Tried & Tested

Virgin Atlantic A340-600 Upper Class

26 May 2011 by Tom Otley

First impressions I arrived for the 2230 departure to Hong Kong and then Sydney at 2000 and made my way to check in at Terminal 3. It was a scene of some chaos, since the bag handling system had suffered a breakdown. Virgin’s check-in agents handled it very well, and within 10 minutes the baggage belts were working again. I was told there was a 6kg limit on cabin baggage, but since my laptop bag had a laptop within it, this could be counted towards the weight and I would be allowed to take it onboard. I then went upstairs and through security, finding my way to the Virgin Clubhouse.

The lounge even after several years, Virgin’s Clubhouse at Terminal 3 is still one of the best airline lounges in the world, and though many airlines have copied aspects of it, the Clubhouse has a style of its own, from the pool table and large TV screen wall to the attentive waiters and waitresses and the large choice of cocktails on offer. I worked in the library area until just before the flight was called (there is complimentary wifi), passing the time with a Peroni beer and a freshly mixed mojito.

There is a great selection of light bites and larger meals available to be served at your table, or you can sit down in the restaurant. I opted for the salad bar and then took the plate back to my desk so I could work. The flight was boarding at Gate 6 and there were no delays, with Upper Class passengers boarding before economy and premium economy, and via a different door.

The seat Virgin invented the herringbone formation of seating in business class and several years later it is going as strong as ever. It works because you get so much room, and also the walls of the seat are low enough that you can chat to your neighbour if you wish. In fact, at first it all seems a little intimate, but after takeoff and the lights dim, you get used to it and largely ignore others. For a seatplan of the aircraft, click here.

On the A340-600 there are a total of 45 Upper Class seats, in a 1-1-1 configuration running from row 1G at the front to row 16 (AG) and then 17 AK, 17 G being lost to make way for the back of the bar. There is a curtain which can be drawn across between rows 8 and 9, allowing for this front part of the aircraft to be designated a sleep zone on some flights.

The centre seats change direction halfway along the cabin, so if you are intending to sit opposite a colleague, bear in mind you will only be able to talk to them if you arrange for the seats to face one another across the aisle – so while this would be possible in, say 3A and 3G, in 14 A and 14G it wouldn’t. Obviously 17A and K are to be avoided because of the noise of those drinking at the bar and the preparation of drink. There are toilets at both the front of the cabin and at the rear.

I was in 15G in the centre seats. These have no overhead lockers, so your bags have to find a place above the K seats – but there wasn’t any problem on this flight down to Hong Kong and Sydney because people had mostly checked in bags and so were travelling relatively lightly in terms of cabin baggage. Again because the centre seats change direction halfway down, if you want to be sure of maximising your chances of finding space for your carry-on bags, bear in mind that where seats face each other across the aisle there will be more people trying to put their bags in those overhead lockers. So if you were in 4K or 15A, you have a good chance of finding space, but less so in 3A or 15K.

The seat is very comfortable for both sitting and sleeping. It has power, but only Empower, so unless you have this adaptor – which the airline sells onboard for around £50, or which you can buy elsewhere for around £30 - your work time will be cut short since the power socket in these older seats does not take any normal adaptor.

There aren’t many places to store magazines and books. There is a magazine compartment by your elbow and a small fold down table under a reading spotlight for drinks and snacks, and both the IFE control and the screen come out from here as well.  On the other side of the seat are the seat controls. The table is a good size and still solid (ie: not wobbly), even after all these years.

The flight I was offered Champagne (Pannier brut selection), water or orange juice, my jacket was hung and as well as a sleep pack containing socks, ear plugs and toothpaste and toothbrush, all in a bag which you can then use for your shoes, was given the option of a sleep suit which I changed into.

I was impressed by how the flight attendants introduced themselves, smiled, chatted with passengers and of course were helped by the seating which allows them to make easy eye contact. The Virgin service is very personable, not only in Upper Class but also, from experience, in Premium Economy, in which I took a flight only a few weeks prior to this one. To give one example, the choice of wines (three white, three red) was constantly on offer as a flight attendant circulated up and on the cabin carrying them in wire baskets while another was offering sparkling or still water.

When the first instance of turbulence came, there was the standard announcement, but it ended by saying that as this is a night flight, this would be the last announcement about turbulence (ie: the instructions have been given and it was up to us to observe them if we didn’t want waking up so they could check the seat belts were fastened).

The meal Immediately after takeoff we were offered drinks. On the menu there was Heineken or Stella Artois. I asked for Stella, but in fact there was only Miller Lite or Grolsch. I chose wine. White choices were Pinot Gris Spinsanti, Argentina, Falerio 2009 Saladini Pilastri, Italy and Chardonnay 2009 Domaine d’Antugnac, France. Reds: Minervois 2007 L’Ostal Cazes, France; Pinot Noir Coastal Reserve 2010 Clava, Chile or Chateau Blanquine 2007, Bergerac, France. There were three whites and three reds, all selected by Berry Bros & Rudd.

All of this was to accompany, or at least anticipate, the meal service.

Starters: cold Scottish salmon fillet with tabouleh, tomato and herb dressing topped with pea shoots and shiso cress; watercress and potato soup with spring onion crème fraiche; pork balls with sweet chill dressing.

Main courses: pork loin topped with glazed apple and Somerset cider sauce; coarse grain mustard mashed potatoes and sautéed Savoy cabbage and red onion; pan-seared cod fillet with salsa verde, buttered new potatoes, carrot ribbons and fresh asparagus; fresh macaroni, sautéed wild mushrooms and baby spinach bound in mascarpone sauce with a cashew nut, feta and breadcrumb top; char sieu port with Oriental sauce, egg-fried rice, blanched cabbage and stir-fried pepper and pak choi.

Cheeses: Wensleydale with cranberries, Sussex Blue, Somerset Camembert, served with Carr’s table water crackers, Duchy originals organic oatcakes and Fig and Madeira chutney.

Dessert: apple and blackberry steamed pudding with cinnamon Crème anglais; New York style baked chocolate marble cheese cake with cherry compote.

After all of that it was time to sleep, and a flight attendant made my bed (the seat flips over and has a comfortable mattress). There was a mattress cover for the seat, a duvet and with ear plugs, mask and the sleep suit, I slept well for several hours, waking only for the breakfast serving. 

Here there was a choice of breakfast cereals: cornflakes, Weetabix, Rude Muesli (no, I don’t know what that is, either) or Special K. Citrus Fruit salad with Yeo Valley organic yoghurt, hot toast with butter, warm blueberry pancakes, bacon roll or a full cooked breakfast. I opted for the cereals and bacon sandwich, then managed to fit in the fruit and yoghurt as well as some coffee.

Arrival We had set off slightly late and though we made up a little time we landed about 20 minutes late. Upper Class passengers disembarked first, and then we separated out into those going on to Sydney and those leaving the flight at Hong Kong. There were no problems with the bags which were out promptly on carousel number 9.

Verdict Excellent. The seats haven’t changed in several years but they are as good for sleeping as they ever were, and the service was uniquely Virgin, and all the better for it. The Clubhouse at Heathrow is superb.


Tom Otley

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