Tried & Tested

Flight review: Virgin Atlantic B787 Dreamliner Upper Class London-Austin

22 Jun 2022 by Hannah Brandler
Austin, Texas, Wednesday 8 June 2022: Virgin Atlantic marks the launch of its new direct services between London Heathrow and Austin – the airline’s first new route to the US since 2017. Sir Richard Branson, Juha Jarvinen, Chief Commercial Officer at Virgin Atlantic and Mukesh (Mookie) Patel, Airport Chief Officer at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport were joined by the airline’s iconic cabin crew to celebrate.

Background

I travelled from London Heathrow to Austin in early June to celebrate the recent launch of the new route. While it was not the inaugural trip (the route launched on May 25), it certainly felt like it, with Texan flags, themed cocktails and cowboy hats to mark the occasion – plus a greeting from Sir Richard Branson as we disembarked the plane.

The Austin route marks Virgin’s first new route to the US since 2017. It is currently a four-times-weekly service operated by a B787 Dreamliner aircraft, configured with 31 Upper Class, 35 Premium and 192 economy seats. There are plans to increase this to daily from spring 2023. 

VS231 departs London Heathrow at 1135, arriving into Austin-Bergstrom International at 1605. The return flight departs Austin at 1805, arriving into London at 0900 the following day. This is a review of the outbound daytime flight, though I have included notes about the return night flight too.

Check-in

Given the recent airport chaos, I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 at 0900, two and a half hours early, to avoid a last-minute film-style run through the airport. I was able to use the Upper Class check-in queue in Zone A, and a staff member checked my documents in the queue – at the time you needed proof of a negative Covid-19 test and vaccine certificate. A Fly Ready sticker was attached to my passport (I couldn’t use the service online ahead of getting to the airport) which meant that the time at the check-in desk was shortened.

I was seen by 0924 and headed to the private Upper Class security wing, located upstairs from ground-floor departures. Passengers need to scan their boarding pass to gain entry. There is one lane of security here, but it is extremely speedy and stress-free.

Virgin Atlantic B787-9

The lounge

Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse is located at lounge H, and there’s a lift or stairs which take you to the reception from the main concourse of the terminal. As I was part of a press trip, we were located in a cordoned-off section and enjoyed a buffet of US-inspired items such as sliders and icing-heavy cupcakes. There was Champagne flowing, but it was early so I opted for a tea, some fruit and delicious pastries. At 1050 we left the lounge and made our way to gate 18, which was around a 10-15 minute walk from the lounge.

Boarding

Boarding at 1115 was smooth as most passengers had already taken their seats on the plane. I may have photo (or rather video-) bombed some of the footage for Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport, which ITV was filming across the terminal. As I stepped onto the Olivia Rae-named plane, there was an air of excitement and smiling flight attendants were in good spirits.

Flight Review: Virgin Atlantic B787-9 Dreamliner Upper Class New Delhi to London Heathrow

The seat

The Upper Class cabin is located to the left as you board the plane, at the front of the aircraft, with Zodiac UCS3 seats arranged in a 1-1-1 configuration (A-G-K) in a herringbone layout.

All seats have direct aisle access, with row A located next to the window on the left, Row G in the centre and Row K on the right-hand side. The Virgin website has a helpful 3D tour.

Seats in Row A have their own aisle and face the back wall of the G seats, while G and K seats are angled towards each other. My first thought was that it was a shame that none of the seats face the window, both for privacy and view benefits – you have to crane your neck to experience the blue sky views during the flight.

Virgin Atlantic B787 drinks table

All seats featured the sustainable ‘goodie bag’ amenity kit, made from recycled kraft paper and containing bamboo toothbrushes, toothpaste, ear plugs, a satin eye mask, socks, Ren toiletries and a pen. There was also a menu for inflight dining, and canned still water (in keeping with the eco ethos) on the small drinks table – this is a little too far back and had me worried that my shoulder would nudge the drink onto my lap.

There’s a button to flip the seat over to become a fully-flat bed, and this provided a very comfortable sleeping experience during my return journey. I made up the bed myself, but passengers can also request help from staff. The bedding includes a white cover blanket for the mattress, a duvet and pillow, all of which are located in a bag behind the seat when it is upright.

Virgin Atlantic B787 fully-flat bed

Below the touchscreen IFE monitor there is a universal plug socket next to the handheld remote. The screen also has a USB socket, which was useful for charging my phone throughout the journey. Wifi is available for a fee, but I found it to be quite temperamental as it is with most airlines.

For dining, there is a button to make the table pop out from the left-hand wall. The table then lifts up and over, and you can slide it back and forth. This is useful as it means that you can still get up to go to the toilet, or reach for your bag, without having to stow the table.

The downside is that the TV monitor, which you can move from its position on the left-hand wall to in front of you, can be quite fiddly when you have the table open with food on it. It’s best to make sure you have the screen ready for your optimum viewing position before your food arrives, otherwise it’s very difficult to get it into place without knocking the contents onto your lap.

Virgin Atlantic B787 Austin

There isn’t a huge amount of storage – there’s a thin magazine holder where you’ll find the headphones, and you can fit a small bag under the footstool for take-off and landing.

There are no toilets for passengers at the front of the aircraft, but there are two located on either side of the aircraft between Upper Class and Premium Economy with a curtain drawn diagonally across the corridor to divide the cabins – people in Upper also used the two Premium WCs when the former were busy.

There’s a small bar between Upper and Premium Economy, which was a social hotspot during the flight, with most people stood (there are only four stools) enjoying cocktails and chats about the imminent destination.

Best seat

I was really happy with seat 5A as it was easily accessible and felt more private than the G and K seats which are angled towards each other. Row A also has a less busy aisle you only share it with 11 passengers rather than 20.

I would avoid seats at the front as you will be close to where flight attendants prepare food so it can be quite noisy. Likewise, the seats towards the back of the cabin are close to the bar, which are good for nosy eavesdroppers but not ideal for travellers that want a peaceful nap or night’s sleep. Seats midway are therefore preferable.

The flight

A welcome drink was brought around as soon as we boarded, which was a choice of orange juice or Champagne Alaya, Brut Majeur Champagne, France (Virgin also serves Hambledon English sparkling wine).

There was an air traffic control delay so we took off at 1211 (rather than 1145) but made up the time en-route to Austin.

The IFE has a decent selection of both popular and recent movies organised by alphabetical order or user rating, the latter of which is handy. My flight had a total of 116 films along with 511 TV options and 89 audio programmes. There are also destination guides, although not yet for Austin.

I only watched half of a film during the trip, when I was having lunch, as I spent most of the time working and chatting to fellow passengers and friendly cabin crew.

There was turbulence halfway through the flight so those boozing at the bar had to return to their seats. I was lying down at this point but didn’t succeed to sleep as my body was still in daytime mode. The bed was very comfortable though, and I made great use of it on the return overnight flight when I slept for four hours without disruption.

The windows don’t have blinds but instead are electronically dimmable, with a button to manage the transparency of the window. Virgin also has purple-hued lighting, setting the mood for night flights.

Virgin Atlantic B787 windows

Food and drink

Lunch orders were taken at 1330, with an option of two starters, three main courses and two desserts as well as a cheese course with Port. The menu was as follows:

Starters

Hot smoked salmon with beetroot tartare, horseradish cream and sorrel cress

Grilled asparagus and artichoke with chive mayonnaise, rocket and parmesan salad 

Mains

Breaded chicken breast filled with garlic truffle butter, potato terrine, wilted greens and parsley sauce

Garlic and ginger prawns, Thai green curry sauce, sticky rice and bok choi

Fig and goat’s cheese tart with Mediterranean vegetables and romesco sauce

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class B787 Austin F&B

Desserts

Passionfruit and chocolate dome with raspberry coulis and coconut vanilla ice cream

Warm apple and blackberry crumble with fresh cream

The drinks menu includes wines sourced from London’s wine merchants Jeroboams, alcohol-free Three Spirit drinks, some refreshing cocktails and a large selection of Teapigs teas. I was travelling in June and the airline was celebrating English Wine Week by serving Folc rosé from a multi-award-winning English wine producer. See photo below.

Virgin Wine List

My table was laid within five minutes of ordering, complete with the fun Virgin salt and pepper shakers and a plate with butter. A crewmember came around with delicious rosemary rolls, and my first course arrived at 1404.

The hot smoked salmon was a lovely starter, but I was less impressed with the tart as a main. The pastry was very soggy, and, while tasty, the romesco sauce didn’t complement the flavours of the tart.

The main was redeemed by the delicious crumble. Alongside my dinner, I enjoyed the Paloma cocktail – a Texas classic made with Tequila, grapefruit juice, salt and lime. Passengers were also offered ice lollies half an hour after dinner.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class B787 Austin F&B

On Virgin dayflights, customers can also order ‘extra bites’ up until 40 minutes before landing. This flight included Texan-themed fare such as chicken sliders, butternut squash tacos, and tortilla chips with guacamole and salsa – I opted for the latter as I wasn’t that hungry and it made for a perfect pre-arrival snack.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class B787 Austin F&B

Arrival

We were offered love hearts before landing, which was a fun touch, and we landed at 1537 local time (20 minutes ahead of schedule).

While Richard Branson joined the crew for a photoshoot, passengers made their way to immigration. The ground staff stopped passengers before baggage control, only allowing those with hand luggage to proceed.

I was one of the lucky few and made it out within five minutes. Those with hold luggage, on the other hand, were left to wait in a stuffy corridor for almost an hour as the terminal only had one baggage carousel for international flights and it was still serving a different flight.

Thankfully the “hand-luggage crew” waited on an air-conditioned bus, complete with a cooler filled with icy water bottles to see us through the 40 degree heat.

Austin airport

Verdict

Virgin’s Upper Class is a fun and luxurious experience – from the excellent Clubhouse facilities and ease of private security at the airport to the friendly and social service on board.

The seats in Upper Class are comfortable but lack privacy, particularly in rows G and K, and it seems a waste to miss out on the beautiful views due to the angling of the seats.

Nonetheless, the seat lends itself to a comfortable fully-flat sleeping experience on overnight flights while the buzzy bar area caters to night-owls.

Fact box

Flight duration

9 hours and 45 minutes

Configuration

1-1-1

Seat length

79.5

Seat width

22 inches

Price

Internet rates in August for a one-way business class London-Austin flight start at £5,954.

Contact

virginatlantic.com

For more information on Austin, see our feature:

Austin: Wired city

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