Virgin Atlantic LHR-LAX: Jolly Good Show

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  • Anonymous
    Guest

    VintageKrug
    Participant

    The Prologue

    I have been collecting VS miles for many years. When Virgin Atlantic first started out, I preferred them to BA, principally because they had (tiny) seat back TVs and served ice cream on board, as well as for their innovative Mid Class offering.

    A fair chunk of last year’s spending went on my newly acquired mbna VS Amex, meaning I had an embarrassment of VS miles which need to be used up.

    Obviously, the downside with VS redemptions is that there is no exEU option, nor is there the possibility to add on additional sector once you reach to US (as is the case with most other “alliance” schemes).

    Another negative is the fact that VS seem to block off mileage seats for Friday departures exUK, and Sunday departures exUS for many of their routes, though I am told these are available if you try hard enough.

    West Coast is a good option for VS flights; a nice lengthy trip, and a choice of A340 and 747 aircraft depending on which hub SFO or LAX you prefer.

    Of course redeeming outbound is much the best plan as you get to use the simply superb VS Clubhouse, which knocks socks off most international F lounges, despite being a Business Lounge.

    Another downside of VS I noted is the extra high taxes and fees costs of redeeming one way verses round trip; so always worth being aware of this if you choose (or can only stretch to) a one way redemption.

    So, with 50k Flying Club Miles, and having not yet flown on an A340, I plumped for a one way Saturday morning departure to LA.

    Terminal 3

    My last experience of T3 was less than satisfactory, TWA as I recall, and memorably awful.

    BAA have invested in T3, and Virgin is one of the principle beneficiaries of this, and naturally wasted no opportunity to capitalise on this, a massive Virgin sign taking ownership of the whole building:

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3204/3034344042_4326a5857d.jpg

    On fully flex fares, you get a complimentary chauffeur transport using Tristar Cars. You can pay some additional miles (I think 10k) for this service, but given a minicab costs £30 from Central London, it is hardly worth doing.

    Check In

    I checked in online at home, printing out some worthwhile money off vouchers for use in the terminal and off on board Duty Free.

    Walked into the terminal and straight up to the check in agents, who smiled, but did keep talking amongst themselves which wasn’t ideal.

    http://photolibrary.baa.com/netpub/server.np?original=32049&site=BAAPL&catalog=baapl

    Check in was over in a jiffy, and I was directed up the staircase to the exclusive Upper Class Wing. I think I could have taken the main escalator, but decided instead to trundle round the main ground floor check in area for a “look around”.

    American Airlines check in was an unholy scrum; horrid.

    Everything else was quiet at that time in the morning, the BA/QF check in is at the absolute far end away from Virgin, and suffers from the limitations of this low ceilinged terminal.

    Walked upstairs and walked along the main pre-security shopping mall; security looked busy, but I just kept walking and scanned my BP (scanner was unattended – why can’t BAA facilitate this at T5 for Fast Track??) which allowed access to the Upper Class wing.

    The Upper Class Wing

    Once through the automated sliding door, I was immediately struck by the quiet calm, in contrast to the hubbub of the main terminal. The flooring, lighting and decor were transformed from 1980s Britain to something sophisticated and contemporary.

    I had arrived in the Upper Class Wing!

    Ahead of me was the deserted reception for those being dropped off by Tristar cars – obviously very few fully flex travellers checking in at this time, as it was deserted.

    It looked nice; a circular parking bay around an impressive sculpture; nicely done .

    http://www.virgin-atlantic.com/tridion/images/upperclass_tcm4-627420.gif

    I returned back to the manned ticket check and passed through the single dedicated UC security lane.

    Was through security in seconds, and while efficient those manning the systems were not particularly chirpy, some scowling and miserable, leading to rather loud stage whispers about this from a grey-leather shoe wearing UC customer. Shame and rather embarrassing.

    BA’s New Galleries

    Decided to potter along and have a look see at the new Galleries lounge in T3, using Open Doors Gold Card access.

    http://www.businesstraveller.com/files/News-images/BA/BA-T3-lounge-1.jpg

    Impressive, with friendly lounge dragons exchanging banter about my defection to the “other side” as I proffered my VS ticket..

    Plenty of really excellent art – next time you are in T5, take some time to look out for the BA Art Collection, it really is top notch and the descriptive blurb is very well written.

    Plenty of original BA posters from the early BOAC and Imperial Airways days, always fun to have look at those.

    http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/images/cabinetpapers/he7a03-0004953-main.jpg

    There is a nice view towards the Royal Suite, quite a bit of Swarowski crystal and a Silver Bar as is the case in T5.

    More PCs than could possibly be needed, although I would prefer this were liberally spread about the lounge rather than bunched up in one place.

    http://www.businesstraveller.com/files/News-images/BA/BA-T3-lounge-4.jpg

    There is also a Galleries First and Elemis Spa/Shower Suite but this is not normally accessible under Open Doors (I was allowed a peep, however, and it was about the same size as the regular Galleries Lounge, with a superb Gold Bar and plenty of JW Blue and Bolly on offer).


    VintageKrug
    Participant

    The Virgin Clubhouse

    This is the stuff myths are made of; the hallowed Holy of Holies in terms of UK business lounges, and gives many an F lounge a run for its money.

    While some criticise Virgin’s on board experience, the lounge really is mostly faultless and one of the ways Virgin successfully differentiates itself from the competition.

    Here is a good interactive tour of the facility:

    http://www.virgin-atlantic.com/en/us/whatsonboard/clubhouses/lhrclubhouse.jsp

    I had delibrately arrived early (7am at T3) for my 1100 departure in order to get plenty of time “lounging” and was very pleased I did.

    From my first experience to the last, this lounge is just splendiferous!

    I last flew VS on a paid UC ticket in 2005 on a last minute winter trip to Jackson Hole and Las Vegas for £1350 rtn. Back then, the lounge was still good, but had not yet been renovated.

    The new lounge seems larger, but essential takes up the same floorplan as the old facility.

    http://www.key2holidays.co.uk/images/resource/content/Virgin_HeathrowLounge.jpg

    It is a tad tricky to find, as the signage is not as good as it could be in T3, but once through the shops it is quite a short walk to reach the sweeping staircase to the lounge.

    The receptionist was standing up (a good tip to maintain engagement with customers, as is practicesd by BA at the Concorde Room White Door) and had more the air of a host, welcoming me to the lounge and checking everything connected with my VS experience had gone well so far.

    Lounge Facilities

    Starting with the waterfall against one end of the lounge to the open air space upstairs, the library and the pool table this is a very “Tracey Island” experience.

    Plenty of different environments to experience, so I will summarise each. Might be worth viewing this video to give you a flavour of the space as photos don’t really do it justice:

    http://virginatlantic.digitalnewsagency.com/story/view/168-virgin-atlantic-clubhouse/video

    As you walk in you can leave your heavier bags at the concierge desk, and also have your shoes polished.

    I walked straight over to the spa reception desk and I had emailed ahead (tip: this is well worth doing!) to reserve a treatment.

    Had this massage straight away; frankly it was the only not so good experience; the girl was quite “light touch” it was reasonably noisy and not very re-invigorating at all.

    Instead you can get a facial or haircut; I would advise you get one of these, as the massage was a waste of time.

    Do bring your swimshorts as there is a steamroom and jacuzzi; I had not remembered to bring mine and although I normally enjoy a pre-flight shower, there was plenty to keep me occupied so I did not sample these options. Next time!

    Off now to the Library, which is really a business centre space, with a few laptops; WiFi is free throughout the space.

    Next to the Library is the Games Room, with a pool table (!) and table football plus some video games etc.

    On the mezzanine above the Games Room is a relaxation zone with a few pod-like beds which gave massage etc; again despite three hours to spare I didn’t get round to sampling this, as I had some calls to make.

    Above the mezzanine is a dodgy looking staircase, but press on and through the emergency door and you are out on to the roof of T3!

    A superb wooden decked terrace with some furniture, and where I lingered watching the planes and making some calls for quite a while.

    A real pleasure to get some fresh air pre-flight, even if it was laced with kerosene!

    Back downstairs to the restaurant, with table service and some of the nicest wait staff I have ever encountered. Genuinely smiley, seemed happy in their jobs; one said she had been there over ten years.

    Yummy Eggs Benedict (though only one!) and a Buck’s Fizz, though not as good as the excellent T5 Plane Food Eggs Benedict which I urge you to try.

    In fact, I think that overall that was my lasting impression of the lounge; some really fun, happy people showing off a product in which they are confident and of which they are truly proud.

    Hadn’t yet visited the Bar, and although there was a glass partition between the main lounge and the windows out onto the apron, I decided to sit at the bar for a sly cocktail, pre-flight.

    I thought I would check out the “Stoic Virgin” Akvinta vodka cocktail which was delicious and highly recommended!

    http://i.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/01002/vrigin-club-lounge_1002667c.jpg

    No proper celebs in the lounge, but one of the older paparazzi photographers from “Airport” was lingering in the lounge trying to chat up one of the hostesses.

    Swiped a bottle of water and a some elderflower concoction for later enjoyment, and headed off out to find the gate.

    10/10


    VintageKrug
    Participant

    The Upper Class Cabin

    I had decided upon 4k as my seat of choice; the A340-600 is in 1-1-1 configuration.

    The best seats are those which face onto a low “wall”, being the back of the middle row of seats. These middle seats switch direction half way down the UC cabin, effectively dividing the cabin into two. Choose the rear cabin if you want to keep an eye on the Upper Class Bar.

    http://c0170351.cdn.cloudfiles.rackspacecloud.com/18493_6125_m.jpg

    4k is one of the furthest forward of these wall facing seats, there are two seats ahead of the this (2k and 3k) but I decided against these as 2k was too close to the loo, and I wanted some distance from that, but to not be too far away from the galley (way back in the middle of the aircraft).

    This was a good choice and one I would not have changed; the seats do look a tad cramped and narrow, and I find the proximity of the shoulder high divider quite claustrophobic.

    Note that the Upper Class Suites which were on the Upper Deck 747 are slightly longer than those on the A340.

    There was ample priority boarding so no need to line up, but no escort to seat and was largely left to my own devices for about ten minutes until I was offered some champers. Lanson as I recall.

    There is plenty of stowage space and a small bag into which you can put your shoes which contained some nice socks (which can be re-used as regular everyday socks) and ear plugs and eye mask.

    Additional items were offered from a bowl; I chose a mini-silver pen, Polo mints, lip balm and moisturiser (both excellent) and toothbrush and toothpaste.

    A flight suit was proffered; though I didn’t want to change into it, I needed one for my return on UA in F as they don’t provide them.

    Steward looked like the guy from Rentaghost:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/threecounties/content/images/2006/01/11/rentaghost__470_04_470x353.jpg

    He was obviously professional, but did not radiate warmth or attempt to get to know any passengers.

    Despite being VS Silver I had no contact with the Cabin Services Director throughout the flight.

    Desperately needed to pee after take off, but ot takes ges for these underpowered A340s to reach cruising altitude and was 20 mins before I could go, only to find the crew had not unlocked the loo after take off leading to an embarrassing plea to a stewardess to do the necessary and unlock a lav!


    VintageKrug
    Participant

    The Seat

    Seat is still OK, a little chipped round the edges; the table is solid and good for working on, the little drinks tray is precarious and it’s easy to spill things.

    Perfectly OK, but did feel more Premium Economy to me when in seat mode, and not an environment I would want to sit in for 24 hours on a Sydney hop for instance.

    The diamonte accents throughout the cabin were a fun touch at the time, in an Austin Powers way, but now are beginning to look rather dated.

    The mood lighting worked well throughout and gve the cabin a sophisticated feel.

    IFE is as ever superb, with the ability to pre-programme your planned viewing schedule so no need to scarbble round every time a show ends and decide what to watch.

    Was spoiled for choice as usual on VS.

    Food and Drinks

    I am sorry to say VS recycle their menus, so I cannot tell you what was on the menu; he nicked mine before I could ask to retain it.

    It is also alleged that they recycle their sleep suits, so watch out for embarassing stains…

    The wines are pretty standard on VS; lots of California and Chardonnay, and nothing really stands out; I ended up sticking to champagne and Buck’s Fizz.

    Champers did run out about five hours into the flight, but after locating the CSD and making it clear this was not acceptable, some was located for me, probably from the return sector stock. There was plenty of Sparkling Wine in evidence so make sure of what you are getting served.

    One big plus is the dine anytime offering. I think I was the only person who opted for this; don’t think the Steward was too pleased I asked for this option, but he didn’t *say* anything, just a body language issue.

    Having had a brekky already in the Clubhouse I needed to wait for another offering, and enjoyed a lovely and tasty soup followed by Steak Pie about which I cannot complain at all.

    Pottered over to the Bar post sups, but it was as it always seems to be populated by a boring looking accountant types chatting up the stewardesses and a slutty looking female pax, so thought I would leave them to it!

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v496/Fatmonkey/Budget%20Airlines/Virgin%20Atlantic/Virginbar.jpg

    The usual faff over changing over the bed for a nap, though I did sleep almost too well, getting three hours on this 11h flight. A real hassle removing all your drinks and setting up all the matressing etc, trying not to knock you drink form the mini drinks tray which is stupidly in the way of the converting seat and also trying to keep the seatbelt from jamming the mechanism.

    Some nasty looking sandwiches were available for nibbling, and I asked for something mid flight, really just to try it out, but that never arrived.

    Afternoon Tea was offered pre-landing. Crap, dry sarnies and no second tea round; the crew were obviously getting tired and standards were slipping.

    Arrival

    Lovely landing over LA, always best to sit on the North facing k side (on both BA and VS) as you don’t get afflicted with bright sunlight and get a nice view of the Hollywood Hills on descent over LA.

    LAX

    Gentle landing and there we were; A340 deffo MUCH quieter in flight than a 747, hardly needed my Bose NC Headphones.

    Usual LAX taxiiing shenanigans and waiting to be towed into the gate; saw a BA plane at a remote stand whcih seems to be quite normal, and was pleased that we landed at (T2?) not the God awful TBIT Tom Bradley Terminal.

    TBIT was being renovated when last I went through in 2008 on Lufty and was shocking, hot and very Third World.

    T2? was a dream and was first in line for immigration (a few minutes later and my story wouldhave been different, as an AirNZ and another Chinese? 747 arrived, swamping immigration).

    Bags were prioritised within five minutes and out into the LA air.

    Verdict

    Flying Club is a good scheme for those not needing to travel on Fridays, miles were easily earned via the MBNA Amex cc, with several good promos and also 15% Membership Rewards bonuses operating (I think this is on right now BTW).

    Liked the ability to pre-book a treatment via email, the check-in, dedicated security and Clubhouse, and really fun to boot, but to be fair VS is only dealing with longhaul pax, with no alliance contamination and so volumes are significantly smaller than BAs.

    Massage was the only downside to the lounge experience; will avoid next time.

    On board, crew seemed perfunctory but professional, no real complaints. Stewardesses were very, um, pneumatic….

    Food was better than expected, wines significantly less good than when I last travelled with them, and was shocked they could run out of ‘poo.

    Seat is not my favourite, but IFE makes up for it. It is super as a bed, but a faff to convert.

    Was pleased we didn’t arrive into TBIT, and overall enjoyed my business class Upper Class experience, which held up well against CW, but was not a patch on BA’s First against which Virgin attempts to position its significantly less good product.


    Bullfrog
    Participant

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading the detailed summary.

    When travelling alone, the UC seat is ideal compared to BA CW but equally, the UC is not ideal when travelling in ‘twos’.

    Your last point on comparing BA F to VS UC is misleading. UC & CW are ‘business products’ & BA F is a much higher price point.

    However that comparison is evidence that the UC product beats BA F & CW for sleeping and value for money if a discounted ticket can be purchased.


    VintageKrug
    Participant

    Glad you enjoyed the report.

    I was comparing BA’s F as Sir Richard often positions Upper Class as a First Class product, which is certainly is not.

    It does stack up well against other carrier’s Business Class offerings, though the benefits are largely seen on the ground (and mainly in the London hubs at that).

    I am not a fan of the Upper Class Suite, primarily as it feels narrow and you must get up and fiddle around in order to set up the bed, a feature which is most annoying when you decide a snooze has turned into a proper sleep…..


    Binman62
    Participant

    I walked straight over to the spa reception desk and I had emailed ahead (tip: this is well worth doing!) to reserve a treatment.

    BA……Please please take note……..It is ludicrius that you cannot book a spa treatment if flying First and using the Concorde room. Having to hope that every tom dick and gold card have not got there before you is rather annoying. Also makes the First help desk pointless as I have only ever had this request and they can never help.

    VK excellent review


    Fastflyer
    Participant

    I have just booked two Upper Class reward flights to LAX departing on a Friday in September, kept checking each week to see if available which was a bit of a drag compared to the excellent BA Miles system, but in the end it paid off. I have moved our seats based on VK’s excellent review.

    I have experienced champagne running out a couple of hours into a flight with Virgin before, you would think they would learn. But that was on a return to the UK flight so perhaps VK had been on the outbound flight 🙂


    RoadKing
    Participant

    VK:

    Thank you for an interesting review!


    VintageKrug
    Participant

    Could well have been me on the outbound drinking up the supplies! 😉

    What a trip back to Blighty just now! Trains, Planes and Automobiles (except without the planes!).


    MartynSinclair
    Participant

    VK you are going soft – writing a thesis on Virgin. Great report but wonders never cease – VK flying Virgin!!!


    VintageKrug
    Participant

    Well, I fly lots of airlines, being top tier in all three major alliances, earned through flying in oneworld and Star and comped to Flying Blue Platinum after I suggested they might like to offer me that status before my recent AF flights.

    I am only lowly Silver on Virgin, but unlike others I also earned that through flights as well.

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