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What happened on my Virgin Atlantic ‘celebration’ flight to Tel Aviv with Richard Branson ……

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Just over a week ago, Virgin Atlantic celebrated the launch of its route to Tel Aviv with a media event.

Although it was not the first flight – the route had been active for almost a month – this was a special celebration trip with Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss on board.

(Shai Weiss is, as you might have guessed, Israeli. Shai has said on numerous occasions that the decision to launch the Tel Aviv route was not done for nepotistic reasons – although I’m sure Shai enjoys flying his own airline when he returns home – but on a purely commercial basis. He apparently recused himself from the decision entirely.)

Although there was nothing to review on this flight – we stayed in independent hotels and the nature of a press flight is that you rarely actually sit in your seat – we thought it might be interesting to write about the ‘behind the scenes’ of events like this.  If it wasn’t already clear from the introduction, Virgin Atlantic paid for the entire trip.  Which was nice of them 🙂

Israel is not a destination I have been to before, although it has been recommended to me many times.  I was very excited to experience it for myself.

Heathrow Terminal 3 Virgin

Since the main reason of this trip was for PR purposes, Virgin Atlantic adjusted the departure time of our outbound flight in order that it would land at sunset and allow a good media show. The usual schedule has it departing at 14:50 and arriving in Tel Aviv at 21:50. Our flight instead departed at 09:25 with a landing time of around 4pm.

With a fairly early departure time, I stayed at the new Aerotel inside Heathrow Terminal 3 the previous evening – here is my review of the Aerotel London Heathrow Terminal 3.

Click on any of the pictures to enlarge.  They are a mix of my own images and ‘official’ Virgin Atlantic shots.

After checking in and making my way through security I walked to the Virgin Clubhouse. Of course, the first thing you should do when entering the Clubhouse is book a complimentary spa treatment, so that is what I did, opting for a relaxing hand massage.

Virgin Clubhouse

One corner of the Clubhouse had been cordoned off for guests which included media, a handful of influencers, selected top frequent flyers and their families and Virgin Atlantic staff.  Travelling for work is often a solitary experience so I really enjoy press trips like this – it fosters a sense of community and reminds me of fantastic school trips of yore!

I wanted to be one of the first to board so I left early. At the gate, Virgin Atlantic was celebrating with ‘normal’ passengers too, handing out goody bags with the special Tel Aviv-inspired socks from the Upper Class amenity kits.

The route itself is operated by one of Virgin’s A330s, with the legacy 1-1-1 seating arrangement in Upper Class. I was sat in 9A, which is the penultimate seat on the left hand side.

Virgin Atlantic a330

After everyone had boarded, Sir Richard Branson and his entourage were surreptitiously ushered on. Interestingly, whilst there were a few empty seats in Upper Class, Richard and Shai decided to sit in Premium. For a short flight like this (around 5 hours) it does not make a huge difference, since you are unlikely to be sleeping anyway.

Richard made a brief announcement on the cabin PA, which I’m sure surprised those sitting in Economy who probably did not know that Richard was on this flight, despite all the celebrations!

Virgin Atlantic Tel Aviv Richard Branson

The rest of the flight proceeded as normal, although with a slightly chattier contingent!  Virgin’s A330-300s also have the signature bar, which was staffed by a Grey Goose ‘mixologist’ making a variety of vodka cocktails.

We were also joined by Katherine Mills, a fantastic magician.  (For clarity, Virgin Atlantic does not normally provide a magician on its flights!)  She was also on the recent A350 flight to New York and her tricks continue to delight and confound me.  I like to think I am quite good at figuring out the sleight of hand but Katherine has me stunned every time. If you need an entertainer for an event I cannot recommend her enough!

Virgin Atlantic Tel Aviv Katherine Mills

Here she is making Richard’s card appear behind the aircraft window (!):

Katherine Mills Richard Branson

We landed in Tel Aviv on time and taxied not to the terminal but to a remote stand which, I was told, is also where Air Force One parks. Waiting for us was a crowd of Israeli media. Here is Richard deplaning:

Virgin Atlantic Tel Aviv Richard Branson

To the delight of the Israeli media, Richard also kissed the ground as the Pope does ….

Richard Branson kisses ground

Here’s a secret though: I was talking to the photographer who said that he was in a rush to get this shot, and asked Richard to kiss the ground twice more so he could frame it properly. Sometimes it’s better not to be famous!

We were then shuttled away to the private terminal at Ben Gurion airport for immigration and a short press conference with Shai, Richard and a representative for the Israeli tourism board.

Virgin Atlantic Tel Aviv Richard Branson

My time in Tel Aviv

In total we spent two nights in Tel Aviv, seeing the sights (and swimming in the warm Mediterranean sea!) during the day and attending various Virgin Atlantic and Israeli tourism board functions in the evening. The second night, Richard and Shai gave a quick speech at a large party:

Shai Weiss Virgin Atlantic

I must admit that I still have the attitude of a student because I stole six beautiful Grey Goose cocktail stirrers, although I can assure you I wasn’t the only one ….

This article isn’t a destination guide but I have to agree that Tel Aviv and nearby Jaffa are fantastic cities to visit, combining climate:

Tel Aviv

…. culture:

Tel Aviv

…. and the sea:

Tel Aviv

Heading to Jerusalem

It’s amazing how different Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are. Whilst Tel Aviv is fairly secular, in Jerusalem it is obviously the total opposite. It is, again, a beautiful city, although we were all delighted to see a Halloween inspired rave party happening within the ancient Tower of David:


Since we were staying the Friday night, we enjoyed a beautiful rooftop Shabbat dinner. It was a beautiful way to round off the trip and enjoy the local traditions.


If you are thinking of taking a trip to Israel I can only recommend it. It has a vibrant culture that is well worth experiencing.  And, of course, Virgin Atlantic would be delighted if you joined them on their new daily service.

Thank you to the Virgin Atlantic team for inviting us.

How to earn Virgin Points from UK credit cards

How to earn Virgin Points from UK credit cards (February 2023)

As a reminder, there are various ways of earning Virgin Points from UK credit cards.  Many cards also have generous sign-up bonuses.

You can choose from two official Virgin Atlantic credit cards (apply here, the Reward+ card has a bonus of 15,000 Virgin Points):

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

Comments (35)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • BigSi says:

    Just flew Upper Class on this route for the first time. I wasn’t enamored with the seating lay although it was more private than Club World. I found the seat very narrow and claustrophobic. If you are travelling with someone you need to carefully check the seating plan as what you think are two adjacent seats are actually nowhere near to each other. I also didn’t like the fact that you had to stand up and turn your seat around if you wanted to be fully flat.

    • Rhys says:

      Correct, it’s the legacy Upper Class seat. Still, for a 5 hour flight it’s fine.

  • TripRep says:

    Hotels seem really pricey there, Hilton’s ~ £400?

    • Jonny says:

      Yeah hotels are fairly pricey there. Albeit the breakfasts will fill you up until dinner time!
      Not a bad place to use points. Or AirBnB

    • Alex Sm says:

      My partner and I used our IHG miles saved from Accelerate nights in obscure London hotels to have a week at Crown Plaza Tel Aviv Beach. Cost is 30,000 per night with £200 per night if paid in cash. The best redemption ever! So my advice: redeem in Israel, accrue elsewhere

    • Graeme says:

      We stayed in the Hilton last year on free night vouchers and points and really liked it. Tel Aviv is an outrageously expensive place to drink so the lounge access was very welcome – the food wasn’t bad either. I remember that our room in June should have been £335 a night.

  • ADS says:

    if you’re interested to hear Shai speaking – he’s giving a talk on Thursday at the Royal Aeronautical Society (near Hyde Park Corner) on the future of Virgin Atlantic

  • Rhys says:

    As a reminder, HFP is not a place for political commentary 🙂

    • Chabuddy geezy says:

      Is “anti-Israel media” not political commentary? I’m surprised that post did not get deleted with the rest.

      On a side note, I like your writing style Rhys but some of the photos are low quality, especially the low light ones. Are you using an old iphone?

  • David Ward says:

    Great review Rhys – Tel Aviv is an amazing city for all the reasons you say, but especially the food. One small thing though – it’s not just the Pope who kisses the ground. In the days before air bridges, it was a common tradition for Jews returning to the holy land to kiss the ground upon arrival (though in more recent years, mostly it was teenagers being ironic…).

  • Dave says:

    Hi Rhys, really enjoyed the review. This is in no way a criticism of Rob or Anika, but I could really get a sense of your excitement about your trip. HFP is a great site and does a good job covering a broad readership, but it was nice to read an article from someone who seemed genuinely enthused to be at the front of the plane which is how I feel as a reader who only gets to experience that once a year or so.

    • Mike says:

      Ditto – I really like the reviews by Rhys…….I can almost reach out and touch the enthusiasm…..quite often it makes me think I want to go there/do that – the Vietnam airlines piece (s) was an example of that. Keep up the great work Rhys (oh and Rob – great choice !).

  • Yorkieflyer says:

    I personally see nothing wrong in pointing out that what appears to be an advertorial for Israel may offend some readers and potentially be seen as biased in much the same way as a similar article could lead to the same point of view being expressed about Qatar and its airline.
    Disclaimer, I have flown Qatar airways and much enjoyed the experience but have serious misgivings about the country and funnily enough Saudia in Y weren’t at all bad to Colombo via Jeddah even if I had to visit their Victoria office for a re ticketing issue, lounge courtesy of SkyTeam status on a 6 hour stopover was pretty decent too. Mrs Yorkieflyer stressed a bit as to dress before but no problem aloft or airside at Jeddah. I was amused by the 0 alcohol beer, I suppose no different to a plant burger?

  • JAXBA says:

    The British flag at the aircraft door in TLV is upside down. 🙁

    Is VS sending a distress signal?

    • Grant says:

      It looks to me as though it has the Saint Patrick’s saltire on it which would make it the Union flag…

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