This is part 2 of my overview of the new Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite, launched tonight as part of the A350 launch event.
You can read Part 1 of my A350-1000 Upper Class suite review here.
You can find out more on Virgin’s official A350 website page here.
Introducing ….. The Loft
The bar is dead. Long live The Loft!
Virgin Atlantic has always been known for its social spaces. It was, I think, the first airline of the modern era to have a bar on its aircraft. Over the years the Middle Eastern airlines, primarily Emirates but also Etihad and Qatar on their A380 fleets, have taken this idea and run with it. On the most recent Virgin Atlantic arrival – the Boeing 787 fleet – the bar almost appears as an afterthought and doesn’t add as much as before.
The Loft is an impressive attempt to introduce something which is closer to a casual WeWork hot desking area and living space than a bar. Virgin found that many people using the bar were using it to work or discuss business issues with colleagues. (The only time I ever use the bar on Emirates is when one of my kids gets restless and I want somewhere for us to sit side by side.)
The Loft is a lovely looking area that accommodates eight people. It will be the first thing that every passenger will see on boarding the aircraft, and the last thing they see when they leave, and Virgin is hoping that it will encourage other passengers to trade up over time.
There are five comfortable seats with seat belts in case of turbulence. These are made up of a sofa, facing the 32 inch wall-mounted TV, a table where two people can sit face to face and a solo seat. There is also an area where two people can stand, with a high surface for a laptop. The area has three charging points.
The lighting system – which you can just see in the photo above – is gold plated for effect.
The Loft has bluetooth capabilities for up to eight devices – this is the first time that I have seen bluetooth on a commercial aircraft. You can bring your own bluetooth headphones or borrow a pair from the crew.
There are still technological reasons, apparently, why bluetooth is not available in airline seats but The Loft is the first step in making it available. Passengers will also be able to connect their own device to the big screen TV via bluetooth, opening up the possibility of impromptu business meetings.
The plan is that families or friends might choose to sit together on the large area of seating, whilst business travellers might choose to have a short meeting at the table for two or at the perching area.
I know that Virgin has done a lot of research into how its Upper Class passengers were using their existing bar areas, and they believe that this is the best way to move forward. It is very possible that it will be used in ways that Virgin hasn’t considered. Either way, it is impressive and something that you won’t find anywhere else.
Will the new Upper Class Suite be retrofitted?
Virgin Atlantic does not want to commit at this stage. When I asked, there was an indication that the Boeing 787 fleet may receive a similar refresh when the aircraft go in for their first ‘D check’.
(A ‘D check’ happens every 6-10 years and involves the aircraft being virtually taken to pieces and rebuilt. It takes two months to complete and costs a seven figure sum.)
There seems little sign of it being added to the A340 or Boeing 747 fleets which are due to be replaced by the 12 x A350 aircraft on order. This would only leave the A330-300 fleet of eight aircraft and the four ex-Air Berlin A330-200 aircraft. The latter have just been fully refitted with a totally different Upper Class Suite.
What is my verdict?
I don’t want to start picking favourites between BA’s new Club Suite and Virgin’s new Upper Class Suite. Let’s leave that until we have had the chance to experience both products. A pleasant flight is also, of course, about more than just the seat itself.
I should stress that, whilst BA is simply introducing a new business class seat on its A350, Virgin Atlantic has changed every part of the aircraft. Whilst Head for Points focuses on business class, there are also improvements in Premium and Economy which we will look at separately.
I was never the biggest fan of the existing Upper Class suite. The lack of storage space and the coffin-style feel to the seat didn’t work for me. I preferred the ex-Air Berlin A330-200 when I flew it last year, and I am keen to try the refurbished version of that aircraft with a brand new suite.
The new A350 Upper Class suite is far, far better than the previous version:
you have more privacy
you have far more personal space
you don’t need to call a flight attendant if you want to convert your seat into a bed
the IFE screen is much improved
the overall seat look and feel is better
it is now possible for couples or colleagues to be able to sit side by side and talk (if they want)
seats by the windows now actually face the windows rather than into the middle of the plane
I do feel that Virgin Atlantic has missed a marketing gimmick by not having a fully closing ‘partial’ door on the seat. A quick stroll around Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg last week showed that every seat manufacturer is now working on seats with ‘partial’ doors and they will become more common over the next decade.
(I say ‘partial’ doors because, unless you are in the new Emirates First Class Suite or Etihad’s The Residence, the doors do not go anywhere near the ceiling. You only get partial privacy. Anyone walking past can still see fully into your seat.)
I’m not saying that I want a door (personally I never use them) – and Virgin is giving you a half-closing door – but you need something as the ‘hook’ for your advertising. Virgin will be relying on ‘The Loft’ and their unique suite design to do that.
Virgin believes that the new privacy divider and suite design gives the optimum combination of privacy, seat width, sociability and service delivery (eg the ability to pass food and drink to you easily, something which BA may struggle with on Club Suite).
It is also worth highlighting the contribution of Virgin Atlantic’s cabin crew to the Upper Class experience. The new suite will only work if there is a good crew delivering the soft product, and I have always found that Virgin scores well here.
Where can I fly the new Virgin Upper Class Suite?
The first A350-1000 is due for delivery this Summer and will enter commercial service in August.
The first route will be New York JFK. Virgin also implied that the second and potentially third aircraft will also be dedicated to New York.
As Virgin Atlantic does not have any short haul routes, you won’t see any commercial short haul test flights like the Madrid runs that BA is planning.
BA is being forced to launch Club Suite on secondary routes such as Toronto and Dubai because the aircraft do not have First Class. This should give the new Upper Class Suite a head start of at least six months on flagship routes such as New York
Both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways have really moved on with their new seats and I can honestly say that they both look as good, if not better, than anything else being flown by a European or North American airline.
It will take time for a consensus to emerge over which of the new products is best – and I genuinely feel that both will have their fans. The real winners, of course, are the travellers.
I look forward to trying out the new Upper Class Suite and The Loft later in 2019 and reporting back.
You can find out more by visiting our Instagram page NOW – click here – and clicking on our logo to see the video ‘story’ which Rhys has just uploaded.
You can find out more on Virgin’s official A350 website page here.
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