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. I’m interested in this statement – “Suppliers have to sign up to strong commitments on sustainability, animal welfare, fair trade, GM ingredients etc”

    Spoecifically the “GM ingredients” part.

    I am assuming that they insist on suppliers using non-GMO ingredients? Can someone clarify?

    If so, what a shame.

    • Yes, the commitment is ‘not to use’! That said, there is a transitional period at the moment and not all suppliers may be 100% compliant in all areas – Virgin has set a deadline by which all the products they use must meet their guidelines.

      • It frustrates me that a organisation of the size and influence of Virgin are contributing to the peddling of pseudoscience. There’s a huge irony that the aviation industry is premised on evidence to determine risk (Safety, etc), yet are drawn into taking a non-GMO stance, despite the overwhelming evidence of safety (both for the environment and human consumption).

        • Do you work for a GMO company, Jamie?

          • No.

            And before you ask I don’t own shares in any either.

            So predictable.

          • I am a supporter of science and reason, evidence backed decision making. Not scaremongering driven by anecdotes and politics.

            The wave of anti-GMO (and any other pseudoscience – anti-vax, alternative medicine, etc) is largely driven from the US. There is a movement backed by blatant lies and misinformation that is forcing companies to amend their decisions in these areas for fear of the effects on the bottom line.

            I have no doubt that Virgin (and other large corporations) don’t support the rhetoric coming out of this movement, they are doing so as a risk mitigation exercise. So as not to alienate those uneducated who would castigate and boycott them if they did not have an anti-GMO policy.

            I hope that BA don’t take the same weak stance.

          • Erico1875 says:

            Yes. I’m sure half of Africa, south America and Far East would happily tuck in to a plate full of GM food.

          • GM food is widely sold in the US now – it is impossible to avoid if you travel there. What you think is the cultural norm (ie the European ‘GM is bad’ view) is not shared by the bulk of American citizens.

            I am more intrigued by some of the commercial effects of GM seeds (I have friend who worked for Syngenta until recently) – such as making farmers buy new seeds each year, even though the existing crop generates its own seeds, and attempting to make farmers who accidentally get GM plants due to seeds blow in the wind rip them up due to ‘copyright’ and ‘licensing’ issues.

            I’m not taking sides, please note – just saying that I find the issues which come out of it interesting.

          • Sadly, I find your response predictable of those who support “science and reason”. I work in a science based job (requiring a science based degree) so I am not against science in any way but I do not find belittling those with a different opinion to yours to be reasonable. This bravado and swagger tactic is the same as that used by a bully and is not a “scientific” evidence based approach.

            We genuinely do not know the long-term effect of various farming practices or the cause behind the increase in food intolerances etc. Until we really know what we are doing we need to be careful. Major problems have been caused in the past (lead in petrol, CFCs et al) so why assume nothing bad will happen from what we are planning to do now?

          • Green Flyer says:

            I think you might find it was a USA company, Monsanto, that tried to get GM crops into Europe about a decade ago and fluffed up their PR badly. That set a lot of minds against GM here simply due to the bully boy messages they used.

          • And interestingly, Monsanto are trying to buy Syngenta. Likely to come back next year and complete the deal…

          • Delve a little deeper & you’ll see that pharma always buys pharma.

            Adding value? Really?

            There’s a nice house of cards out there.

            Having said that, the last FD I recruited was from BIG pharma – and he has proved to be brilliant.

  2. A supporter of science and reason is our Jamie. Is this the same science that, despite billions of pounds of investment, has found no real cure for any of the major diseases that afflict humanity? The same science that has created so many of the problems that face us today? Where is the reason in that?

    • Sussex Bantam says:

      I’m sorry but that has to be one the silliest posts of today. On a forum dedicated to flying us round the world for a modicum of our disposable income you ask what advances science has delivered ??

      • I was responding to Jamie’s point about GMO foods, just couldn’t find space on that thread. I admit that neither my response nor his stance on GMO has much to do with collecting points for cheap flights, but still…

    • Your argument is that because science hasn’t yet solved all of the world’s ills, we should disregard that which it has established? Righto.

      • Sussex Bantam says:

        Yep – penicillin, measels, polio, typhoid, massive increase in life expectancy,…none of those should be counted as a success.

        Not to mention the fact that science (and engineering) mean we can now fly round the world for a (relatively) tiny amount of money !

  3. This thread has been completely-railed.

  4. Lady London says:

    While we’re on the subject of de-railing, if anyone wants to scare themselves about GMO and the pollution of our food supply then check out GMO and Monsanto etc. on Some fringey stuff but definitely an excellent clear-headed early warning resource.

    • You really should check the reliability of your sources. Dr. Mercola is a known quack, frequently investigated by the FDA.

      • A quack is simply somebody the medical/pharmaceutical companies are trying to discredit, so that they can continue to charge people lots of money for drugs that don’t work. Anyway, enough of this, I think…

        • Who would have thought that HFP has been infiltrated by conspiracy theorists!

          What next BA sponsoring chem trails?

          Beggars belief! LOL

          • On a Jamie vs Brian fight where we have to weigh up knowledge, intelligence, experience, ability to make a logical point, Jamie wins 95-5.

            Brian – you’re out.

        • No, it’s someone spreading scare stories with no scientific basis – just look at all the MMR scare stories that lead to a vast increase in cases all due to Wakefield and his (mainly American) supporters.

  5. Yawn…

  6. Green Flyer says:

    Wonder if the increase in US brands will mean an increase in the use of Gluctose-Fructose syrup as an ingredient.

  7. Frankie McPolin says:

    Looks fun. And better than the American Airlines ‘Above and Beyond’ debacle last night at One Marylebone place last night… Were you there Raffles?

    • I was there (and no I am not Raffles) but an event with no non-alcoholic drink, no veg. canapés; a 20 minute queue to get in the building, tables that bonked everybody on the head (frequently) … and a sound system that was appalling…I left before the end…

  8. Does the Virgin Atlantic building / shed not have any windows?

  9. Thanks for sharing Rob

    Interesting that the replies have all focused on recycling (VAs stance is ridiculous) and GM foods. Surprisingly no one has commented on the Emirates card sign up bonus … Which admittedly is useless unless you fly them regularly and looking to top up miles

  10. It spends £3,000 per month on toilet roll

    I think we do better than that, more to the point, the 2 women do.

  11. Thanks so much for coming to our behind the scenes food day Rob! So glad you enjoyed it!

    We just wanted to clarify some of the sustainability aspects of Virgin Atlantic’s service. We use plastic glasses in our Economy cabin and unfortunately present regulations of international catering waste does not allow us to recycle them. In order to recycle anything from international flights you must have a system in place to ensure recycling does not come into contact with food or dairy products. This is due to the risk of diseases such as foot and mouth coming into the country. However, we are currently working with the UK regulator, DEFRA, to find a way of recycling onboard.

    Operators such as EasyJet are able to recycle onboard as they fly within the EU where these regulations are not applicable. We have also been working with Food Made Good (Sustainable Restaurant Association) for a number of years to get all our food served onboard and in our Clubhouses to a high standard of sustainability. We set ten standards that our caterers must meet, including one on GM foods. This standard is simply that where GM foods are used, they must be clearly labelled wherever possible. If you have any more queries please get in touch at [email protected]

    Thank you!

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