Tried & Tested

Virgin Atlantic B747-400 economy class

22 Dec 2015 by Jenny Southan
CHECK-IN If you want to pre-select a seat with Virgin Atlantic more than 24 hours before departure (when it is free), you have to pay from £25 for an economy class seat (unless on a Y or B ticket). Extra-legroom/exit row seats cost from £35 one-way. I accepted my pre-assigned seat (45A) and checked in online the afternoon before my flight. After filling in my advance passenger information, I had my boarding pass sent to my phone and saved it in the Apple Passbook app. I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 at 1055 with just over two hours until my flight at 1315. Virgin Atlantic shares its check-in zone with joint venture partner Delta Air Lines – there were plenty of bag-drop desks (one to 22, with additional ones for premium economy and Upper Class passengers) and very little in the way of queues. Travellers who haven't already checked in online need to use one of the self-service kiosks before checking in their luggage. I was issued with a paper boarding pass and directed upstairs to security. After ascending a flight of escalators near the entrance of Zone A, security was straight ahead, with staff on hand to remind passengers about liquids (there was plenty of free bags available). I was pleased to find the screening area relatively empty on this Saturday lunchtime so was able to head straight for a conveyor. I had to remove my jacket and belt, and take out my laptop and liquids, as usual. Staff were polite. After retrieving my belongings on the other side, I popped to Travelex to buy some last-minute dollars (never a good exchange rate in-airport so not something I make a habit of). There are no announcements in the terminal so you have to keep an eye on the departure screens – the gate (16, as it turned out) for my flight to Miami was due to appear at 1215. I headed down there promptly, which was a good thing as it was a brisk ten-minute walk from the main departure lounge so you don't want to have to do it in a rush. I got to the gate at about 1230 and, again, found there to be no queues. After having my documents checked, I entered a waiting area facing the aircraft (Mustang Sally, one of Virgin Atlantic's jumbo jets), and took a seat. BOARDING There were free copies of Wired and CN Traveller available. Business passengers were called first to board from airbridge B, followed by premium economy through entrance A. Finally economy passengers were called, starting from rows at the back of the plane. It wasn't a busy flight – in fact economy was probably 75 per cent empty so this didn’t take long at all. After take-off people were allowed to move to empty rows (but not paid-for extra legroom ones). THE SEAT This B747 has three cabin classes – Upper Class (business), premium economy and economy, with the upper deck configured with five rows of business class and six rows of economy seats. On the main deck, economy seats are arranged 3-4-3 (A-B-C, D-E-F-G, H-J-K) across rows 39 to 66. Upper Class seats is from row 12 to 25, while premium economy is 38-37. There are four washrooms in the middle of the aircraft with two designated for premium economy and two for economy. There are more economy toilets in the tail. (You can see a seat map here.) Given this was such a quiet flight, I was able to move and have seats A-B-C in row 46 to myself, which meant I could lie down and get a bit of sleep. All seats come with blankets and small pillows but no amenity kits were provided. Small bottles of water are handed out though. I was disappointed with the IFE system – it had a great choice of movies including a number of new releases but the picture quality was so blurry and pixelated it ruined the experience. The sound was also bad with a faint whine in the background, and the monitor could only be controlled by remote (no touchscreens). They were also awkward to turn off and sometimes came back on if you leaned against the remote on the side of the armrest. This particular IFE system is in serious need of an upgrade – many of the planes in Virgin's fleet have excellent entertainment systems. However, there is no point in the airline tearing it out as it’s entire fleet of B747s are being retired next year. Tray tables are slender bi-fold units that slide forward to come closer to you. The seat is Virgin Atlantic's older product but was reasonably comfy considering its age and had 31 inches of legroom as standard. There are seat-back mesh pockets for magazines and personal items although it was hard to insert a large bottle of water as the elastic at the top doesn’t really stretch. WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Regular economy seats are upholstered in red or grey, while extra legroom seats (which cost £45 more on this flight) are purple. In the front cabin, these were A-B-C and H-J-K seats in rows 41-44. Over-wing seats were between rows 45 and 41. Seats A-B-C and H-J-K in row 39 are by the exits so have much more legroom, while D-E-F-G in row 41 and 53 are by the bulkhead (babies in bassinets can be placed here). Behind me, rows 48, 49 (another exit row), 50 and 51 were by a galley. A-C and H-K seats in rows 61 to 64 are in pairs. If you aren't paying for extra legroom seats, rows 45, 46 and 47 are good choices. Avoid sitting to near the galley or the toilets. If you sit towards the back of the plane, it will take much longer to disembark (something to bear in mind when queues at immigration in the US can be lengthy). THE FLIGHT At 1315 the pilot came on to inform us of our imminent departure. He said the scheduled flight time was nine hours 50 minutes, but the journey would be nine hours 20 minutes. He also gave an update on the weather in Miami on arrival. A cartoon safety video was played at 1315 but the overhead sound was impossible to hear. The picture quality was also very fuzzy so I couldn't really see what it was trying to communicate. The plane pushed back at 1325 and made a slow taxi to the runway where we finally took off at 1345. It felt as though we had hardly built any speed up when we lumbered into the air; the weight of the jumbo was palpable as the wings bounced and we steadily climbed through the clouds. Once airborne, crew soon came around with drinks – I ordered a gin and tonic, which was served with some mini sour cream and onion pretzels. Menus were also given out, with food being served at about 1445 – there was a creamy bean salad to start (very crisp and fresh with a nice dressing), followed by a choice of three mains. I went for the spinach and paneer curry with cumin rice and slow-cooked lentils –although it didn't look like much it tasted delicious. The other options were Somerset chicken in a creamy wholegrain mustard and mushroom sauce with Cheddar cheese mash and broccoli; and spaghetti with pork and fennel meatballs in a tomato sauce. Trays also come with a white bread roll and butter, purple plastic cutlery, salt and pepper, crackers and Boursin cheese, and a pot of Gu salted caramel ganache. Wine and other beverages were offered with the food, while tea and coffee was provided after. (I asked if they had any herbal tea and a kindly member of crew said she would get a peppermint from the front.) I was consistently impressed with all the young, smiley, helpful and polite cabin crew. It probably helped that it wasn't a busy flight and they weren't rushed off their feet. Regular rubbish collections were made throughout the journey to help keep seating areas clean. Crew also came around with water, juice, ice lollies and alcoholic beverages every 90 minutes or so. After lunch I settled down to watch a film but didn't really enjoy it because the picture was so bad. In this instance it would be better to watch you own films on an iPad or laptop. At 1800 I tried to sleep, stretching out on my row of three seats. At 2030 a snack of a vegetable and hummus wrap, some crisps and a chocolate caramel shortcake were handed out, plus soft drinks, tea and coffee. ARRIVAL The plane started its descent into Miami at 2210 and a final sweep of the cabins was made to collect rubbish. We landed at 2300 (1800 local time) and taxied to the stand. It took a bit of time to disembark via the airbridge at the front of the plane – it was then a very long walk to immigration through desolate corridors (Miami International is very dingy and dated). After about 25 minutes I got to the immigration hall where there were long queues. It took almost an hour to get to the desk where I was questioned, photographed and finger-printed. By the time I got to baggage reclaim at 1930, all remaining luggage had been taken off the carousel. After I retrieved mine, I joined another long line to exit via customs where staff were taking forms from people. It was almost 2000 by the time I got in a taxi outside. VERDICT Virgin Atlantic’s older B747s out of London Heathrow are not representative of the quality seating and entertainment it offers on board its newer aircraft (the B787 in particular), so it’s a good thing they are being retired in April 2016. The service on this flight was very good though. FACT FILE:
  • SEAT WIDTH 17.5 inches
  • SEAT PITCH 31 inches
  • SEAT RECLINE six inches
  • PRICE Internet rates for a return economy class flight from London Heathrow to Miami cost £488 in January.
Jenny Southan
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