BACKGROUND Virgin Atlantic launched a four-times weekly service to Vancouver on May 24, to initially run for the summer season until October 27 (for more details on this route, see online news May 28). The service will be operated by an A340-300 but the inaugural flight, which I was on, was on the carrier’s new A330-300 featuring its revamped Upper Class “suite”.
CHECK-IN I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 at 0800, nice and early for the 1100 departure of flight VS95. I proceeded to Virgin’s check-in zone A and was immediately seen to at one of the Upper Class desks. I took the lift up to the carrier’s dedicated Upper Class security zone, scanning my boarding pass for entry. There was a short queue and I was airside by 0815.
THE LOUNGE I headed to Virgin’s Clubhouse (lounge H), about five minutes’ walk away. As any readers who have visited it will know, this is a fantastically glamorous space with a range of seating areas, a long manned bar, a spa offering 15-minute complimentary treatments (I had the relaxing “foot maintenance” pedicure) as well as longer paid-for ones, a hairdresser, showers, à la carte dining, a manned food counter that this morning featured cold cuts, cheeses, cereals, fruits and yogurts, a pool table, a business centre-cum-library, runway views, suspended spherical chairs, a “sky lounge”, roof terrace, newspapers and magazines, departure screens and flatscreen TVs.
Staff were constantly circulating and checking everyone was happy. Flights are called in the lounge and free wifi is provided (slow on my Apple Macbook). This being the Vancouver inaugural, Canadian-inspired canapés and drinks were also being brought around.
BOARDING I was invited to board at 1015 and made my way to Gate 19, about five or so minutes away. I took the fast-track Upper Class lane and was in my seat by 1030. I was immediately offered champagne, juice or water by a welcoming member of crew, and an amenity kit comprising a shoe bag, socks, eye mask, ear plugs, toothbrush and paste was waiting for me on the seat.
THE SEAT The A330-300’s Upper Class cabin comprises nine rows in Virgin’s 1-2-1 herringbone layout (A, D-G, K), with both window and centre seats angled towards the aisle. Note there are no seats 8D, 9D or 9G (for a seat plan of the aircraft, click here). The configuration means everyone has direct aisle access and a decent amount of privacy, as no seat is immediately next to another. Partially opaque dividers also separate you from the passengers in front and behind.
The aisles are fairly tight, as are the galley and bar areas, so if you are on a day flight with people congregating you may have to push through to get to the washrooms, located at the front and back of the cabin (the back ones are also used by premium economy passengers so can get busy). I was in window seat 6A.
As a previous review has noted, the new Upper Class seat is an evolution of the older incarnation rather than a complete overhaul. Upholstered in dark brown leather, it comprises a seat and an ottoman that join together to create a 87-inch fully-flat bed (82 inches in the centre seats) – you flip over the seat to create the bed. If you are travelling with someone they could opt to sit on the ottoman and dine with you.
The 12.1-inch touchscreen in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen folded out of my left-hand divider, as did the large glossy white tray table, which bounced a fair bit when I worked on a laptop. The IFE control is also built into the divider, and there is a fold-down armrest, a small fold-down drinks tray (stable enough but it didn’t look it), buttons for the seat recline, lumbar support and reading light, a magazine pocket, universal in-seat power via a socket at floor level, USB and other inputs (you can link your gadgets to the IFE system) and noise-cancelling headphones. Mobile phone capability is provided by Aeromobile, and I saw a couple of people making calls.
There is some storage space underneath the ottoman and inside it, and a small space for placing your bottle of water when the seat is in bed mode. There are no overhead lockers above the central seats, which gives the cabin an open feel.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? On a day flight such as this I would avoid the back couple of rows as the bar at the back of the cabin can get busy. In particular, seats 8/9A and 8/9K are very close to it and I imagine you would get brushed past quite a bit. I would probably avoid the front row, nearest the galley – especially 1G, which is further forward – for the same reason. As already noted, window seats are five inches longer than centre ones when fully reclined, so if you are tall, opt for the window.
THE FLIGHT We pushed back on time and took off 15 minutes later. Menus were handed out at 1130, and bottles of water and refreshing towels were brought round. Drinks orders were taken at 1145, handed out about 15 minutes later (I had the lovely Lanson Black Label champagne) and the food order at 1215.
My table was opened out and dressed with a tablecloth shortly afterwards, and I was offered warm bread and a choice of three red wines – Incredible Red Zinfandel, Peachy Canyon, US, 2009; OKTO, Domaine Lyrakis, Greece, 2010; and Pinot Noir, Domaine de Coudoulet, France, 2011. I plumped for the pinot noir, and it was pleasant, if a bit lacking in depth for me. The whites were Gavi Aurora, Roberto Sarotto, Italy, 2010; Albarino Celenae, Lagar da Condesa, Spain, 2010; and Chardonnay Clava, Quintay, Chile, 2011. Virgin worked with London merchants Berry Bros and Rudd to create the list.
An amuse bouche of aubergine caviar and pitta bread was served at 1300. The starters were roasted tomato and basil soup or smoked salmon with pickled cucumber, caper and tarragon mayonnaise. Having already had salmon in the lounge, I had the soup and it was tasty.
The mains were grilled fillet of beef with braised peas, pearl onions, tarragon and fresh cream with crushed new potatoes; stir-fried chicken with mushrooms and jasmine rice; or English pea and mint tortellini with balsamic dressing, Italian hard cheese and fresh rocket. I had the chicken and it was great – full of flavour and a nice chilli kick. Desserts were lemon and almond tart with lavender cream or warm chocolate and salted caramel pudding (lovely). There was also a selection of cheeses, port, tea and coffee.
Service was attentive and friendly. I did think it took a fair while to go through the courses – it was 1430 by the time I’d finished, by which time I was keen to get on with some work. Also, while I enjoyed my food, I thought the menu could have been a bit wider. There is an anytime selection of food (mini beef burger, coronation chicken salad, vegetarian sushi) if you want to snack during the flight.
Turning on the IFE after eating, I noted that mine was in Mandarin language so I got a flight attendant to adjust it for me. You can watch the moving map on the small control screen and a film on the main one, which is a nice touch. The system is audio-video on-demand and there were more than 50 movies to choose from, along with a good range of TV, music and games.
I did some work then had a drink at the bar, which was very lively, as you would imagine on an inaugural flight, and then had forty winks on the fully-flat bed. A crew member converted it for me and dressed it with a mattress cover and duvet. I found it very comfortable and liked the fact that it is designed in such a way that you have room to bring your knees up if you are lying on your side.
I got the impression that some of the crew were still getting to grips with the new seat. Another passenger helped me to flip mine back but it didn’t quite click into place, meaning I could only then sit upright and couldn’t recline it. The attendant I asked to help couldn’t manage it either – I also noticed a pair of staff struggling to stow another chair and, on the return flight, also on the A330, I saw an attendant on her knees trying to flip it back up. She told me that the flipping bit was easy but that the “unclicking” of the ottoman and seat could be a bit tricky.
I also had problems stowing my tray table and when the attendant went to open it again for the afternoon tea service, it wouldn’t come out and they had to get a small instrument to free it.
Throughout the flight staff were very friendly and attentive and came around several times offering more drinks. About an hour and a half before landing, afternoon tea was served comprising sandwiches, a scone and pastries.
ARRIVAL We landed 20 minutes ahead of schedule at 1250. As this was the inaugural flight, disembarkation and immigration was not as normal – the press stayed on the tarmac for a photo opportunity with Sir Richard Branson, and used a separate channel for immigration. I noticed the mainstream queue looked long, as it was the last time I visited Vancouver two and a half years ago.
VERDICT A comfortable, enjoyable flight with great service. The new Upper Class suite was impressive – though note London-Vancouver will be operated by an A340 – and Virgin Atlantic’s arrival on the route offers some welcome competition to British Airways and Air Canada, albeit only as a four-times weekly summer service for now.
PRICE Internet rates for a return Upper Class flight from London to Vancouver in June ranged between £5,363 and £7,284 depending on flexibility.