As I was part of a press contingent travelling back with Richard Branson and members of Virgin staff, our luggage was checked in at the hotel we were staying in (Royal Hideaway Playacar) and boarding passes issued for the return flight (VS94), which was scheduled to depart at 1805 that evening. This meant we had the day to relax and there was no need to rush to the airport two hours before.
We arrived at Terminal 2 by coach from the centre of Cancun (the journey took about 30 minutes) at 1640, and I headed straight upstairs to security. There was a ten-minute wait at passport control but security was quick. Although there were signs saying liquids had to be presented in plastic bags, there weren’t any available, so I just put the few bottles I had in a tray and this didn’t seem to be a problem. Once airside, at about 1700, I had a quick wander around the shops and then popped into the lounge to see what it was like.
THE LOUNGE I only had time to sit down with a soft drink for about ten minutes, but noticed Richard Branson and his family relaxing on chairs not far from me so figured I would leave for boarding when they did. The interior wasn’t anything special – just a simple reception area, brown armchairs, parquet flooring, flatscreen TVs showing the news, departure screens and three PC terminals. There wasn’t a great deal in terms of food and drink either – the self-service fridge was almost empty, except for a few cans of iced-tea and Sprite, while a manned bar had a couple of trays of sandwiches, pots of nuts and a dozen bottles of spirits.
BOARDING I left the lounge at about 1720 as boarding started at 1725 and I thought it would be preferential to get settled on the plane than sit in the airport. Branson was the first to board, but as soon as he started walking to the gate (C14) people started rushing up to him to take photos. He graciously stopped for a good five minutes to smile and shake hands with his fellow passengers before then crossing the airbridge to the B747.
I followed on shortly after and was in my seat (21A) by 1745, with a very friendly member of crew swiftly offering me a drink (champagne, water or juice) and a newspaper (FT or Daily Mail). A pile of black cotton sleep suits was placed at the front of my section of the cabin and there was a bit of a scramble for the small ones. Most people were changing into them straight away, and as the plane was very cold – a sharp contrast to the humid heat of Mexico – and I was only dressed in light trousers and a T-shirt, I did the same. Amenity kits (containing socks, an eye mask, toothbrush and paste, but no moisturizer or lip balm, disappointingly) and bottles of water were also provided.
THE SEAT Virgin is only rolling out its new Upper Class product on its new A330s (for a review, click here) and B787s, when it takes delivery of them in late 2014, so I was travelling on the old version, which was a little chipped around the edges and grimy in the corners (if you looked closely). The seat folds down into a fully flat bed that joins with an ottoman footrest at the far end. It is upholstered in dark purple leather and has large padded seatbelts.
The product, which was configured 1-2-1 in my section of the cabin, felt private as each seat has a shell surround. A large, solid table slid out of the left-hand panel of the seat, and the IFE screen popped out of the side on an arm that could be angled to an appropriate distance. A white cotton sheet, duvet and pillow were placed in a space behind. Although the remote control for the IFE wasn’t working properly, I managed to select the films I wanted to see and, overall, found the seat to be comfortable
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? I was happy enough with my window seat in row 21 but didn’t really like the view into the galley. Ideally, I would have chosen a seat in the front cabin as it is configured 1-1 so everyone has direct aisle access, a view out of the window, and a real feeling of privacy and space. The upper deck seats are also a good bet, for the same reasons. Avoid seats in rows 23-25 at all costs, as they are near the bar so you are likely to suffer some disturbance.
THE FLIGHT The plane pushed back at 1820 and took off ten minutes later. The flight time was estimated to be eight hours, 20 minutes. The seatbelt signs were turned off at 1855, at which point drinks orders were taken and a few people immediately got up to go to the onboard bar. The IFE system was also turned on at this point. A guacamole amuse bouche heralded the start of the dinner service at 2000. As I am vegetarian, I opted for the corn soup with croutons, and the aubergine and ricotta ravioli with roasted tomato and arugula sauce. I didn’t really like the soup as it was overly gelatinous but the pasta was very tasty.
Other options on the menu were: smoked salmon shiitake mushroom salad to start, followed by grilled tenderloin of beef with rosemary sauce or chicken breast with mancha manteles fruit sauce. A selection of warm bread rolls was offered around, and metal cutlery, china plates, Virgin’s cultish plane-shaped salt and pepper shakers (which are being phased out – see story here), and a white tablecloth completed the experience.
Dessert was of apricot and raspberry almond tart with crème anglais or warm chocolate and salted caramel pudding. A tempting trolley of cheeses, Carr’s crackers and dried fruit was also wheeled around but I couldn’t manage anything from it. I declined the offer of being woken for breakfast as I knew landing would be at about 0300 Mexican time and I wouldn’t feel like eating, but items on the menu were fresh fruit salad with yoghurt, chocolate Danish, breakfast muffins, bacon butty, Full English (scrambled egg, back bacon, pork sausage, button mushrooms and grilled tomato) and smoothie or juice.
As well as Lanson Black Label champagne (described and crisp, fresh and fruity), there were three white and three red wines listed – a 2011 Clava, Quintay Chilean chardonnay, a 2010 Albarino Celenae, Lagar de Condesa from Spain, a 2010 Gavi Aurora, Roberto Sarotto from Italy, a 2009 Incredible Red Zinfandel, Peachy Canyon, from the US, a 2010 OKTO Domaine Lyrarakis from Greece and a French pinot noir, Domaine de Coudoulet, 2011.
The cabin lights were dimmed at 2130, at which point I asked a member of crew to make up my bed for me. It was very hot during the flight so I didn’t sleep that well. The lights came back on just over four hours later, at 0145, and I got up to change back into some clothes and brush my teeth. I wasn’t impressed to find the sink wasn’t draining properly for the duration of the journey and the washroom wasn’t very clean.
ARRIVAL We had made good time en route so landed 30 minutes ahead of schedule, at 0840. There was a short taxi to the stand and passengers were promptly disembarked via an airbridge. There was an eight-minute walk to passport control, no queue at the e-gates and a short ten-minute wait until the bags started coming through in the reclaim area.
VERDICT Check-in was made easier for this flight by the fact that bags were processed at the hotel and boarding passes issued for “VIPs”. The crew were excellent, and the Upper Class seat comfortable for sleeping on (at least for someone of my height five-foot two-inches), but because the journey is relatively short, no one is likely to get more than five hours’ kip at best. Overall, the food and drink offering was good, as was arrival. I always like the onboard bar on Virgin but didn’t visit it on this night flight.
SEAT WIDTH 22in/56cm
SEAT LENGTH 79.5in/202cm
SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees
PRICE Internet rates for a return midweek Upper Class flight in September ranged between £2,288 and £5,678 depending on flexibility.