Virgin Atlantic opened its new £2.5 million Clubhouse lounge in Terminal 2, its 11th worldwide, at Los Angeles International airport at the end of last month (see news, April 30).
I arrived at Los Angeles International (LAX) at 1430 for my 1720 departure on VS008. Check-in was in the terminal, with separate lines for Upper Class, premium economy and economy passengers.
This area is being completely renovated and within a couple of weeks an entirely new check-in area will be used, along with kerbside check-in.
Reuben Arnold, Virgin Atlantic’s brand and customer engagement director, told me that for the airline it is almost like a relaunch, what with the new check-in area, the renovation in the terminal which for too long has lagged behind the Tom Bradley International Terminal, the new Clubhouse and a new aircraft — the B787-9 — being deployed on the route.
There was no queue and we quickly snaked around some lines and went up the escalator to security, which was swift. At present, Terminal 2 is undergoing a huge amount of construction work – walking through building, this is very evident.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
The 370 sqm lounge is accessed either via a lift / elevator or by carrying your bags up some stairs. Wifi is available throughout.
There is a sliding door which remains ajar while the lounge is open (1400-2200, daily).
I spoke with James and Hayes Slade, the husband and wife team behind Slade Architects, who worked on Virgin Clubhouses at New York JFK and Newark Liberty airports.
Slade teamed up with Virgin Atlantic’s inhouse design team on some of the ideas in the lounge, and their observations on the sliding door entrance were interesting.
James Slade said: “When the door is open, it’s designed as though there is no door and reception is waiting for you. You can’t see into the lounge, but instead it’s been designed with sight lines so you get a tiny glimpse of the lounge, a sliver, but there’s no ‘reveal’.
“It means you don’t need the door, which is pushed to one side, because it is the whole reception area which acts as the portal to the lounge rather than the door.
“It’s designed as a kind of closed opening, giving privacy and exclusivity, but not hiding the fact that’s it’s a Virgin lounge because you have the striking and beautiful Vivienne Westwood-designed outfit with the red of the uniform contrasting with the white background, and also the air of exclusivity.”
This space, which has arresting views across the runway and also out onto the gate, used to be the Air France lounge and was originally a rectangular room.
The new design has seen the rectangular space cut diagonally, so it is wider as you walk in, and gradually tapers to a vanishing point, making the space look bigger than it is.
Guests get the light half of this space, with the kitchens and toilets taking the darker half.
As you move towards the end of the room past the bar, at the last moment the room opens slightly for the dining area and there’s a video installation by LA-based artist Diana Reichenbach acting as a focal point (it’s on a 30-minute loop, and moves from day through until night).
This also means that those eating at the far end aren’t disturbed by footfall, and the flow of the room reaches a static area, albeit one enlivened by the constantly changing video installation.
Your experience of the design of the lounge is likely to change depending on the time of the day and year. When we were there it was a cloudy day, but reasonably bright.
Obviously, during the summer the sunlight presents challenges, and I was told by Jeremy Brown, Virgin’s senior design manager customer experience, that the design is helped by the fact that the main windows face east rather than west and so the facility is less likely to overheat.
The lounge ceiling was created from a thin plastic membrane, which stretches from the edges of the room and is anchored via a recessed circular LED-lit skylight.
Facing north-east also allows for a clever touch in the brushed satin finish copper on the Flow Wall, which runs the length of the east side of the lounge. This subtle reference to the sunset takes place while passengers are waiting for their late afternoon or evening flight, as the sun sets on the other side of the terminal, out of sight, but the rays of that sunset illuminate the view to the east through the windows of the lounge.
There’s also a reference to the copper materials used in Mexican cooking utensils, I was told, and certainly the colours seem sympathetic with the LA landscape.
Unlike most lounges, instead of chairs in straight lines there are lots of flowing lines, even among the sofas, which have “landscape-like sculpted couches” with end tables “recalling dunes and rolling hills”.
The overall intention is to “echo LA’s warm sunsets, flowing surf, laid back lifestyle, mountain backdrops, smooth curves and sculpted surfaces”.
James Slade said his main criticism of most airline lounges, and also offices and retail environments, is that they are “placeless”.
He said: “They could be anywhere, and what we knew Virgin wanted to do was bring a sense of place and a uniqueness to the lounge.
“The Virgin design team refer to the idea of ‘memory burn’ – the important elements that stick with you, so you remember that amazing Tod Table of enamelled fiberglass, custom-made sofa, Fritz Hansen low tables or Arper pedestal tables.
“It’s a subtle way of differentiating the brand. There’s no Virgin sign in red letters, but instead you have a space that is distinct to the brand, but also distinct to the places, so it will be remembered long afterwards.”
Slade accepted that other airlines seek to create a uniformity in their lounges, irrespective of where they are located, and that a brand might decide that giving flyers a sense of recognition once they had entered the lounge could help them feel they were already on their way home.
But he said Virgin is keen to embrace the sense of exploration and adventurous travel, and that was embodied in the design of the Clubhouse.
As with other Virgin lounges, the bar is the focal point of the Clubhouse, and the curve of the Flow Wall opens up almost like the curtains of a stage, with the services that Virgin is keen to emphasise on show.
Unlike some bars where there are stools against the bar, and you can feel excluded if they are occupied and you have to order over someone’s shoulders, the lack of stools instead allows for an uninterrupted view of the service and emphasises the fact that they come and take your order where you are sitting.
Slade also pointed out that it was a narrowing space at that point, and “it looked better without stools”.
Instead, opposite, there’s a custom-fabricated surfboard and boat hull-inspired counter made of bamboo layers and sanded. It has a Corian tabletop surface with classic Eames chairs alongside for a view of the apron.
There’s also lots of art, including a handdrawn wall by British artist Vic Lee linking both London and LA in a “to London with love to Los Angeles” theme.
Virgin has partnered with LA’s Hinoki & Bird to provide a restaurant menu with three signature dishes – green papaya salad, chilli crab toast and miso donuts.
The Clubhouse menu can be viewed here (this will change over time – but serves as an example).
Californian-themed toilet tiles by Imagine tile with photos of the underside of skateboard decks
The capacity of the lounge is 90, although Virgin does not expect more than 60 to 70 passengers even at the busiest times.
Its two daily departures are currently VS8 at 1750 and VS24 at 2220, so there may be some overlap, but it is not likely to be significant.
Virgin currently flies both the B787-9 Dreamliner (31 Upper Class passengers) and the A340-600 (44 Upper Class passengers) on the route, but intends to operate both flights with B787s once more arrive (probably 2016, I was told).
In addition, gold card holders in Virgin’s Flying Club programme can use the lounge and bring in a guest as well as Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallion members travelling transatlantic.
Superb. This isn’t the biggest lounge but with luck should be big enough for the demand and makes great use of the space. The design and furnishings are outstanding, as are the food and wine choices (see the menus above).
Virgin has also got the basics right — lots of plugs / powerpoints, and enough food that you can get on the flight and sleep all the way home if you wish. Congratulations Virgin.