This is our review of Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Class Suite on the new Airbus A350-1000, which has just started flying between London Heathrow and New York JFK.
I was on a special celebration flight, and media representatives were joined by a variety of Virgin Atlantic competition winners and their plus ones as well as some of Virgin’s most frequent flyers. Our ticket was free and Virgin Atlantic also provided accommodation and entertainment in New York.
In the end, only 200 of the 335 seats were filled. Wisely, Virgin realised that all the excitement would mean significant disruption to the crew’s normal ways of working with most of us standing and chatting in the aisles for most of the journey!
We were on the first Virgin Atlantic A350, although the second had just been delivered and was parked next to ours (click on any of the images to enlarge):
At most airports you will board the A350-1000 through door two, which opens onto the new ‘Loft’ social space that has taken the place of Virgin’s traditional bar. Although it acts as a corridor for passengers – Upper Class turns left whilst Premium and economy turn right – it has been stylishly designed with room for five or six people sitting and more standing.
I suspect it might actually be more usable than the bar which, at least on the Boeing 787 fleet, appears more like an afterthough than a key part of the offering. The Loft offers various areas to sit with friends (or strangers!). If you would like a drink you can pop your head round the galley next door and request one from the cabin crew.
One wall features a large screen loaded with the usual in flight entertainment as well as the option to pair several Bluetooth headphones. Whether the Bluetooth functionality will get used much is questionable – I can’t imagine groups or families choosing to watch a film together here for example – but it does make a great spot for watching the moving map or tail-cam throughout the flight. Crucially, the screen is not locked down so you can use it as you would a seat back screen.
The Upper Class cabin
The Upper Class cabin features 44 suites. This business class cabin is slightly smaller than on the British Airways A350, which has 56 Club Suites. It is a good indication of the different markets that BA and Virgin Atlantic serve, with the latter being more leisure-focussed.
The new Upper Class Suite
Virgin Atlantic has chosen the Cirrus NG product from manufacturer Safran for the new Upper Class Suite. These are arranged in a semi-reverse herringbone 1-2-1 arrangement, which is pretty much the standard layout for business class seating these days.
Here is a PR photograph:
and here is the real thing:
The seats have been styled in typical Virgin Atlantic fashion with chocolate browns, dark reds, white and gold accents. If anything, it looks even better than it did when they unveiled it at the launch party: the natural light really highlights all the beautiful finishes.
It is a million miles away from the more understated dark greys and blues of the new British Airways Club Suite. On the whole, Virgin Atlantic is using lighter colours (and a lot of white) whereas the Club Suite cabin is darker. Which one you prefer will depend on your individual preferences although, frankly, both look good.
The seat itself is very comfortable and has near-silent operation. The seat bottom was very well padded and it looks very stylish in the claret-coloured leather.
Above your seat you also have two adjustable air vents as well as two reading lights.
One thing that is immediately noticeable is the lack of storage. Whilst British Airways has increased its business class storage capacity significantly, the new Upper Class Suite has none at all, which is very disappointing.
There are two small open shelves at eye height; unfortunately, these need to be empty during take-off and landing.
This means that all loose items and bags MUST be stored in the overhead bins, and makes the shelves pretty useless. Luckily Virgin Atlantic has opted for overhead lockers above the centre seats, which many A350 operators such as Qatar Airways have abandoned for aesthetic reasons. Without them, cabin storage would be impossibly tight.
It’s not entirely clear why there isn’t more storage around the seat. The area under the ottoman, for example, is often used by airlines to store bags but here is fitted with some kind of grill or ventilation system.
The tray table problem ….
The tray table pops out from the seat in front and has a very cool sliding mechanism to spin it in front of you. It is also very large.
The table itself is extremely stable – probably the sturdiest I have ever used on an aircraft – but there is just one problem. If you are pregnant or have anything over a 32″ waist you will struggle to use it.
Because the table slides around to the side you cannot adjust how close or far it is to you. Even I only had an inch or two wiggle room before my body would be butting up against it.
The other issue is entry and egress into your seat when the tray table is down. At the moment, it is virtually impossible to get out without popping the table back up – a clear inconvenience if you need to nip to the toilet during a meal service.
These are issues that Virgin Atlantic has already acknowledged and they are quickly trying to fix it. By late November a bi-fold table should be rolling out across the fleet, including the A350s already delivered, to alleviate this problem.
The privacy partition aka The Half-Door
Yes, the new Upper Class seat has a movable privacy partition. Yes, it can only move about a foot, which doesn’t exactly make for the most private setting.
Nonetheless it is enough to shield you from the aisle and your neighbour if you so desire. Crucially, it also makes for a more open, sociable cabin with the centre seats ideal for couples or those travelling in pairs.
This is not a bad decision from Virgin Atlantic since they do tend to fly more leisure passengers. The verdict is still out on whether full-doors are necessary or desired, although they do make for easy PR!
Virgin’s A350’s have mood lighting
In addition to the usual lighting and the overhead and in-seat reading lights that Virgin offer, the new Upper Class Suite also has some cool LED mood lighting.
It makes for some rather attractive ambient light, although as I discovered on my return flight, it is impossible to turn off. This is an issue Virgin is reportedly working on, although whether they will give passengers the option to set their seat lighting to any colour of the rainbow remains to be seen!
What about the in flight entertainment?
The A350 has Virgin Atlantic’s signature ‘Vera’ in flight entertainment system. In Upper Class this is on a 18.5 inch HD monitor, although most airlines do not load HD content.
The screen pops out from the sidewall at the push of a button, and can be neatly folded away. It is, however, certified for gate-to-gate operations so you are likely to have it out for the entirety of your flight.
So far so good. What does need a little work is the Vera interface, which I found a little confusing. It does not conform to the rules we have come to expect from our smartphones and tablets. There is no ‘home’ button that I could see, for example. If you want to pop out of a film you are watching to order some food quickly it’s a bit of a faff.
Speaking of ordering food, Virgin have enabled touch-screen ordering on this aircraft. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of this feature and belive every airline should roll it out. It lets you order snacks and drinks from your IFE, saving both you and the cabin crew time and giving you a full overview of everything that’s available. I didn’t try it out on this flight but given my experience on other carriers it should work a treat.
The new Upper Class seat does not have a secondary screen on the remote control – in fact, it has no remote control at all. If you would like to control your IFE remotely, it is possible to pair your smartphone or tablet with your seat. The problem is that this relies on wi-fi technology which isn’t exactly reliable at 30,000 feet. On our press trip many of us were struggling to pair our phones and I eventually gave up.
This is the end of Part 1. Part 2 of our review of the new Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite on the A350 can be found here. There is a lot more to discuss!