FIRST IMPRESSIONS: I arrived in Sydney a little later than planned due to a half-hour delay on my Virgin Blue flight from Melbourne. When I arrived in Melbourne, the Virgin Blue queues were already quite long, but a special announcement calling me forward by name meant I was swiftly and efficiently processed. My bags were checked through to Hongkong, but it was explained that I had to check in again at Virgin Atlantic’s counters at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport for the Asia leg.
On arrival at Sydney, I had to transfer from the domestic terminal to the international terminals. Helpful Virgin staff in Melbourne had already given me a Sydney airport map and a complimentary bus transfer ticket. The transfer desk was well signposted although initially unattended. After a few minutes, a Virgin Blue rep appeared and called the transfer bus for myself and half a dozen other passengers heading for the international terminal. We were escorted downstairs to board the bus for the 15-minute journey. The check-in counter for Upper Class was completely clear and I was welcomed to the desk straight away.
My boarding pass was given to me along with a special coupon allowing me to use an experimental fast-track immigration and customs channel. While I personally was in no rush for the flight, this would be a boon for any business traveller with an allergy to waiting in endless lines. I breezed through and made my way to the lounge.
Virgin Atlantic uses Air New Zealand’s lounge, which is bright, open plan and modern. I switched on my laptop and enjoyed the complimentary wireless internet connection to clear a few emails. As I still had around two hours before the flight and hadn’t had lunch, I helped myself to the excellent snacks and several glasses of fruit juice.
BOARDING: The announcement for the 1550 departure was made in plenty of time, and it was only a short walk to the gate. I was allocated 2K, the right-hand front window seat in Upper Class. The flight attendant Ann approached, introduced herself and, asked me if I was familiar with the Upper Class set-up. She then offered me a welcome champagne. We waited for a short while for some stragglers to join us and then took off only a few minutes behind schedule.
THE SEAT: The herring-bone configuration in Upper Class gives a great sense of privacy and exclusivity. After stowing away my hand carry, I settled into my book and became oblivious to other passengers almost as soon as I took my seat. A footstool allows for a very comfortable take-off and landing position, although the inward-cabin facing views perhaps aren’t ideal for those who prefer to gaze out through the windows during the flight. The seat converts into a bed easily enough and I didn’t need any assistance to set out my pillows and sheets.
THE FLIGHT: The flight was periodically turbulent so it cut short the efforts of Virgin’s onboard massage therapist. However, those unable to be pampered were given priority tickets to use on their next Virgin Atlantic flight. I chose a light meal and Ann recommended the Austrian white wine to accompany it. Her confidence overcame my lingering memories of the great Austrian wine anti-freeze scandal of 1985, and it did indeed prove to be a great match. I didn’t try the onboard cabin bar as I was travelling alone and I felt no need to since Ann was very attentive, checking on my wine glass and water supplies.
After eating, I reopened my book and switched on the handy reading light at the right side of the unit. My only vague disappointment was the choice of inflight entertainment options. A decade or so ago, this was one of Virgin’s most innovative and diverse offerings. But I nonetheless found a couple of new independent releases from the UK I was keen to watch and possibly wouldn’t have seen on a less adventurous carrier.
ARRIVAL: We landed a little earlier than planned in Hongkong and were efficiently disembarked. I picked up my bags and was soon headed for the Airport Express to Hongkong Central station.
VERDICT: An absolutely excellent experience. Having been spoilt by regular trips on Asian carriers, I was intrigued to see how Virgin’s mostly British cabin crew performed in comparison. They passed with flying colours. The Upper Class flat bed more than lived up to expectations and, given that a number of my fellow passengers were clearly heading on to London from Hongkong, this is a great draw on the competitive Sydney-Hongkong-London routes.
PRICE: A typical Upper Class return from Sydney to Hongkong costs around US$4,400.