This is our review of Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class seat on the Boeing 787-9 service from Heathrow to Austin.
Virgin Atlantic invited us to the inaugural flight to Austin – Virgin’s first new route to the US in five years.
The route is currently operated four times weekly but will be going daily in Spring 2023. It’s not hard to see why – both the outbound and my return flight were almost fully booked, particularly in Upper Class and Premium.
Virgin Atlantic is flying its older-but-still-new Boeing 787-9 aircraft to Austin, which feature Virgin’s older Upper Class seats which have been around since 2003. The A350 fleet features Virgin’s newer Upper Class Suite which we reviewed here, and Virgin is about to unveil a brand new business class seat for its A330neo deliveries later this year. (We’ve got our invite – look out for the article!)
As the last time we reviewed Virgin Atlantic’s older Upper Class seat was in 2016 we thought it was time to take a fresh look in the context of what else is now out there in the market.
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class at the airport
I won’t go into too much detail on the ground experience as this was an inaugural flight with a bit of extra pizazz. If you’re flying Upper Class you can check in either in the dedicated desks in the main departures hall or opt to use the Upper Class Wing, which has its own dedicated vehicle drop off area.
The Upper Class Wing isn’t quite as slick as the First Wing at Heathrow Terminal 5, as you are deposited into the main duty free area once completing security and have to find your own way to the lounge. It is excellent if arriving by car, however, and is equivalent to being dropped off at the door of a luxury hotel. Make sure that your taxi driver knows how to find it though.
Check-in was busy at 9am on a Wednesday, but Virgin seems to have avoided the long snaking queues that have plagued other terminals in recent weeks.
At Heathrow Virgin Atlantic operates the flagship Clubhouse lounge, which I reviewed here last year. It is an excellent lounge – far better than anything BA can offer, one of the (if not ‘the’) best business class lounges at Heathrow and one of my favourites worldwide, with great food and table service throughout.
On board Virgin Atlantic’s 787-9s
Virgin’s 787-9s are no longer the new kids on the block but they’re still young and spritely, with the first just over seven years old now.
They come with 31 seats in the Upper Class cabin, plus a further 35 in Premium and 192 in economy. Unusually for business class cabins these days, it’s a herringbone layout with quite a sharp angle in a 1-1-1 configuration:
All the seats face the aisle, with rows G and K facing each other. This is one of the major drawbacks of the herringbone layout, because you have to really strain your neck to see out the window and end up with little to no privacy as you gaze lovingly into the eyes of whoever is sitting opposite you.
For that reason, anyone travelling solo should book into Row A, where you face the rear of Row G and have a little more privacy.
I was sat in 1K, a bulkead row, but there is no benefit – you don’t get any extra legroom and if anything, you are just close to the galley. I would say the sweet spot for the best seat is probably rows 2-5, which gets you away from the galley at the front and the toilets and bar at the rear.
Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class seat
Let’s take a closer look at the seat itself, as it’s quite different from some of the newer styles. Because of the aisle-facing angle of the seat there is no foot cubby hole:
This is good news for anyone who hates foot cubby holes, although I found the foot rest to be smaller than most foot cubbies. At 6’2″ it felt like my feet were hanging out in the aisle when in bed!
The foot rest can also be used as a stool for buddy dining, thanks to the large tray table that pops out of the side:
Here is the seat:
On the left is a small integrated arm rest plus the seat controls:
To the right is a small shelf, reading light, magazine pocket and the in-flight entertainment screen and remote:
This is as much storage as you get – there’s not much. I would’ve appreciated more of a ledge or console table where I could put my headphones, phone and drinks throughout the flight.
Inside the magazine pocket is also a universal plug socket and your headphones, whilst a USB charger is under the in-flight entertainment screen, which pops out to sit in front of you:
The screen is pretty small at just 11″, although because it’s so close to your face it doesn’t make much of a difference. It is adjustable front and back, and you can watch TV during the meal service by pulling the tray table forward and the screen back, although that does mean you are trapped in your seat until the cabin crew clear your table:
Here is the interesting part. Unlike most seats, where you recline into bed mode, you have to flip over the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class seat. This has the benefit of providing a better, more comfortable mattress surface on the back of the seat but does mean that moving from one position to the next is a faff – not ideal if you just want to slip into a brief nap after lunch. However, the cabin crew will make your bed for you if you ask.
Bedding is provided on day and night flights, including a white mattress protector, duvet and good size pillow. Here it is in bed mode:
Whilst it is comfortable, I found the seat to be quite narrow whilst sleeping. As someone who is 6’2″ I did feel like I was a bit too tall to stretch out fully, with my head in the cabin wall and feet in the aisle.
Virgin has opted to retain the full set of overhead bins, which means there is plenty of storage space to go round and everyone also gets personal air vents.
At your seat you’ll also find the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class amenity kit introduced in 2019. Called ‘Goodie Bags’, the new kits contain an eye mask, socks, pen, bamboo toothbush, toothpaste, ear plugs, and REN Skincare products including a lip balm and hand cream:
The only change since 2019 has been to replace the funky ‘Tel Aviv’ socks with plain black ones, which I think is a shame. The quality isn’t as good (they’re not quite ‘real’ socks) and they’re simply not as ‘Virgin’ as the previous ones. If anything, the amenity kit is a bit, well, boring. I admire the attempt to be more sustainable with a kraft paper bag and paper packaging but it just doesn’t feel particularly exciting.
In-flight entertainment and wi-fi on Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic calls its entertainment system ‘Vera’. It’s got a decent, but not huge, selection, although I found the categorisation a little messy. It is mostly recent releases.
Marvel and Disney – normally a staple on airline entertainment – were notably absent, although they have made an effort for flights to India, Pakistan and Israel with various local and regional options.
I ended up watching the new Stephen Spielberg West Side Story, which reminded me how ridiculous teenagers can be sometimes ….
Virgin’s Dreamliners also come with in-flight wifi. The following packages are available:
- Messaging – £2.99, throttled to 24 kb/s and 20mb maximum
- Chat & Surf – £12.99, throttled to 830 kb/s and 150mb maximum
- Wi-Fi Max – £29.99, throttled to 850 kb/s and 500mb maximum
All packages are valid for the whole flight. The pricing is a little punchy, especially given the data cap. Whilst they are comparable to BA pricing, I was given a free 700mb code on my Aer Lingus flight recently and Qatar Airways lets you purchase full-flight wifi for just $10.
Food and service in Virgin Atlantic Upper Class
As always, and whatever the age of the seat, the Virgin Atlantic service always makes up for it. A welcome drink is offered once you sit down, with a choice of water, orange juice or champagne; in this case Champagne Ayala Brut Majeur which retails for around £28 per bottle.
After take-off, another round of drinks is made and you are also given a small pretzel snack:
A menu is provided at your seat and the crew come round taking orders. On the outbound flight to Austin this consists of a main meal served after take-off followed by a variety of ‘Extra Bites’ that you can order on demand up to 40 minutes before landing.
The good news is that, unlike BA, Virgin Atlantic is back to its proper, individually served meal service. The bad news is that Virgin Atlantic is also experiencing crew shortages and so some flights are going out with fewer staff than normal. This can lead to longer meal service times – totally fine for a day flight but less ideal for an overnighter.
I went for the delicious hot smoked salmon starter:
For my main course, I opted for the garlic and ginger prawns in a thai green curry, which was surprisingly spicy. I loved it, but I know not everyone can take the heat and there’s no indication on the menu that it is spicy.
And finally, for dessert, an apple and blackberry crumble:
Cheese and port is also available for anyone who still hungry.
(Rob’s edit: as Rhys hasn’t flown BA Club World recently, you’ll need to take my word for it that the difference between the food above and the one tray ‘mini portions’ Club World meal I had on my flight to Mauritius last month is immense.)
For the extra bites, options included cream tea, a BBQ pulled pork bun, warm crab cakes and a superfood salad. Here is the cream tea:
It appears as if the Eric Lanlard x Virgin Atlantic collaboration has ended because there was no mention of him in the menu.
Just before landing the crew also come round with a bowl of Love Hearts, which is a bit of a throw back!
What about the bar?
As on all its aircraft, Virgin’s 787 fleet features a social space – in this case a bar – between Upper Class and Premium. This was a press flight so the bar was (naturally) rammed with alcohol-dependent journalists, so here is a stock photo:
The bar isn’t normally staffed – floating cabin crew will help if you need a drink – and I think I actually prefer the ‘Loft’ social space on the A350s, which is more like a lounge and more conducive to chatting to others. It does feel as if the bar was a bit of an afterthought on the 787.
How is Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class seat?
Whilst it was an impressive seat when it was first introduced in 2003, with the novelty of direct aisle access for everyone, the product is getting a little dated these days. It may beat BA’s yin-yang Club World but Virgin Atlantic can’t rest on its laurels because British Airways is rapidly rolling out Club Suite across the fleet.
For me, the biggest annoyances were the lack of privacy and difficulty seeing out of the window when seated – you really have to crane your neck. I also struggled with the lack of decent seat storage and the length and size of the bed.
It is time for Virgin Atlantic to rip these seats out and replace them with something new. The timing is right – Virgin Atlantic is about to unveil a new seat for the A330neos arriving later this year. That seat, whatever it may be, would fit into the fuselage of a Boeing 787 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a refurbishment program at some point.
Head for Points made a financial contribution to the Woodland Trust as part of this trip. The Woodland Trust creates and manages forests in the UK in accordance with the Woodland Carbon Code.
How to earn Virgin Points from UK credit cards (December 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):
You can also earn Virgin Points from various American Express cards – and these have sign-up bonuses too.
American Express Preferred Rewards Gold is FREE for a year and comes with 20,000 Membership Rewards points, which convert into 20,000 Virgin Points.
SPECIAL OFFER: Until 9th January 2024, you will receive 30,000 Membership Rewards points (convertible to 30,000 Avios) with American Express Preferred Rewards Gold. You receive 25,000 points if you spend £3,000 in three months and a further 5,000 points if you hold the card for 15 months. You can apply here.
The Platinum Card from American Express comes with 30,000 Membership Rewards points, which convert into 30,000 Virgin Points.
SPECIAL OFFER: Until 9th January 2024, you will receive a huge 100,000 Membership Rewards points (convertible to 100,000 Avios) with The Platinum Card. You receive 75,000 points if you spend £10,000 in six months and a further 25,000 points if you hold the card for 15 months. You can apply here.
Small business owners should consider the two American Express Business cards. Points convert at 1:1 into Virgin Points.
(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.)