Tried & Tested

Tried and Tested: Virgin Atlantic A330 Upper Class

9 May 2012 by Tom Otley
Virgin Atlantic's A330 Upper Class Cabin

Background This is the new Upper Class “Suite” and is currently only on three of Virgin’s new A330 aircraft. Virgin has ordered a total of 10 of these aircraft, and in time this new Upper Class seat (or “suite” as Virgin prefers to call it) will be fitted on all of them, including the first two A330 aircraft which were brought into service with only two classes on board – economy and premium economy, and also two A330s which will return after being leased to another airline.

Virgin has a total of 19 A340-600 aircraft, and there are no plans for this seat to be fitted on those, or on the A340-300 (three of these) or on the B747-400 aircraft (13 of these). Instead this seat will be fitted to the B787s when Virgin receives them sometime toward the end of 2014.

This trip was with other members of the media and also with a number of Virgin management on board as well as the team behind the design of the seat, who were available to answer questions.

Check-in I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 using the Piccadilly Line at around 0730 and was quickly checked in at the Upper Class check in area of Zone A. I then took the lift up the Virgin Wing, and walked to immigration and security where there was no queue. From arrival to the lounge took a maximum of five minutes.

The lounge The Virgin Clubhouse is as impressive as ever. We’ve reviewed it many times, and if anything it has improved. The service is excellent. I dropped a couple of bags at the desk and on my return before I even got to the counter the receptionist had recognised me and was bringing the bags out.

Boarding We were departing from Gate 13, which is around a 5-minute walk away. From there the flight was closing so it was straight on board the aircraft.

The first thing that is noticeable about the new configuration is the bar, which is angled so that instead of coming at it end-on you have an oblique view of it – I’ve included some pictures from Virgin, but also took some of my own which I will add later.

Virgin Atlantic's New Upper Class Cabin Bar

The bar is longer than the old one, measuring 2.7 metres (figures from Virgin) and has space to accommodate eight people, though I’m not sure how this is measured, since there are three stools and a sort of leaning area to one side.

That said, we had a lot more than eight of us round it at points on the journey (13 was the record). The bar also has Swarovski crystal curtains adorned with over 1,000 crystals along with new cabin mood lighting with eight settings (“separate atmospheres”).

Virgin Atlantic's A330 Upper Class Cabin

The new seating configuration allows Virgin to add an extra three seats to the A330 (which is the same internal width as their A340 fleet) so there are a total of 33 in Upper Class. (A quick note on this – obviously the number of Upper Class seats varies across the fleet, but these figures are from Virgin, and represent the greater use of the available floor area, including the new re-positioned bar.)

It’s a fair few seats to fit in this space, and as a result, the aisles are narrow. My wheel-on bag fitted through, but only just, and the laptop case – admittedly a bulky one – was brushing against the ends of the ottoman seats.

We are having a seatplan drawn up, and will post it on our sister website seatplans.com when we get it. Until then we’ve added the Upper Class seat map section as provided by Virgin at the end of this review (apologies for the small size of the image, but it should at least give readers an idea of the bar and seat layout).

 

So what’s the seat like? To my eyes, the seat is an evolution rather than a revolution.

Virgin Atlantic's New Upper Class Cabin

Virgin says that customers like the Upper Class seat, including the fact that to turn it into a bed you have to flip it over. Yes, it’s inconvenient if you just want to recline straight to sleep, but it does allow the flight attendants to prepare the bed properly, and have one cushion for sitting on (firmer) and one cushion for sleeping on (softer).

The debate of whether this is a trade off worth the inconvenience has been going on for years, but I don’t think Virgin is wrong for sticking with the design, particularly since it means it has a consistency across the fleet.

Bear in mind that this seat will only be on a minority of the fleet, and yet is very recognisably from the same family, and means that whether in this seat or the old Upper Class seat, passengers will have some idea of what they are going to get even if they haven’t researched exactly what aircraft is on a particularly time or routing.

The colours have changed slightly, with the new seat being “espresso coloured” and the traditional Virgin colours finding their way into the lighting rather than being predominant. It’s very well done, and again keeps the brand identity while refreshing it.

Virgin Atlantic's New Upper Class Seat

Best seat? As mentioned, the cabin has a total of 33 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration rather than the 1-1-1 configuration that you will find on the A340 aircraft. To enable this, the seat is configured differently in the centre, though to understand exactly how is beyond the power of words – to see a seatplan of the old configuration, click here and compare.

I was sitting in 4G, a centre seat. There are no overhead lockers over the centre seats, which gives a real sense of space and light, but does make it difficult to find somewhere to put your bag, particularly if you have a wheel-on and laptop bag for a short trip.  I would avoid 9A and 9K which are by the bar, and if I had a choice, I’d probably do the same for 8A and 8K for the same reason.

Beyond that, none of the seats have a real view out of the window because the seats all face towards aisles (i.e: the centre of the aircraft), though 9A and 9K have no windows at all.

You can get a good look at the aircraft on Virgin’s website here which has 40 interactive YouTube videos “showcasing details of the newly designed cabin”.

The seats are very cleverly designed. Virgin says that the seat is 87 inches long (7ft 3 inches) – there was a mistake in the original release saying 7ft and 2 inches. This is clearly measured from point to point, including the arrow head of the Ottoman seat and the point to which the seat tapers above your head. I’m 5 foot 11 inches, and lying on my back I had plenty of room, but for someone a few inches taller, I think they would be touching their head on the surround of the seat and their feet on the guard on the ottoman.

I understand why every airline maximises these figures, but if you’re tall, and expecting a bed over seven foot long, you will be disappointed. In addition, because the aisles are narrow, your feet may get knocked by people walking up and down to the washroom or bar.

As with the existing seat, the controls are in the side wall, and include a number of pre-set options and the ability to recline up and down. It’s a little worrying that the plastic covering here was already damaged (I’ll post a picture of this).

There is only one arm rest, which folds out from the same wall as that containing the IFE screen, and there is a small fold down tray for drinks. This will hold a glass no problem, but struggled with a small cup of tea (I was using the tray table to type this up).

The headphone jack is in a convenient place, as are the USB and other inputs, and the power socket for the seat is below the seat between your legs. It takes UK, US and European plugs and powered up first my phone and then my laptop, but the power did drop in and out. When the socket is working, there is a green light, but looking across the aisle at the socket beneath my neighbour’s seat that this light was sometimes extinguished and when it was, I lost power as well.

There was a Virgin engineer on board, and apparently he said that if too many people are using the system, it turns itself off. Despite many attempts, it remained off for the rest of the flight, so my phone and laptop were dead before the end of the flight.

The tray table is released from just above the ottoman by a button. You then press downwards and the table comes partly out, and then you pull it into position. If you have anything on the ottoman at that point, it will probably be knocked off, so make sure you clear the area.

I was a little disappointed with the table. It’s a good size, but if you are typing on a laptop, it bounces up and down, and is on a slight angle downwards from where it appears out of the side wall. You pull the table towards you but it is on a spring so that if you want to push it back out of the way it still comes back towards you (i.e.: there isn’t a catch where it will stay out of your way). At first I thought this might be a fault, but I think it’s because when pushed forward it would impede people walking up and down the aisle.

In addition, while working on a laptop there are few places to store magazines and so on. There’s a small pocket where the in-flight duty free magazine is stored along with the seat instructions, but you can’t fit a book in there. There is also a thin magazine pouch under the ottoman seat, and another storage area under the ottoman if you lift up the seat (but this says “No stowage” and can only used during the flight).

This ottoman can be used as a seat for dual dining, but has no seat belt and so if turbulence is encountered, your partner would have to return to their seat. Nevertheless there is the facility of adding a seatbelt to it, and that’s something that Virgin are apparently looking at.

On take-off there was an announcement that phones could be used. The aircraft operates the Aeromobile system, which means you can use your phone as normal, and roaming charges appear on your bill as they would if you were roaming abroad. This came on around 45 minutes into the flight with a text message alerting me that the service was available (I had turned on my phone once we had been told we were permitted to after take off. It also asked me to set my phone to vibrate, presumably so I didn’t disturb other passengers if it rang).

No one made calls as far as I could hear, but if they had, it wouldn’t have been a problem since it was a day flight – and you can always put the headphones on if they are really loud. The real question is whether it is turned off or disabled for voice calls on the night flight, and I’ll find that out tomorrow when I return on this aircraft overnight.

The inflight entertainment system is called JAM (no one seemed to know why) and there’s a new touch screen of 12.1 inches. When the IFE programming starts the screen offers the option “Touch me”. There is an impressive amount of programming, along with live news from SKY and the ability to plug in various devices and view them on the screen. I tried this with my iPad but had no luck, and then my camera, ditto. (I think this is the Panasonic eX2 system.)

The hand control for the screen is over sensitive, and I found it very difficult to use. There were also faults which I’m sure will be sorted as the system is used – the titles on TV options are jumbled up, for instance.

The service was a little unusual on this flight since there were two of Virgin’s “mixologists” on board making cocktails, and a lot of us were working or interviewing Virgin management, and so didn’t want to eat at the normal time. The flight attendants were excellent, though I’m sure they had been briefed that there were 20-plus journalists on board. Please skip the menu if it’s not of interest.

Starters:

  • Cream of pea soup with pea shoots
  • Prawn cocktail with little gem lettuce, fresh lemon and Marie Rose sauce

Mains

  • Grilled fillet of beef with Cabernet Sauvignon sauce, parsley mashed potatoes, glazed carrots and asparagus
  • Thai red chicken curry served with egg noodles, red chilli and coriander
  • Dolcelatte cheese and walnut tortellini. Pommery mustard sauce, Italian hard cheese and fresh rocket (V)

Warm breads

Dessert

  • Lemon tart with berry compote
  • Warm sticky toffee pudding served with fresh cream

Cheese and port

Barber’s Cheese, Shropshire Blue Cropwell Bishop, Ilchester Double Gloucester served with Car’ Table Water Crackers and stilton and walnut biscuits with red onion chutney.

In addition there is a Graze menu, which is for a quick snack:

  • Mini beef burger with bacon, cheese and Bloody Mary relish.
  • Chicken Caesar salad
  • Vegetarian sushi selection: mixed vegetable California roll, sweetcorn in a Japanese mayonnaise and vegetable tempura (V)

Wine list

Champagne:

  • Lanson Black Label
White:
  • Berrys Mosel Riesling 2010 (Germany)
  • No Stone Unturned Semillion / Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Australia)
  • La Montagne Noire Viognier 2010 (France)

Red:

  • Ribera del Duero, 5 Meses, Bodegas Monteabellon 2010 (Spain)
  • The Trumpeter Malbec 2010 (Argentina)
  • Cucao Merlot Riserva 2010 (Chile)
I spent half an hour at the bar chatting with some of the design team behind the seat, and also back at my seat, and I’ll try and post some of that later this week on this website. About 90 minutes before landing, we were served “High tea”.
  • A selection of freshly prepared sandwiches: cheddar and Red Leicester with sun-dried tomato, hot chilli roasted salmon with lemon mayonnaise, bacon, lettuce and tomato.
  • Warm sultana scone served with clotted cream and strawberry jam
  • Your choice of cakes, brownie, Bakewell slice and profiterole

Arrival I worked for the rest of the flight, and we got in early to New York JFK and were quickly off the aircraft. Immigration was only 10 minutes, and I had no luggage to pick up. Normally there would be a limo service into town, but were bussed in since we were 30 plus.

Verdict It’s a good seat, but if you are expecting something very different from what has gone before, you’ll be disappointed. Although the new aircraft will have this seat, the existing ones won’t.

There’s obviously been a huge amount of thought put into this seat, and the ground experience in the various lounges, and it’s taken more than four years to bring this seat to the aircraft (I believe it was first intended for the B787 Dreamliner which Virgin was initially expecting in 2011).

I’m glad Virgin have kept the atmosphere, and also the bar (let’s face it, with fuel being as expensive as it is now, they could have taken it out altogether. They wouldn’t have been the first airline to do so.) They still offer something very different from all the other airlines out there, and we should congratulate them for doing so as they create their own mini-alliance: http://flyvirgin.com/

Contact virginatlantic.com

Tom Otley

The return leg from New York to London in Virgin’s new Upper Class will be reviewed in the forthcoming print edition of Business Traveller.

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