Tried & Tested

Virgin Atlantic A330-300 premium economy

30 Sep 2014 by Jenny Southan
BACKGROUND Virgin Atlantic operates a daily seasonal summer route to Chicago from London Heathrow until October 25. The winter season sees the route operated solely by codeshare partner Delta Air Lines. It will start again on April 29 next year. CHECK-IN I checked in online the night before my 1845 flight using my smartphone, selecting the option of having a link to my mobile boarding pass texted to me so I could save it to my iPhone Passbook app. The following day, I left for the airport at 1600, getting a taxi from downtown Chicago to O'Hare International airport's Terminal 5, where my Virgin Atlantic flight to London Heathrow was departing. On arrival at 1630, I walked the short distance to the Virgin check-in/bag-drop desks where there was one dedicated to premium economy passengers. There was no one ahead of me so my luggage was processed quickly and I was able to head straight to security, nearby. Again the area was empty – my boarding pass and passport were checked three times before I got to the screening area. Laptops and liquids came out, and shoes (even flip flops) came off. All passengers had to also go through a body scanner. The process was quick and I was airside by 1640. BOARDING There weren't very many departure screens in the waiting areas near the shops and cafés, but I had seen my gate was M19 and so headed down there at 1800, guessing that would be the right time. En route, I spotted a screen but it didn't display any comments about boarding. A minute or so later, I saw a queue moving at the gate so knew it had begun. In fact, most people were already on board by the time I entered the aircraft from the airbridge. I was in my seat (19K) in premium economy by 1815 and, shortly after, was offered an orange juice or glass of cava, as well as a choice of newspapers (Daily Mail, Financial Times, Independent on Sunday). The crew were extremely welcoming and courteous. A selection of chilled-out chart music by artists including the likes of Jesse Ware was playing overhead. At 1830, it was announced that all passengers had boarded. Bottles of water and amenity kits were handed out – these contained red socks, an eye mask, toothbrush and toothpaste. Headphones were also provided. THE SEAT Premium economy occupies its own cabin between Upper Class and economy between rows 19 and 25, and is arranged 2-3-2 (A-C, G-F-D, H-K). The product is very comfy and spacious – not just a regular economy seat with extra legroom. It is 21 inches wide with at least 38 inches of legroom, and upholstered in purple leather. The broad central armrests feature a flat section for drinks to be placed, and passengers either have footrests or, if you are directly behind a bulkhead, a supportive ottoman cushion. There are individual 10.5-inch touchscreens and remotes in the side of the armrest/under the seat-back monitors. The IFE system offers on-demand movies and TV shows, and there is also in-flight wifi and the ability to make voice calls and send SMS messages from your mobile, although I didn’t realise until we landed. (It would have been good if this had been flagged up.) Click here for more information. There is also the option to send messages to fellow passengers via the IFE system. WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Seats in row 19 are behind the bulkhead so offer the most legroom – however, there are some downsides to sitting here. The IFE screen lifts up out of the divide between the seats as there is no seat in front for it to be mounted on. Although you can normally watch films during take-off and landing these days, you can't if you sit here because the monitor has to be stored as these times. There is also light and noise from the galley, which can make it hard to sleep if on a night flight, as well as people queuing for the washroom, and the sound of the toilet flushing, which isn't very nice. Even when not sleeping – just watching a movie, for instance – the light from the galley can be too bright. Bassinets can be attached to the bulkheads so there could be babies here. If travelling as a couple, seat pairs A-C and H-K are what you want to go for. No one was sitting next to me, which I was happy about. Avoid middle seats F. THE FLIGHT The flight time was estimated to be about seven hours, shorter than the outbound journey (click here to read my review). The plane pushed back at 1840 and spent a good 20 minutes taxiing, before then waiting another 20 minutes to take off. Once airborne, at about 1930, the seat belt signs went off and menu cards were handed out. I was very grateful to be given a purple leather ottoman, which made the experience much more comfy. A drinks service (including free spirits, wine and beer) began at 1940. The menu listed one starter (mesclun salad with vinaigrette and grilled vegetables) and three mains. These were: braised beef and Guinness stew with potato gratin, buttered peas and carrots; chicken stroganoff with buttered noodles and mixed veg; and aubergine masala with tomato rice and palak paneer Indian cheese. These all came with a selection of warm bread rolls. Along with the starters and mains, which were served at the same time, trays came with dulce de leche cheesecake, and packets of crackers and cheese. Meals finished with liqueurs such as Amarula. There were two Berry Bros wines – a white Woody Cape Chenin/Chardonnay/Viognier; and a red Vondeling Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (I wasn’t too keen on this). Mini bottles of Lanson champagne were for sale at £12 for one or £20 for two. I watched a film and settled down to try and sleep at 1030 but couldn't doze off despite there being a pillow, blanket, footrest, a decent amount of recline and wings on the headrest that could fold out to support your head. I should have taken a sleeping pill. Breakfast consisted of either scrambled eggs with bacon, rosti potatoes and baked beans; or a vegetarian version with button mushrooms instead of bacon. This came with tea or coffee. I declined eating anything so I could continue resting. ARRIVAL I was roused for the descent at 0120, with the cabin prepared for landing at 0145. Crew did offer me a last-minute drink or something quick to eat from the buffet but I declined as didn’t feel very well. The plane touched down at 0230 (0830 local time). Passengers on the left-hand side of the plane exited through the door just ahead of premium economy, while those on the right walked further down to leave via the left-hand door nearest the front, arriving in the terminal via airbridges. It was a long walk to immigration but once there, I was through quickly, using one of the e-gates. My bag appeared soon after in reclaim. VERDICT Virgin Atlantic has a really good premium economy offering and I was impressed with the service on this flight. The choice of movies was enjoyable and the food decent. The only problem was I couldn’t get much sleep on this relatively short seven-hour hop, so went to work feeling very tired and jetlagged. The in-flight wifi and mobile service is a huge plus on this aircraft – I wish I had tried it. FACT FILE
  • SEAT WIDTH 21in53.3cm
  • SEAT RECLINE 8in/20.3cm
  • SEAT PITCH 38in/96.5cm
  • PRICE Internet rates for a return flight in October from London to Chicago in premium economy started from £2,703.
Jenny Southan
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