I travelled from London Heathrow to Cape Town in late January to celebrate the resumption of the carrier’s winter service. Virgin Atlantic formerly operated the route from 1999 until 2015. It resumed in November 2022 and will run until March 25, 2023.
The daily service is currently operated by the B787-9 Dreamliner aircraft, configured with 31 seats in Upper Class, 35 in premium economy and 198 in economy. The service has already been confirmed to return next winter from October 29, 2023.
VS478 departs London at 1740 and arrives in Cape Town at 0720 the following day. The return daytime flight (VS479) departs Cape Town at 1020 and arrives in London at 2015.
The timings will differ slightly for next year’s schedule, departing Heathrow at 1905 and arriving at 0845 the following day, with a return leg departing Cape Town at 1035 and arriving in London at 2030.
The route resumption complements Virgin’s existing year-round daily service from Heathrow to Johannesburg. British Airways is the only other airline to offer nonstop London-Cape Town flights.
Business Traveller spoke to Juha Jarvinen, Virgin Atlantic’s chief commercial officer, during the trip to get some insight into the new service.
“We stopped flying to Cape Town in 2015 because it was unprofitable. We were operating it with a different aircraft type [the A340-600 with four engines] which was quite high cost.
“[South Africa] is one of our core markets. We have very successful operations in Johannesburg – it is our fifth most profitable route in the whole network. What we wanted to do with Cape Town this time around is instead of operating year-round straight away, we go winter seasonal because that is when this region is most attractive to British tourists.
“We have much lower operational costs with new aircraft and, since the pandemic, a much more efficient company overall. We have full confidence that this will be profitable. Even though we currently have it as winter only, we always explore if there would be capability of having it year-round. The key thing for us is to secure this season and the next winter season.
The route has performed well since its debut in November, and there are plans to extend the season next year depending on performance.
“We’ve been operating with 82 per cent load factors [in the first two months that the airline has flown] which is extremely high for a new route. We see that similar demand for the rest of the season. We have already started selling next winter and it’s performing ahead of the forecast.
“It always takes a while for consumers to be aware that we are flying again. So far, it’s looking extremely promising for next year. We are targeting to extend next year’s season until spring 2024, but of course it’s subject to performance. We are here to stay, we are not doing this as a one season wonder. We see this as a long-term investment. Cape Town and Johannesburg are an integral part of our route portfolio.”
While Cape Town is regarded more as a leisure destination, Virgin is also seeing demand from business passengers.
“There’s a lot of film production here, but there’s also a lot of brand campaigns filmed in this region. It has the full production capability at a very low cost so it’s an attractive location for both photo and film shootings.
“We’ve also seen, since the pandemic, that many South African businesses have partially relocated to Cape Town from Johannesburg. For example, Investec [banking and wealth management group] is partially relocating here.
“The majority of the demand will be leisure, but we believe that as soon as we are more established on the route, there will be more business travellers as well. But it’s been more designed for the premium leisure traveller.”
And now for the review of the outbound service – a review of the daytime service will follow.
I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 at 1445 as I was checking in luggage and wanted to take advantage of the wonderful Clubhouse lounge. There are several desks in Zone A for those travelling in the premium cabins, and these are also open to Flying Club gold members and Delta One customers.
Check-in was quick and there is a dedicated lift to the right of the desks which takes you straight up to the Upper Class security wing, where you scan your boarding card to enter. The single lane of security was empty and speedy to get through. It took just over 15 minutes to get through check-in and security, which left me plenty of time to enjoy the lounge.
Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse is located at lounge H, with a lift or staircase taking you to the reception. As I was part of a press trip, I spent the bulk of time with the rest of the group in the restaurant section at the far end of the space but not before picking up some magazines (including the hot-to-press February issue of Business Traveller).
There is a bar and a buffet of cold dishes but you can also order hot food via the QR code on each of the tables. I cut my dry January early and enjoyed a glass of Champagne to celebrate the start of the trip.
I left the lounge at 1650 and made my way to gate 18, which was around a 10-minute walk from the lounge.
Boarding at 1700 was smooth as most passengers had already taken their seats. The premium cabins were full during this journey, with many people heading to the South African city for some much-desired winter sun.
Staff welcomed passengers in Virgin’s friendly fashion with smiles and energy, and the cabin was dimly lit in the carrier’s purple-hued tones, signalling that it was a night flight.
Within a few minutes passengers were offered either a glass of Prosecco or orange juice. The flight took off at 1805, 25 minutes late due to stand issues.
The Upper Class cabin is located at the front of the aircraft, to the left as you board the plane. There are 31 Zodiac UC3 seats arranged in a 1-1-1 configuration (A-G-K) in a herringbone layout.
All seats have direct aisle access, with aisle A located next to the window on the left, aisle G in the centre and aisle K on the right-hand side. Seats in aisle A have their own aisle and face the back wall of G seats. G and K seats are angled towards each other.
The benefit with this layout is that passengers have the choice of more privacy in the former (A), should they need to get some work done or want a quiet night’s sleep, or a more social atmosphere in G and K.
My seat was 5G. Initially I was disappointed that I wasn’t in aisle A as I was keen to get some undisturbed sleep, but it was actually a lovely way to start the trip to Cape Town and exchange stories with fellow passengers, including a couple who holiday in the city every winter.
While aisle G seats are not technically window seats, these are the only ones that face the window, as A and K face the centre of the cabin. It meant that I had views of Table Mountain as we came into land, without the need to crane my neck like other passengers – though, admittedly, their photos were better.
All seats feature the sustainable paper ‘goodie bag’ amenity kit, made from recycled kraft paper and containing a bamboo toothbrush, toothpaste, ear plugs, satin eye mask, socks, Ren toiletries and a pen. There is also a menu for inflight dining and canned still water on the small drinks table to the left-hand side of the seat, and good-quality headphones in the magazine pocket
All seats in this cabin have a footstool at the end, which doubles as a seat for fellow passengers should you want to have a chat – and you don’t even have to move if it’s turbulent as there’s a seatbelt here. When you want to sleep, there is a button to flip the seat over into a fully-flat bed, combining it with the footrest. Some customers prefer seats that recline into the fully-flat position, so they don’t need to get up, but this doesn’t bother me as the bed itself is very comfortable.
Cabin crew are more than happy to help with the bed, but it’s easy to do yourself. The bedding is neatly hidden in a bag behind the seat when it is upright. This includes a white cover blanket for the mattress, a duvet and pillow. If you just want to recline the seat, there are buttons on the right hand-side, just below the armrest. This also includes a button for the table, which pops out from the left-hand wall and then lifts up and over. This can slide back and forth, allowing you to get up to go to the toilet or stretch your legs without having to stow it.
The 11-inch touchscreen IFE monitor on the left-hand side of the seat pulls out to face you, with a USB socket embedded into the monitor. Unfortunately, mine did not work throughout the trip, but my neighbour kindly provided a portable charger for my phone. There is a handheld remote below the monitor, with a pocket below for storage and a universal plug socket. Wifi is available for a fee (£12.99 for 350kbs with a data limit of 150MB, or £29.99 for 850kbs with a data limit of 500MB).
The seat does not have a huge amount of storage space, with a pocket for magazines and thin items on the left-hand side, a slot for a phone and headphones and space below the footstool for take-off and landing.
At the back of the cabin, by the exit doors, is Virgin’s small bar where you can begin your adventure into the winelands early. It can get quite cosy here, as there are only four stools, so most people congregate around it. As night fell it became a buzzy destination, filled with chatter.
Toilets are located at the back of the cabin, between Upper Class and premium economy, on either side of the galley. There are curtains to separate the cabins, and staff can hang your coats in wardrobes at the front of the cabin.
Seats midway down the cabin are advised, as they are quieter and close enough to facilities such as the bar and the toilets.
If you’re not in a chatty mood, it’s best to opt for seats in aisle A which is more private and also less busy as you are only sharing the aisle with 11 passengers rather than 20.
I would avoid seats at both the front and back of the cabin as these tend to be noisier as they are close to the galley. The seats at the back can be noisy as you are bordering on the bar area, which might be disruptive… or a little too tempting.
The IFE has a very good selection of 94 films and 25 TV shows, including award-winning recent releases. As we were travelling at the end of January, I knew that we would have a fresh selection on the return leg in February. Customers can save movies as they scroll, which is especially handy. There are also destination guides, audio, games and a flight map.
Dinner was served soon after we took off, which I enjoyed over a film. I was offered very comfortable Virgin pyjamas after dinner, which put me into sleep mode. While the flight was quite turbulent, I set up my bed just after 2200 and managed about three hours of rest. The windows on the Dreamliners do not have blinds but instead are electronically dimmable, with a button to manage the transparency of the window. The lights also had a darker purple hue as it got later, which was conducive to a sleepy feeling.
Cabin crew were excellent throughout, with attentive and friendly service. While the crew are taking care of 31 passengers in this cabin, you are made to feel like a VIP throughout the journey and I have always had lovely interactions with the flight attendants during my time in the air. I also recognised flight manager Kelly, whose excellent service was memorable from my previous flight with the airline to Austin. The crew surprised one of the passengers with a mini Colin the Caterpillar cake for his birthday, paired with a jovial tune, which was very sweet.
Food and drink
Passengers were offered a drink and a bowl of addictive rosemary crisps after take-off, with dinner orders taken half an hour after departure (at 1830). The menu included the option of two starters, three main courses and two desserts as well as a cheese course with Port. My order was taken, and the table was set with a tablecloth, a plate with butter and the Virgin salt and pepper shakers. Passengers could choose from a selection of warm rolls, and the service began at 2015.
Chicken parfait with an apricot chutney and crostini
Textures of beetroot with a goat’s cheese mousse
Chicken and wild mushroom pie with colcannon mash, garden vegetables and a red wine sauce
Miso and sesame crusted salmon with sweet potato purée, bok choi and a honey and ginger sauce
Vegetable korma with Gujarati green beans, jeera pilau rice and paratha
Black forest gateau with coconut vanilla cream and raspberry flakes
Warm brioche bread and butter pudding with fresh cream
There was also an express dinner option for those that wanted to get to sleep soon after departing. This was roasted butternut squash and sage soup with a cheese toastie. I was impressed with the dinner service and enjoyed the colourful beetroot starter, comforting curry and indulgent bread and butter pudding.
Breakfast was also provided on this flight and served 90 minutes before landing, however I was not hungry as it was early UK-time so I just had a tea. Other passengers enjoyed a choice of a full English breakfast, kale, pea and mint kedgeree, apple and cinnamon-filled crêpes, and a warm bacon roll, alongside a choice of fresh fruit, warm mini chocolate twist and almond croissant, and raisin and nut granola.
Passengers could also grab an array of snacks (both sweet and savoury) in the galley throughout the flight, and the staff were on-hand to provide further beverages.
The views of Cape Town were magical as we came into land, with Table Mountain standing out in the clear blue sky. My neighbours, who frequently visit the city, said that it was rare to have such a clear view of the summit so I felt especially lucky on my first trip. We landed at 0720 and the window shades were tinted blue to avoid the aircraft overheating in the South African sunshine as we taxied to the terminal.
I had an excellent flight in Virgin’s Upper Class to Cape Town thanks to delicious food, exceptional service and a comfortable fully-flat seat that allows passengers to get some shut-eye on this lengthy overnight flight.
The flight timings are well designed for travellers, giving you a full day in Cape Town upon arrival (and thankfully only two hours’ time difference), and this flight changed my view of the seating arrangement as I enjoyed the opportunity to socialise in a comfortable setting on the journey.
It’s great to see Virgin back on the Cape Town route and, given the demand, it looks like it will have a promising future.
11 hours 40 minutes
Lead-in return fares for an Upper Class London-Cape Town flight start from £3,885