At the end of what has been for most of us a pretty awful year, it was good to have something to celebrate, even if it was a sort of commemoration as well.
As we have reported on the site, in common with many airlines, the Covid crisis has hastened the departure of the Boeing B747-400s from many aircraft fleets.
Virgin is no exception.
Before we get all teary-eyed (that happens a bit further down) we should say that retiring these aircraft is the right move. There are far more economical, efficient and advanced aircraft available – and Virgin has both the B787 and A350s already in its fleet with new seating on board many of them – you can read a review of the new Upper Class Suite below
And while there was a valedictory feel to the day, when I spoke with Corneel Koster, chief customer and operating Officer at the airline, he was heading off to take a Covid test ready to jump on a B787 for the inaugural to Islamabad, Pakistan, so the message was that Virgin Atlantic, after the worst year in its history, is looking forward in a determined manner, even while looking back for these few days to celebrate its history.
Some of the B747s being retired will stop flying altogether, although the aircraft on which the pop-up dining experience had been organized (called Pretty Woman, aircraft registration G-VROY) is, in fact, going to continue flying as a freighter (so any benefit to the environment from its retirement is going to have to wait).
Still, getting back to the point of the day, most of us will have happy memories flying on the B747-400, and for Virgin flyers – and there are many millions, there will always be a place in their heart for the jumbo jet.
This was a two-day event with the public day on Saturday selling tickets for £50 per attendee and the money going to charity. The Friday was reserved for some press and bloggers to attend. It gave the flight attendants a chance to practice for the three services being offered on the Saturday, though they were all so professional and superb they didn’t need much practice from what I saw.
Finding the Virgin Hanger at Heathrow isn’t easy, and nor is getting into it (passports required), but once inside and having been temperature-checked we were straight into the tour, with a welcome glass of Champagne upstairs on the B747 (lots of talk of ‘Bubbles in the bubble’) before being split into groups and walked around the aircraft, meeting the engineers, seeing inside the cargo hold and learning about the engines.
Of course, no matter how interesting an aircraft engine is (and they are marvels of ingenuity), nothing beats standing in one.
Back on board, there was the chance to walk up and down the aircraft and also investigate the crew rest area for the obligatory shot.
And then onto the flight desk to meet the UK’s first female jumbo pilot, Yvonne Kershaw, now happily retired, but relishing the opportunity to get back into the cockpit and talk us through just what all those buttons and switches do.
Then it was time to take our seats, where there were a few gifts – an amenity bag and a personal hygiene kit, as well as a pair of socks.
… then onto the food. The starter was Mozzerella and tomato with basil pesto and aged balsamic dressing.
It was quite odd being served food in such a familiar setting, yet with the view out of the window being the hanger. On the positive side, there was very little turbulence. the negative was that we couldn’t use the toilets and so had to walk down the gantry outside, accompanied by a member of staff, and use the facilities in the hanger.
For a main course I had Artichoke Tortellini with grilled artichoke and sage butter sauce. There were four choices in all, including Roast Atlantic Cod, Dingley Dell Pork Belly and Norfolk Roast Chicken.
Wine choices were a Lanson Tsarine Champagne. Whites were Gavi di Gavi Bric Sassi by Roberto Sarotto or Pulenta Estate, Finca La Zulema Chardonnay from Argentina. Reds were a Cotes du Rhone Villages and a Cantor Rojo Tempranillo.
Some lucky people had come from the underground, walking from Hatton Cross station, but I had the M25 on a Friday evening to look forward to, so no drinking, unfortunately.
(The dessert was a Lemon Dome with vanilla and coconut cream, raspberries and yuzu macaron. The cheese selection was cheddar, brie and stilton served with chutney, grapes and crackers).
It was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, however, to swop tales about previous trips on the aircraft, and look forward to travelling again some time in the new year, although with the pandemic and Brexit in the background, no one was making firm plans.
Everyone will have their own memories of flying with Virgin on a B747-400, whether it was a weekend in New York, a honeymoon in the Caribbean or that time you were unexpectedly upgraded and even managed to get a shoulder massage as part of the deal.
I remember flying home from Las Vegas in the premium economy cabin in the bubble upstairs and having such a good flight I couldn’t understand why people ever flew Upper Class. But then there were other trips when I sat at the bar in Upper Class for nearly the whole journey over to the U.S, talking with friends and making new ones.
The B747-400 was very special, but I think we’re all hoping for new memories on aircraft like Virgin’s A350-1000. Until I find myself on board again, I hope everyone at Virgin, past, present and future, has a good end to the New Year and a safe 2021.
I took lots of video of the day walking around the aircraft and you can see that on our Instagram page.