FIRST IMPRESSIONS I arrived at Chicago O’Hare airport at 1555 for my 1800 flight VS040 to London Heathrow. Upper Class passengers can get a complimentary car to the airport, but I was travelling with a group and our coach journey from the city centre took around 50 minutes. Virgin’s daily flights to and from Chicago resumed last month after a six-year hiatus (see online news, April 26), and leave from Terminal 5 bound for Heathrow Terminal 3 – the London-Chicago leg departs at 1115, arriving at 1410. Check-in was quick, and security equally so, and I was airside within about 20 minutes. I was surprised at the lack of duty free shops given the number of passengers using the airport (Chicago O’Hare is the second-busiest airport in the world in terms of passenger numbers), and headed for the Japan Airlines lounge which Virgin is sharing for these flights. It is fairly small but tastefully decorated in light greens and beiges, and has internet access (chargeable at US$6.95 for 24 hours through Boingo), snacks and drinks, and a collection of newspapers and magazines (although most of these were in Japanese). A general stirring of passengers signalled time to go to the gate (M-8), where I was ushered straight through to the aircraft.
BOARDING Virgin is using an A340-300 to ply the London-Chicago route, although as I was travelling home after the inaugural flight on April 23, the carrier had swapped this for an A340-600 in order to fit everyone from the trip on board – the seating is exactly the same, but layout differs slightly. On the A340-300 readers will find 24 suites in Upper Class in herring-bone formation, 35 seats in premium economy (2-3-2), and 171 in economy (2-4-2). Coats were taken upon boarding and drinks offered as well as amenities such as lip balm, moisturiser and, because it was a night flight, Virgin “sleep suits”. The onboard beauty therapist also came round to take details of those wanting complimentary neck and shoulder massages or manicures – I declined on this occasion as I wanted to sleep, but on the way out I had tried the massage, which was relaxing, although it was a little strange to sit with my seatbelt fastened throughout in case of turbulence. The flight took off on time, and the captain advised us that prevailing winds meant we should arrive in London ahead of schedule.
THE SEAT Many readers will be familiar with Virgin’s flatbed offering in Upper Class, and those who have travelled in Air New Zealand’s premier seating (Virgin licenses its seat to the antipodean carrier) will have encountered an identical product, although the in-flight entertainment and food and beverage will differ (see Business Traveller December 2006/January 2007 for a full review of the seat). Stand-out features include an ottoman footrest which doubles as a visitor’s seat, a 202cm flatbed when converted, large table, multiple stowage options and a retractable cocktail tray.
THE FLIGHT Soon after take-off we were offered drinks and food orders were taken – I chose a carrot and ginger soup for starters, and had hoped for a vegetarian pasta dish for my main course, but this was not available so I opted for chicken breast with sweet red pickled peppers and pok choi. Both were good, and the long swivel handle on the individual TV screen means it is easy to watch a film while eating at the table. There is an impressive range of films, TV programmes, music albums and games to choose from on Virgin’s in-flight entertainment system (IFE), easily enough to keep you occupied for the flight, but as I wanted to get some sleep I converted my seat straight after dinner and woke to the sound of breakfast being served. For insomniacs there is a bar in the Upper Class cabin offering alcoholic and soft drinks.
ARRIVAL As advised, we arrived at Heathrow some 35 minutes ahead of schedule at 0725, and a quick taxi to stand and fast-track customs meant I had some time on my hands, so I popped into Virgin’s Revival lounge. While it may be a minnow in comparison to the carrier’s remarkable Clubhouse in departures, the arrivals lounge has all the necessary facilities including shower suites, Cowshed amenities, complimentary suit pressing, buffet and à la carte breakfast, wifi internet access and a range of newspapers and magazines – those who have requested a complimentary car can also pick this up from here.
VERDICT Some four years after its introduction, Virgin’s Upper Class remains the benchmark against which other business class products are measured – it is obvious that Virgin has thought long and hard about each element of the flight experience, from the flatbed seating to the peripherals such as the Clubhouse, IFE and in-flight massage.