Tried & Tested

Virgin Atlantic A340-300 Upper Class

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 day before for my 1100 Virgin Atlantic flight to Chicago, filling in my advance passenger information, accepting my assigned seat (16A) and printing my boarding pass (there was also the option of having it texted or emailed).

The following day I arrived at the Heathrow Tube station for terminals 1, 2 and 3, at 0910. I then walked five minutes to the lifts that take you up to departures in T3.

(Upper Class passengers can pre-book a chauffeur car for journeys within a 75-mile radius of the airport when booking an adult fare in J, D, I and C. Alternatively, you can book a limobike or Heathrow Express train to/from London Paddington. Z and G booking classes are not eligible for ground transfers.)

The Virgin Atlantic check-in area is in Zone A, and desks 31-33 were assigned for Upper Class customers. I had one case to drop off and there was only one person ahead of me so my luggage was quickly processed and I was directed to the fast-track lift up to security. (Staff also issued me customs/landing forms for my arrival in the US.)

I waited seven minutes as there was a bit of a queue to get through the family lane that had been converted into the fast-track channel (the normal premium channel was being refurbished). Laptops and belts came off, and I was also given a pat down and asked to take my shoes off. I was airside by 0935, and headed straight for the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse (lounge H).

THE LOUNGE

The lounge is accessed through duty-free, to the left of Caviar House and Prunier, along a corridor and up some stairs (there is also a lift). I didn't have a lot of time to enjoy the facilities (normally I would have booked myself in for a free massage) so headed straight for the dining area for breakfast.

En route were a good selection of newspapers (all the nationals) and magazines including Business Traveller, Sphere, Conde Nast Traveller, Elle Decoration and Time. I grabbed a couple and eyed up the tasty looking buffet of fresh pastries (the mini croissants are excellent), bread, fruit, smoked salmon, granola and yoghurt.

I like the fact that Virgin also offers a free à la carte menu. I ordered a portion of eggs Florentine (one egg on an English muffin with creamy Hollandaise sauce) and a Bloody Mary, which I counted among the best I have ever had. I noticed that Marmite and cheese toasties were also available but only for lunch. Service was quick and efficient.

We recently reported that the Grey Goose cocktail lounge, upstairs, would be closing this month (September) but it was still be there when I visited on September 18. Other facilities in the lounge include a shoe polishing station, free wifi with a code and a pool table.

BOARDING

My flight was called in the lounge at 1010, with a second reminder at 1015 to go to Gate 13, about five minutes away. When I arrived at 1015, it was closing. Staff checked passports and boarding passes and I was straight on board (via an airbridge), making my way to my seat to the right of the entrance. I was offered a glass of Lanson Black label champagne and a hot towel.

THE SEAT

The main business class (Upper Class) section is to the left of the front entrance to the A340-300, from rows one to nine, ending with the sit-up bar.

There is then a small section of three rows (14, 15, 16) in between, with premium economy beyond. There were only three other people travelling in this part of Upper Class so it was quiet and service was quick and focused.

The fully flat product on board this A340 is not Virgin's newest but is still comfortable, private and spacious with seats that fold over to create a bed. The only thing I don't like is the fact that the reading light is positioned too close to the fold-down drinks tray by your shoulder, making it awkward to pick up and set down a glass.

All Upper Class passengers have direct aisle access thanks to a 1-1-1 herringbone configuration, with those by the windows directed inwards towards the centre of the two aisles. Pillows and duvets are on-hand for those who want to rest.

A bottle of water, headphones and an amenity kit were provided – this contained black socks (although not very warm), an eyemask, tissues, earplugs, a pen, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a mint. I thought it a bit stingy not providing any lip balm or moisturiser.

Luckily, I came prepared, bringing my own. I also used some of my wet wipes to give the IFE and remote a wipe down (they didn’t look especially clean).

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE?

Avoid row 14 as it is close to the galley, as well as rows eight and nine as they are next to the bar so can suffer from some disturbance.

I quite liked my seat at the back as it felt particularly private thanks to an angled section of wall behind me for the wardrobe, and then the bulkhead separating economy.

Window seats A and K are best as offer a view outside and have direct aisle access, so there is little advantage to sitting in middle seat D.

THE FLIGHT

The plane pushed back at 1115, with a short taxi, and then take-off at 1125.

Once airborne, drinks orders were taken at 1150. At 1210, because of a problem with the entertainment system, the IFE was reset for a second time, with a warning it could take 25 minutes to come back on.

Lunch orders were taken at 1215. There was a choice of three starters: organic spicy lentil soup; Ballotine of Scottish salmon topped with herb and garlic fromage blanc, with apple purée, candied beetroot, wood sorrel and Melba toast; and pear and blue cheese salad with candied walnuts and bitter red endive. A choice of warm bread was also offered alongside.

The mains were: fillet of beef steak with celeriac mash, sautéed spinach and tender-stem broccoli with bacon and banana shallots in port wine sauce; lemon thyme chicken with pumpkin gnocchi and savoy cabbage; Caesar salad with tiger prawns garnished with Parmesan croutons; and methi kali mirch fried Indian cheese in creamy black peppercorn and fenugreek sauce with rich tomato rice, cashew nuts and fresh coriander.

I went for the salad and the curry – the former was very flavoursome and tangy with fresh, crisp leaves; the latter was also warm and spicy.

There were three white and three red wines, all chosen by Berry Bros: Mistirio, Lyrarakis, Dafni, Crete, 2013, Greece; Chardonnay/Roussanne, Felines Jourdan, 2013, France; and Fistful of Schist Chenin Blanc, 2013, South Africa.

I went for the latter – the tasting notes in the menu described it as exhibiting the following flavours: “Peach, pear and lemon sorbet with a saline twist.”

The reds were: Tour de Biot Vieilles Vignes Bordeaux, 2011, France; Jaki Nero d'Avola Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013, Italy; Mayu Gran Reserva Carmenere, 2012, Chile.

Desserts were of salted caramel chocolate pudding or vanilla cream profiteroles. There was also a cheese: West Country Brie, Bleu d'Auvergne and Cheshire, with chutney, grapes and port. Delicious.  

Extra bites were: classic gourmet beef burger with plum or green tomato relish and potato crisps; sushi; and asparagus and brie soufflé with cranberry compôte (I tried this later in the flight and it wasn't bad at all).

The sit-up bar offers Tyrrells crisps, Green and Blacks chocolate, fruit and Grey Goose vodka-based cocktails. I had a drink here in the afternoon and found the crew member who served me to be friendly and chatty.

At about 1745, afternoon tea was served from a trolley with a choice of tea or coffee; sandwiches (egg and cress, BLT, chicken and stuffing); scones with clotted cream and jam; Bakewell tarts and sponge cake. Crew presented my chosen selection on a tiered tray with a china cup and saucer for my hot drink.

I felt like I did nothing but eat and drink my way to Chicago. There was a good variety of movies and TV shows to watch including a number of new releases.

ARRIVAL

I filled in my landing card at 1845, as the captain came on to say we were 200 miles from our destination and would be touching down soon. I packed away my belongings and the crew cleaned up the cabins.

The plane landed at 1930 (1430 local time). There was a short taxi to the stand and disembarkation from an airbridge was quick and efficient.

At immigration, the queues were not as long as at some US airports I have experienced. Those travelling on their first ESTA were directed to an empty channel, while those travelling for a second time or more on an ESTA had to queue to use one of the self-service kiosks where they scanned their passport, fingerprints and had a photo taken and then printed out, with all the information on a receipt.

Passengers then had to get their passport stamped by an officer at a desk before entering baggage reclaim. I was quizzed for a minute and then let through. My suitcase appeared just a few minutes later, but it hadn't be priority tagged.

Before exiting the airport, another member of staff asked more questions about length of stay and so on, before taking the immigration kiosk receipt and directing me out of the airport. (No one asked for my customs form).

VERDICT

Although this plane didn’t have Virgin’s newest business class product on board, and there were some problems with the IFE system at the beginning, it was still a very comfortable, enjoyable flight.

The seat is very private and offers direct aisle access for all passengers, which is important, and the squishy cotton bedding and flat bed makes resting a pleasure.

The service was warm, generous and professional, and the food and drinks plentiful. It was also nice to have a drink at the bar and stretch my legs. The huge table that pulls out from the side is stable enough for working on a laptop and eating.


FACT FILE

  • SEAT CONFIGUARATION 1-1-1 (A-D-K)
  • SEAT WIDTH 22in/55.8cm
  • SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees
  • SEAT LENGTH 79.5in/201.9cm
  • CONTACT virginatlantic.com 
  • PRICE Internet rates for a return flight in October from London to Chicago in Upper Class started from £5,997.


Jenny Southan
 

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