I travelled with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to San Francisco in early September 2015. I arrived by car to the Upper Class Upper Class wing at just after 9:20am for my 12pm flight. Despite difficulty in gaining access to the private road up to the wing (I literally had to shout my name and flight details over the tannoy to be granted access), on arrival, my suitcase was immediately taken from me and an attendant took me straight over to a check-in counter. I did feel special and more like arriving at an upscale hotel rather tha.n an airport, which I assume is the intention. I was asked what flight I was travelling on and then whether I was travelling to the U.S. using a visa or ESTA. I was also asked if I had used the private wing before and, when I replied that I had not, was shown the directions to the Virgin security line where I was warmly welcomed. Within 20 minutes, I was through security and duty free and had booked two spa treatments (one of which was complementary). As I had about an hour and 15 minutes prior to departure, I wanted to get some breakfast from the main seated dining area.
The seated dining experience wasn't great. I asked an attendant if there was space and was (quite rudely) pointed to a table in the middle of the dining area. It took several minutes for anyone to acknowledge my presence, however, a waitress seemed quite apologetic when I told her I had been waiting for some time and quickly brought me some water and took my food order of Egg Royale and fruit salad. A couple of minutes later another waitress checked up on me and I ordered a Kir Royale. I then visit the deli where there was a very good range of smoked salmon, breads and fruit smoothies available – an incredibly spicy Bloody Mary was brought to me on request!
I then went to Bumble & Bumble saloon for my treatments and a Virgin speciality cocktail at the bar. I tried the 'Virgin Redhead’, which was great and went down a little too easily! By the time I had finished my cocktail, a boarding announcement had already been made. Departure was from Gate 19.
There was a delay at the gate as passengers were no longer being let into the gate area due to overcrowding. After a several minute wait, my passport and boarding pass were checked and Upper Class passengers were allowed straight on to the aircraft. There was a very warm welcome onboard and I made my way to Seat 16A, which is the fourth seat from the front/nose in the forward part of the cabin. Given that the Virgin hard product has been reviewed extensively elsewhere I will focus on the service aspects of this flight for the purposes TV my view. Three immediate observations were: (I) the cabin appeared to be very spacious – I think this is helped by the herringbone layout and 1-1 layout in the nose; (ii) the cabin looked a little tired – perhaps understandable given that this was a 747-400 which is due for retirement in the near future; and (iii) it was a huge relief to effectively have an overhead compartment for myself, rather than the usual scramble for hand baggage space. Quite surprisingly, there was no power point available to me to charge my phone, although after an initial request and then a polite reminder, I was brought a charger.
An announcement was made at 12:22; refuelling was complete and the flight length would be just over 10.5 hours. The flight was delayed but most of her time should be made up in flight. The captain (Steve Chambers) then made a short announcement to say that the flying conditions were good and it should be a clear and pleasant afternoon in San Francisco on our arrival. The flight door was closed at 12:25 and there was a request for seat belts to be fastened. I did laugh out loud when the cabin crew offered additional pre- departure drinks on the basis that they would otherwise be thrown away! Not the rationale I was anticipating! There were a further announcement to state that there were 328 passengers and 18 crew onboard. The safety video was then displayed (for those that aren't familiar, it is in a cartoon comedy style currently, which I personally find quite distracting from the underlying safety message!).The taxi was uneventful, although it was interesting to see the Ethiopian aircraft 'The Mount Kilimanjaro' and a Qantas A380 in 'Go Wallabies' livery.
Shortly after take off a menu was distributed. Drinks orders were taken and the crew gave a small bowl of crisps to each passenger.The service throughout the meal service was excellent and very attentive.
I liked the fact that the inflight entertainment contained videos by Berry Bros relating to the wine being served onboard. The champagne being served was a Gardet Brut Premier Cru and there were three whites and three red wines on offer. The white wines available were:
– 2013 Domaine Landrat-Guyollot, Pouilly Fume, La Rambarde, Loire, France
– 2013 Limoux Blac “Peyre Jac” Chardonnay, Ch.D’Antugnac, France
– 2013 Valdibella Isolno, Cattarrato Extra Lucido, Sicily, Italy. Red wines were also obviously available, but I didn't try any.
The lunch service comprised:
– Starters (Leek and potato soup; prawn, avocado and tomato tian; and tomato and mozzarella salad). I opted for the tian, which I thought was bordering on restaurant quality;
– Warm breads (Baby wholemeal; white kaiser and mixed seed)
– Main courses (fillet steak; free range roast chicken; Thai vegetable curry and salmon fishcake). I opted for the steak which was decent;
– Pudding (Warm brioche and butter pudding; white and dark chocolate cheesecake) – I was so full at this point that I skipped dessert; and
– Cheese and port (the three cheeses on offer were: Cropwell Bishop Blue stilton; Applewood Wedge Farmhouse cheddar; and a brie wedge – this was one of the highlights of the meal for me and was accompanied by a glass of port.
I had a flight of the white wines to enjoy with lunch which I very much enjoyed. The cabin crew very kindly arranged this as miniature wine tasting for me and brought out a table map with placeholders for three separate wine glasses.
Given that it was a long flight I managed to read and watch several TV programmes and a film on the Vera inflight entertainment system. The selection was not as good as many airlines I had travelled on recently but it was decent and kept me entertained for at least 6 hours. During the flight I visited the inflight bar, where the flight attendants were very chatty and we discussed various things including whether the recent ITV documentary was reflective of working at Virgin Atlantic – apparently it was! We also discussed the number of times that crew had visited various cities and their preferred routes (Lagos seemed to feature highly due to the short flight time and the limited time difference). We also discussed the different types of passengers that tend to fly on each route. It was also fun to meet some interesting and fun fellow passengers at the bar.
One thing that did differentiate Virgin from BA was that between the meals the crew spoke to each passenger individually to ask how they were doing and whether they would like any drinks or anything else to eat. I had a snack of a small warm spinach quiche served with olive and tomato salad – it was tasty and the right size to fill the gap between meals (the other 'extra bite' snack options were honey and soy chicken and classic gourmet beef burger). Cold charcuterie and samosas were also available.
Next up was the afternoon tea service. I was impressed and it was considerably better than its equivalent that I had experienced on US bound flights with BA. It was served about 100 minutes before landing after we had just passed Wyoming. The food selection comprised:
– A selection of sandwiches (smoked poached salmon; vintage cheddar cheese; seasoned free range egg mayonnaise);
– Warm scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam; and
– A selection of cakes (banana and passion cream slice; raspberry and orange Battenberg; and farmhouse cake).
I had a selection of all of the above, which I could not manage to finish! The afternoon was accompanied by the usual tea, coffee and juices.
There was an announcement made about 45 minutes prior to landing – we were passing over the Sierra Nevada mountains and were about 160 miles from Las Vegas. Landing was at about 3:30pm local time, which was 30 minutes later than scheduled. I disembarked using the forward left door on to an airbridge. We used a gate between an Air France and Emirates A380. Quite amazingly there was NO queue at all at US immigration and I walked straight up to an immigration officer, who was surprisingly friendly and chatty. My bag arrived after anew minutes of waiting with the Upper Class tag still in place. It was then a short walk to BART, which I found is often the easiest wide to travel to San Francisco and the wider Bay Area.
Overall, this was a very solid experience. The VA Clubhouse was busy but, in my opinion, it it well ahead of the BA lounges (including the First Lounge and possibly even the Concorde Room). As much as I love 747s the plane was really showing its age, and I will definitely try and book a 787 the next time I travel with VS. I was impressed with the crew's professionalism and engagement and the quality and quantity of food available. Without any doubt this trip was the best arrivals experience I've ever had at a U.S. airport.