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Review of the new Upper Class Suite as we fly Virgin Atlantic’s A350 (Part 2)

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This is part 2 of our review of the Upper Class Suite on the new Virgin Atlantic A350.  

Part 1 of our A350 Upper Class Suite review can be found here.

As a reminder, I travelled to New York as the guest of Virgin Atlantic on the official media flight to celebrate the A350 launch.  As well as providing my ticket, Virgin Atlantic paid for two nights accommodation and organised social events for the entire party.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class review A350

The A350 has a very good tail cam

Virgin Atlantic has, very wisely, decided to fit the tail and belly cameras on the A350. The tailcam is especially useful for those sitting in the centre pair with no view outside, since you get a view of the outside world.

Even from a PR perspective the camera is a godsend, allowing passengers to watch what is going on at the gate. On our arrival into JFK it turns out the aircraft was parked on the wrong spot thanks to incorrect markings. We spent about 30 minutes waiting for the ground staff to figure out the problem. At one point there were 17 people milling about under the aircraft! Being able to watch airport snafus, and even the queue for take off, keeps the passenger informed of their progress and makes flying a less frustrating experience.

Connectivity

Virgin Atlantic already has fleet-wide wi-fi so it is not surprising that these aircraft come fully equipped.

Each seat comes with two USB ports as well as a universal plug socket and aux socket, which is great. These are tucked away under the shelving unit and down the side, next to the privacy door. The ones under the shelves are a little hard to spot but it is an otherwise convenient place.

Virgin Atlantic new Upper Class A350 plug

We were given free wi-fi access on our flight to test it out and it worked averagely well by in-flight standards.  I was able to browse social media, emails and web pages without any problems, although I did have to re-connect midway through the flight.

Wi-fi connectivity comes in at £20.99 for the entire flight although there are incremental packages starting at £2.99 for messaging.  This is generally inline with the market, although Qatar Airways charges just $10 for its high speed ‘Super Wi-Fi’ on London-Doha and offers all passengers one hour for free.

To be honest, I don’t understand why the market continues to accept charges for wi-fi, especially in premium cabins.  I know why the airline does not want passengers hogging the bandwidth for gaming or videos, slowing down speeds for those who want to work, but this does not explain why Business Class passengers should pay.  Some airlines consider themselves generous for giving First Class passengers free access.

The loo with a view

Virgin Atlantic new Upper Class A350 toilet

This is the best toilet you’ll find anywhere in the world! The two forward Upper Class bathrooms both have a window overlooking white, fluffy clouds.  (I didn’t check the other bathrooms so this be aircraft-wide)

Toiletries are supplied by Ren.  There is nothing special about A350 loos in terms of size, unlike on an A380.

Build quality

The biggest problem the new Upper Class seat is facing is build quality. We were on the first A350 delivered to Virgin, which had been in commercial service to New York for a week. There were already signs of wear and tear.

Safran, the seat manufacturer, has a bit of a reputation for these issues – Cathay Pacific experienced similar problems with its own A350s (see this article) which are also fitted with Safran cabins. The build quality is poor.  The British Airways Club Suite feels far more solid and less plasticky. The privacy screen, in particular, is difficult to operate: it needs a big tug to shift.

Talking to the VP of Customer Experience at Virgin Atlantic, the airline is aware of many of these issues and is working through them as quickly as possible.  According to him, the second and third delivered aircraft have already seen changes and other changes will be retrofitted as soon as possible, including to the tray tables.

What is the best seat?

There are, fundamentally, three variations of the A350 Upper Class Suite across the cabin. If you are sitting next to a window you are facing towards it (always a bonus!) with your entertainment screen in front of you. To your side is a small console with two shelves, personal reading light and plug and headphone sockets. The tray table, which folds down and slides across, is next to the aisle.

Virgin Atlantic new Upper Class A350 aisle

The centre pair of seats is the opposite: you are facing towards the aisle so that your head is in close proximity to your neighbour, although obviously separated by a partition.  This is, I believe, a deliberate decision by Virgin Atlantic due to the high proportion of coupled leisure passengers it carries.  The tray table is on the inside whilst the IFE screen is on the aisle side.

The third variation is only present in row 1, and is clearly the best seat on the entire aircraft. These seats have a slightly wider ottoman/foot-shelf, which creates a larger surface when in lie flat mode. The screens are also engineered to pop out in a different way.

How does the new Virgin seat compare to the British Airways Club Suite?

As it stands, although it is still early days, Club Suite is a superior product. It feels sturdier and the design is slightly more functional, with vastly more storage than the new Upper Class seat which has virtually none.

The BA suite also has an excellent tray table that is flexible and allows for easy egress and exit into the seat.

The seat isn’t everything, of course.  Where Virgin Atlantic does beat British Airways is with the ‘Loft’ lounge, which is a great space, and their excellent use of textiles and colour.  It is hard to deny Virgin Atlantic doesn’t have style, as this new cabin proves.

Despite the issues with seat build quality, Virgin appears to have cut fewer corners than British Airways, choosing to install the tail cam, adjustable air vents and mood lighting.

You also need to factor in other Virgin Atlantic plus points – ‘drive through’ check-in at Heathrow Terminal 3, the excellent Clubhouse lounge, the unfailingly cheerful crew and the food and drink (given that BA’s improved Club World food offering is not yet fleet-wide).  I will touch on the food and drink in a follow-up article tomorrow.

The picture below is a PR shot …. we didn’t get a red carpet welcome!

Virgin Atlantic A350

Is this seat the fleet-wide future of Virgin Upper Class?

Virgin Atlantic has been hesitant to comment on whether this exact seat will appear on their existing Boeing 787 fleet or their A330neos, which are coming from 2021. Having now seen and tried the seat, I can understand why.

Whilst it is a clear improvement compared to the existing Upper Class Suite there are still issues. Many of these come down to the Cirrus NG product by Safran.  Whilst it looks flashy, the problems are within the bones of the seat – the lack of storage, inconvenient tray table and privacy screen.

Thankfully, Virgin Atlantic appears to be rectifying these problems as quickly as possible and the A350s should have different tray tables and other modifications by the end of this year. Whilst this is good news, it’s a shame that these issues were not identified sooner.  We look forward to taking another look in a few months when the changes have bedded in.

Looking forward to 2021, I suspect that any future aircraft will most likely be fitted with an evolution of this seat, improving upon the current design.

The other option would be to take the Delta One suite that Anika reviewed here – remember that Delta has a 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic – and modify it to their needs.

Alternatively, the outstanding new ANA seat is apparently also available for licence according to discussions Rob had at the launch last week (see his article here) ….. if Virgin Atlantic chose that particular model it would almost certainly have the best business class hard product of any European airline.

Thank you to the Virgin Atlantic team for inviting us and for their hospitality throughout.


HFP Virgin Atlantic Rewards credit card

How to earn Virgin Points from UK credit cards (November 2020)

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Click here to read our detailed summary of all UK credit cards which earn Virgin Points

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Comments (27)

  • Robert says:

    Nice review. Look forward to trying it out sometime soon, but I must admit from the photos at least doesn’t look anywhere near as smart as the Club Suite.

    Couple of things:

    1. I quote: ״This is the best toilet you’ll find anywhere in the world!״ Surely you’re aware of BA’s famous F toilet with a window on the 747s?

    2. Is it my imagination, or is the only useable window (one seems to be blocked by the shelves) too far forward to actually be able to look out of without leaning way forward?

    • Rhys says:

      I was being slightly tongue in cheek – Virgin are obviously not the only airline to have a toilet with a view and I’m sure there are many other good views from bathrooms around the world 😉

      The rows and windows are not aligned – different seats have different alignments. I only had one but row in front had two etc. Didn’t find it an issue – had to lean forward a little but didn’t bother me.

  • M Todd says:

    The review doesnt really mention what the seat is like as a bed which for many including myself is a major factor when I am deciding what cabin to fly and is still the main reason I choose First over Business! How does it compare to the Club Suite and other seats on the market when its a bed?

    Other than that great informative review:)

    • Rhys says:

      It’s fairly standard in bed mode in my opinion. We have another post coming soon about the bed 🙂

  • Paul says:

    Paying £20.99 for internet access is ridiculous when you have thousands for the flight. Turkish provide this for free and on their 787 at least the service is superb.

  • Mark R says:

    This is the fifth review of the upper class I’ve seen and none show what it’s like for a couple to sit in the middle seats/bed I understand most reviewers travel themselves, but I’d be interested to know with the privacy screen in the middle retracted can you actually see each other ?

    • Rhys says:

      You have to lean forward a tiny bit

    • Mr(s) Entitled says:

      Assume if both seats are angled to opposite isles and you have to lean forward it will be far from ideal. Pictures of the window seats show quite a pronounced angle. If that is replicated you will be closer to back-to-back than side-to-side.

  • JB says:

    BA’s A350 has mood lighting – it just isnt as over the top as VS’s. It was really obvious on an evening flight back from MAD.

  • Tom says:

    Great review Rhys – can only disagree with the “unfailingly cheerful crew” point. I’ve flown countless times on BA and Virgin in Business and Economy, whilst I’ve had good and bad crew on both over the years my worst experiences have consistently been with Virgin staff in Upper Class – the Dubai route being a particular hot-spot (due to staff redemptions making it more of a company social event) for rude, inattentive often conceited crew.

    Appreciate the BA crew get a bad rap, but Virgin crew are far from faultless (as ‘unfailingly cheerful’ would suggest).

    • Dev says:

      +1
      During several years of travel to Dubai and back on Virgin, I was surprised by the poor standard of service in Upper Class, compared to flights with them to NYC, SFO and LAX. I think I can count the number of positive experiences using one hand. The number of times my seat was occupied by a relative of crew wasn’t funny. One time they insisted that I change my seat because they wanted their relative opposite them and asked me to take the last row with a windowless seat.

      On that occasion I stood my ground and insisted that I wanted the seat that I had selected at the time my flight was booked because I did not want to feel claustrophobic, which is why I had selected the seat (I knew the A330 seat layout well because of the number of times I had flown on it).

      The cabin crew member who was returning from a holiday in Dubai with his family, glared at me throughout the flight.

      Fun times.

  • Doug M says:

    For me your review highlights the whole BA Virgin thing. BA have the better seat, yet you seem desperate to put a postive spin on the Virgin experience. Lights that don’t turn off, no storage, and a tray table no use to all but the skinniest. Still Virgin have nice colours and good PR, what more could you want.
    If they’re making changes already, and doing so to the second plane delivered they really didn’t put much thought into this, or do nearly enough really passenger experience testing.

    • Rob says:

      Agree, but as they are making changes it also seems unfair to make a definitive statement on it, since that is all you would remember in six months.

      In reality it takes time for seats to bed in or not. It is when the novelty wears off that people will decide whether it works for them long term. I have no time for closing doors, for example, but always board with at least five newspapers and magazines it seems I can’t store. I rarely watch IFE but do enjoy the food.

      • Doug M says:

        Nothing is perfect, but these failures seem to be of an avoidable nature with proper testing and a structured evaluation program. You and Rhys not noticing at a launch day is not really an excuse for an airline sticking a new seat in that has such simple fails.
        I have a slight BA bias simply because I detest the PR based no substance approach I feel exists with Virgin. The old UC seat is really poor, and no amount of value placed on direct aisle access will change that. The existing BA seat that many hate is great to sleep in, I find it really comfortable. Again maybe in minority but facing backwards is also a plus, the pitch of the plane means a slightly raised head sleeping position. But what I want more than anything is somewhere to Kindle and glasses, and to launch a new seat without some cubby or well to store a couple of small things I think is really poor. If that mood lighting at the seat can’t be turned off, which is what all the reviews I’ve read have said, then that with the storage failure is a deal breaker. I appreciate we all have different circumstances, but for me with BAEC status Virgin is an afterthought, nothing I’ve read about this new seat changes that.

      • TokyoFan says:

        Your approach to flying is exactly the same as mine Rob. I can’t remember the last time I turned the IFE on beyond the in-flight map!

  • Lady London says:

    Very fair review Rhys. You’ve told us who this seat is probably aimed at and left us to draw out own conclusions.

    Lets face it big chunks of the actual paying customer profile are often not what the marketing team are pushing. For instance one set of hotels i use a lot has marketing mostly featuring people late 20’s to mid-30’s. But 90% of their customers are over 50. Lots of us buy products that pitch themselves at who we’d like to be. So you get tables that are impossible for anyone with a waist of more than 32 inches or cubbies that add density but dont work for people over 6 ft etc.