I checked in online within 24 hours of the departure of my 1830 JFK-LHR flight (VS4), selecting my seat and having my boarding pass emailed to me. (I then saved it to my Apple Passbook app for easy wifi-less access.)
I arrived at the airport by taxi at 1545 the day after, allowing plenty of time to get through security and relax. There was no one else ahead of me at the two available Virgin Atlantic Upper Class desks in Terminal 4, so I was able to drop my case promptly. I was also issued with a regular paper boarding pass, before being directed to security a short walk away.
There were very long queues, and even going via the fast-track channel resulted in a 25-minute wait to get airside. (Laptops but not liquids have to come out, while shoes and jackets must come off.) Passengers also have to pass through a body scanner.
After security, you have to go downstairs and walk about six minutes towards Gate A5, where you then either walk upstairs or take a lift up one level to the Virgin Clubhouse. The facility is impressive, although not quite as expansive as the one in London Heathrow. (Click here to read a review)
Facilities include free wifi, daily newspapers (US and American) and magazines, four Mac computers with sit-up stools, phone charge points, plug sockets, a red baize pool table, a couple of luxurious showers with Dr Hauschka products, and a hair salon with views of the air traffic control tower and aircraft stands.
The Dr Hauschka spa has two treatment rooms for massages (you can book a free 15-minute neck and shoulder or head rub). I booked a 1745 back and shoulder massage (the only slot available) and, in the meantime, had a light bite to eat while doing a bit of work.
There are various seating sections and heaps of natural light coming through floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides of the venue. I particularly liked the space-age booths set into silver metal walls, which have reading lights and furry cushions – you can even lie inside them and catch forty winks.
Food and drinks can be ordered from attentive staff anywhere you like – menus are placed on all the tables. I opted for a Bloody Mary from the extensive cocktail menu (the Virgin signature Red Carpet is made with prosecco, Bombay Sapphire gin, St Germain, creme de framboise and fresh lemon). If you want, you can also sit at the bar and watch them being made.
There are also tasty “tapas” that can be prepared speedily – choose from the likes of crunchy fresh radishes and salt, battered cod, chunky chips with curry sauce, duck lettuce wraps and Cheddar toasts. Breakfast is served until midday (the eggs Royale sounds tempting), while other complimentary à la carte meals can be served in the restaurant from 1200 onwards – options include prawn cocktail, coriander roasted salmon, Clubhouse burger and truffled mushroom flatbread with ricotta, onions and rocket.
I had my massage as planned at 1745, and it was excellent – genuinely relaxing and effective in terms of relieving tension. My flight was called for boarding just after 1800 (there are also departure screens dotted around the smart, modern lounge).
Boarding was scheduled to start at 1750 from departure Gate A5, just beneath the Clubhouse, a two-minute walk away. I went down at 1805, and accessed the A340-600 (Surfer Girl) via an airbridge, turning left upon entering, past the bar and into the Upper Class cabin.
My coat was promptly hung in the wardrobe next to my seat (2D), and I was then offered a choice of orange juice, water and Lanson Black Label champagne, followed by a sleep suit (small, medium or large) and a UK newspaper (Daily Mail or FT).
The captain came on to give the weather forecast for the journey and in our arrival destination, and to announce that the flight time was estimated to be six hours 20 minutes (shorter than from London to New York). Pop music played overhead. The cabin was pretty busy, with most seats occupied.
Unlike the B747 I travelled on from London, this A340-600 is configured with 16 rows of Upper Class seats in a 1-1-1 herringbone layout (A-D-K), beginning with 1D, and then 2A, D, K. I was in seat 2D. (Note there is no row 13.)
The galley is in the nose of the plane and there is also a wardrobe further down the cabin next to 7A. There is purple and blue mood lighting, and three washrooms for Upper Class passengers (one in front of 1K, the other two behind row 17, near the bar.
Click here to see a seat plan.
According to Virgin Atlantic’s website, its new Upper Class Suite “is available on selected A330 flights to New York JFK, Washington, Boston, Delhi and Mumbai, with other destinations coming soon”. So this meant that on my A340 flight to London, it was the older business class product. (Click here for details of the new seat.)
The seat, which folds down to create a fully flat bed, was very comfortable. For those looking to sleep, there is a large, soft pillow in a white cotton pillowcase stowed behind the seat, along with a white cotton mattress topper and duvet. I found the seat easy to convert into the bed at the touch of a button, but crew also offer to help if you need it. The bed was comfy and private inside the shell surround, although the cabin seemed to get very hot and stuffy at one point during the night.
There was a ten-inch entertainment screen which popped out of the side of the seat and was attached to an arm for easy adjustment, along with a handheld remote, reading light, in-seat power, a large, sturdy table that slid up and out of the wall, and slots for magazines/headphones (which are provided) and other smaller items.
The seats on the A340-600 are arranged allow for plenty of privacy and direct aisle access for all passengers. There is also an ottoman at the end of each seat, which can be used as a footrest or a buddy seat, if you have a friend or colleague who wants to join you for a meal or drink.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE?
Avoid sitting too close to the bar or washrooms (2K for example, and seats in rows 16 and 17), as you could suffer some disturbance from noise and light. Sitting in 2D, I found that when sleeping without an eyemask, I was woken from time to time with people leaving the washroom door open or the galley curtain ajar, letting illumination into the otherwise dark cabin.
While two thirds of the seats (A/K) are by windows, they may not all be aligned with them. That said, the seats are angled away from them so you are not going to be positioned in such a way as to enjoy the views in any case.
Modest amenity kits were placed on the ottoman and contained a few essentials (socks, earplugs, an eyemask, pen, toothbrush, paste, Mentos mint, tissues and pen). Bottles of water were also provided, and menus were handed out shortly before take-off.
Electronic devices had to be turned off at 1825 in preparation for departure. After about 15 minutes of taxiing and then a short delay, the plane took off at 1845. (The IFE can be watched before take-off so long as you use the headphones provided.)
Drinks orders were taken and delivered with small bowls of crisps and hot towels when at cruising altitude, followed by meal orders. The starters were of creamy sweet onion soup with a slice of baguette, or sesame-crusted tuna with asparagus and vinaigrette. A basket of artisan bread rolls was also offered. I went for the soup, which was quite thick, flavoursome and rich.
There were three main courses: herb-infused seared fillet of beef with buttery fondant potato, green beans and roasted red pepper sauce; pan-sautéed free-range chicken breast with gnocchi in a creamy Italian Fontina cheese sauce, broccoli and carrot purée; and large, plump sweet pea and mint ravioli pasta parcels with lemon sauce, chopped sugarsnap peas and microgreens. (I went for the last, and was very impressed – served in a white china bowl, it was an excellent dish that I would enjoy in a restaurant.)
The dessert was also scrumptious – probably the best I have ever had in the air – a thick wedge of Oreo cookies and cream cheesecake. For those with a big appetite, there was also cheese (Danish Blue, Tomme de Savoie and Chimay a la Biere), with Carr’s Table Water biscuits. Tyrells’ crisps, Green and Black’s chocolate and fresh fruit were available at the bar.
As well as Lanson Black Label champagne, there were three red and three white wines. The reds were: Lammershoek Z Zinfandel, 2013, South Africa; Sismico Aglianico, 2012, Italy; and Miss Harry, Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan, Hewitson, 2011, Australia.
The whites were: L’Oustalet Blanc, Famille Perrin, 2012, France; Dr Renwick Pinot Gris, 2012, New Zealand; and Vina Quintay Sauvignon, Berry’s Label, 2013, Chile.
Passengers could also order cocktails, coffee and gourmet tea such as Ceylon Earl Grey and camomile.
The lights went out at about 2015, with most people choosing to get as much sleep as possible on this short overnight service. I requested not to be woken for breakfast, planning to use the Revivals lounge on arrival for a shower and a coffee. I changed into my sleep suit after watching a movie with dinner and reclined my seat at 2120 for a few hours’ rest.
The lights came back on at 0035, with the seatbelt signs flashing up at 0055. Arrival was expected for 0120 (0620 local time) and passengers were told they could continue to watch the IFE so long as they used the headphones provided and kept the screen stowed.
There were queues for the washrooms as a number of people needed to change out of their sleep suits and soon the beds had all been converted back into seats. Fortunately we didn’t experience any delays coming into Heathrow, and we landed as anticipated about 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
Disembarkation was via an airbridge to the front, after which there was a good ten-minute hike to the immigration hall. Luckily there were lots of staffed desks open, along with biometric gates, so I only took a couple of minutes to get through, and down into baggage reclaim where my case was waiting.
VERDICT As every business traveller knows, the only way to survive the Red Eye from New York to London is to eat dinner in the lounge, take a sleeping pill as soon as you board, avoid watching any films and sleep for as much of the six-hour 20-minute flight as possible. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any pills and was wide awake for most of it, so felt pretty spaced out by the time I landed, despite an attempt at sleeping for three hours.
The lounge at JFK offered good food, showers, attentive service and free spa treatments, which was a treat, and Virgin’s onboard Upper Class product is still very good, despite not being the newest version on this A340. It was nice to have a proper bed made up, and the Revivals lounge is a welcome proposition for anyone having to head straight to the office after their flight. (You can shower and get breakfast here.) Click here for more information:
CONFIGURATION 1-1-1 (A-D-K)
SEAT LENGTH 79.5 inches
SEAT WIDTH 22 inches
SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees
PRICE Internet rates for a return business class flight from London Heathrow to New York JFK started from £5,014 in May.