from.

    • I was just about to question this too. My partner works for easyjet and they have to recycle literally everything. I understand that they couldnt be washed and re-used but surely they can be recycled?

    • No laws restricting it as far as I am aware in the UK. Perhaps they use an unusual mix of plastics in the glasses which would make it uneconomical to do so, but that begs the question – why not change suppliers?? Sounds like a load of nonsense anyway….

      In the grand scheme of things though the environmental damage of say 1000 plastic glasses off a flight, going to landfill is insignificant when you consider the 10 tons of Jet-A1 the plane is drinking per hour!

  3. Green Flyer says:

    I presume by ‘recycle’ plastic glases you’re really referring to washing and re-using?
    Recycling would surely involve the plastic being washed, chopped into pieces, melted down and reformed. I’d have though either the energy involved out weighted the energy in the original production or the plastic wasn’t of a recyclable type.

  4. After my pretty horrendous gluten free first class meal with BA recently, I’m interested to see what VA would serve up as a gluten free meal! I’ve heard good things about their meals; just not a fan of their customer service and co sharing rules when flying down to NZ.

    • Please do tell. I’m planning on flying to Oz at least partially with BA in club and both my wife and I are gluten free. I’m interested in knowing what it is like as it’s quite hard to find out.

      • I would opt for a normal dish. The pre-ordered gluten free option in Club is very bland and hence nothing special … Usually there should be a dish or two which you can chose in the club menu if you are wheat intolerant. You will only lose out on the bread and worst case pudding.

  5. One thing I found out flying EDI-LHR on Virgin little red on Sunday 20th from one of the female cabin crew was that all Vitgin Little Red cabin crew were given the opportunity to transfer onto long-haul instead of losing their jobs so that is one nice thing to come out of the finishing of the flights. By the way, flight was full as normal.

  6. Mrs_fussy says:

    Not that I care much about airline food in general but BA is going from bad to worse. Flying their long haul in CW last week and the meal was barely palatable & they regularly run out of your first choice. If I could do away with my love affair with flat beds, would probably fly economy where they at least have enough meals !

    • Though they often do not really have a choice of meal so the only choice must therefore be your first choice!

    • My LHR – IAH on Sunday run out of the pasta dish, and only had the chicken curry left, which I would have chosen anyway. There were many people who did not get a choice in my section of WT (first section behind WT+)

  7. Interesting article – thanks. As I’ve said many times before, I’m a big fan of Virgin Upper Class. I’ve flown BA F twice this year and Virgin UC once and there’s really very little in it, in my opinion.

    “I think I’ll stick with flat beds.”

    You sure, Rob? Go on, live a little and enjoy the back of the plane.

  8. Great article.

    I didn’t realise Virgin still had the steel salt and pepper shakers – last time I flew UC they had been replaced with plastic ones. As it happens, Facebook tells me that was a year ago today… (And yes, I did, having read about the “stolen from Virgin in Branson’s book, I feel obliged…).

    • Oh! Matron! says:

      I flew a few weeks ago in UC and they were most definitively plastic

      • They got rid of them for a bit but they came back due to passenger demand.

        The ones I stole are from the late 1990’s and are metal.

        • they have been plastic for a long time! They only went back to them “due to passenger demand” because the cocktail shaker shaped ones didn’t work! (the holes were too small)

  9. Sounds like another reason only to fly business or first – at least they use glass there. So a pat on the shoulders for HfP readers – we’re doing our bit for the environment…

  10. Very odd comment re recycling. Could you please get them to quote the exact regulation, as it is hard to believe!

    Love the “pinched from Virgin Atlantic” embossed on the bottom of those S&P shakers! 🙂

  11. Off topic but due to this being time critical and this thread has a Virgin connection I thought I’d remind people this is the last day you can redeem East Coast Rewards. Note: if you redeem for a free ticket today you still have 6 months to actually book the ticket. Also you can get lounge access for 50 points and transfer any left to VS Flying Club at a rate of 1 point = 6 miles.

    On catering side I was invited to a VTEC blind wine tasting to help rate wines to choose the next first class offering and they’re also introducing their own ale brewed in York (west coast already has their own ales and cider). I’ve tried the ale and it’s decent, definitely better than the Adnams they sell now in the foodbar.

    Think I should say something BS related. Flown Little Red first time earlier this month. As a lowly BA Silver I preferred the Priority Pass Plaza Premium lounge in T2 to the Galleries Club in T5. I also had the odd experience of being able to use an arrivals lounge when returning to T2 in the evening. On board there wasn’t much difference. The crisps seemed slightly bigger but still on the small side and the crew were friendly. But if Little Red hadn’t been cancelled I think I would have considered it for the routes they do fly. T2 is closer to London and I preferred the lounge.

    • Agree – I enjoyed all the Little Red flights I had and disappointed that they’ve gone now – in particular it was very handy when making long-haul VS redemptions to be able to add in a domestic connection, will be quite a pain having to arrange this separately now.

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