Virgin Atlantic B747-400 Upper Class

CHECK-IN Virgin Atlantic officially launched its new route to Cancun from London Gatwick on July 7 (click here to read our news story or read my review of the outbound service).

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.

FACT FILE:

CONFIGURATION 1-2-1/1-1

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.

CONTACT virgin-atlantic.com

Jenny Southan


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5 × five =

Virgin Atlantic B747-400 Upper Class

CHECK-IN Normally, Virgin Atlantic Upper Class passengers in J, D, I and C booking classes can request a free chauffeur transfer to or from a destination within a 120km radius of the airport, providing it is reserved at least 12 hours before departure. However, this service is not available in Cancun yet, and as I was part of a media contingent flying to the resort on the official launch on July 7 (click here to read our news story), the option was not offered to me.

Instead, I arrived at London Gatwick by train from London Bridge, an easy 30-minute journey bringing me to the South Terminal at 0640, with plenty of time until my flight at 1015. I walked to Zone A to drop my bag off (there were four desks open for Cancun), and was issued with a boarding pass. There was no queue, so was processed quickly and soon heading upstairs to the Premium Gatwick fast-track channel. This was also free of other travellers, so I was through security with the minimum of fuss and at the lounge by 0650.

THE LOUNGE I was given an extremely friendly welcome at the Virgin Clubhouse (just around the corner from security, on the upper level of airside departures) by staff who were visibly excited about the launch of the new route. Some were even wearing fake moustaches and sombreros. I was asked if I had visited the lounge before, which I had, and advised to book a treatment in the Cowshed spa sooner rather than later (if I wanted one), as it was going to get extremely busy.

I took her advice and put my name down for a 15-minute complimentary back and shoulder massage at 0745, and then took a seat by the floor-to-ceiling windows over-looking the aircraft stands and ordered a coffee, fresh orange juice and eggs Florentine. The dish arrived within about five minutes, and was cooked exactly as I ordered it. There were numerous other options (all without a fee) including an English breakfast, cocktails, champagne and Mexican canapés that were being brought around on trays.

After reading a paper and helping myself to a couple of magazines, of which there were a good choice, including Business Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, The Economist and Delayed Gratification, I went for my treatment. Conveniently, I didn’t need to remove any clothing apart from my jacket and necklace, and massages are given on chairs so you don’t get too relaxed and miss your flight.

BOARDING Staff informed me that boarding was in progress at 0930, so I gathered up my hand-luggage and made my way to the gate. I arrived at 0945 and was ushered straight on board via an airbridge, turning left to my seat – 21A – by the window. Another charming member of crew promptly offered me a glass of Lanson Black Label champagne, water or orange juice, and hung my jacket.

There was a definite buzz in the air, as bartenders in fancy dress hurried to fetch bags of ice and limes in preparations for the “party flight” to Mexico. Newspapers were handed out, and amenities in black cotton shoe bags placed on the seats – they included socks, an eye mask, toothbrush and paste, but no moisturizer or lip balm, disappointingly. Menu cards and bottled 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 very 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 There was a safety demonstration at 1020, and ten minutes later the jumbo pushed back. The flight time was estimated to be nine hours with good weather conditions en route. Once at cruising altitude at 1100, the crew got everyone to do a Mexican wave (twice) down the plane for a film crew that was on board, and there was then a personal welcome by Virgin Atlantic CEO Steve Ridgway, who was also on the flight.

The in-flight entertainment system was turned on at 1120, customs and immigration forms handed out, and orders for drinks/lunch taken.

The starters were:

Roasted tomato and basil soup with pesto (v)

Smoked salmon with pickled cucumber, caper and tarragon mayonnaise

The mains were:

Grilled fillet of beef with braised peas, pearl onions, tarragon and fresh cream with crushed new potatoes

Thai chicken curry with mushrooms and jasmine rice

English pea and mint tortellini with balsamic dressing, Italian hard cheese and fresh rocket (v)

I opted for the two vegetarian options, which were delicious and attractively presented. There was also a choice of warm bread rolls. The desserts were of apricot and raspberry tart, and warm chocolate and salted caramel pudding, but I declined these as was too full. A tempting cheese trolley displayed Red Leicester, Shropshire Blue and Cornish Brie served with assorted crackers and red onion chutney, and I looked enviously at those managing to fit this in.

A “sommelier” with a black leather holster carrying several bottles of wine came around during the meal, and I opted for a glass of the 2011 Chilean chardonnay Clava, Quintay. Other options were a 2010 Albarino Celenae, Lagar de Condesa from Spain, a 2009 Incredible Red Zinfandel, Peachy Canyon, from the US, and a French pinot noir, Domaine de Coudoulet, 2011.

After eating, I went to the bar for a drink. It was extremely busy and staff were rushing back and forth from the galley with freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice for margaritas, ice, champagne and so forth. As a consequence it took a good 15 minutes to get served, but given the constraints they were working under I thought they did very well. I later found out that the plane had been drunk dry – and that included 18 bottles of tequila. A thirsty bunch.

At about 1830, afternoon tea was served. By this point I was back in my seat watching a film. I opted for some sandwiches (there was a choice of slightly stale brie and grape, tuna and sweetcorn, and tuna and cucumber) but turned down the cakes. They were served on round, three-tiered plastic trays that seemed a bit unnecessary – a simple plate would have been fine, and easier for the crew to deal with.

ARRIVAL The plane started its descent at 1930, with the seatbelt signs coming on at the same time, and landed in Cancun at 2010 (1410 local time). There was a 15-minute delay before business passengers were able to disembark via an airbridge as ground staff were preparing for Richard Branson to do a photo call. As the rest of the passengers got off behind me, I joined the rest of the journalists on the tarmac for the Virgin boss’s wing walk publicity stunt, before the heading back inside to go through fast-track immigration at 1515.

When I got to baggage reclaim just beyond, everyone was still waiting for their luggage to come out. It finally arrived at about 1540 and before leaving the airport everyone had to pass through a final security check, pressing a button that illuminated a light either red or green after going through the metal detector to determine whether their baggage would need a random search. The light shone green for me so I was allowed straight through.

VERDICT This was not a normal flight and in light of this I have to commend the crew on their outstanding service, smiles and good humour despite a very busy, raucous service. The bartenders did especially well. Two minor complaints were that my IFE system was not working properly and the afternoon tea wasn’t up to much, but on the whole I enjoyed the food, both on board and at the excellent Clubhouse lounge before departure. I am sure Virgin will do a good job of catering to those travelling this new route. 

FACT FILE:

CONFIGURATION 1-2-1/1-1

SEAT WIDTH 22in/56cm

SEAT LENGTH 79.5in/202cm

SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees

PRICE Internet rates for a return midweek Upper Class flight in August ranged between £2,929 and £5,678 depending on flexibility.

CONTACT virgin-atlantic.com

Jenny Southan


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fourteen − twelve =

Virgin Atlantic B747-400 Upper Class

BACKGROUND This was the return flight of Virgin’s celebration of its 25th anniversary of flying the route. The route flies once a day, seven days a week at 2045. It is the second route launched by Virgin (two years after the airline began in 1984).

CHECK-IN  I arrived at Terminal F of Miami International at 1850. An escalator took me up to passport and security checks, where there was no queue, and I was through in about five minutes. The walk to the departure lounge was rather long and took just over five minutes.

THE LOUNGE We waited to board our flight at the departure lounge, which had a Budweiser Brew House, a Pizza Hut Express, a Burger King and a small Duty Free shop. There was a glass wall that ran the length of the lounge and there were lots of spare seats – the area was about half-full. I would have appreciated a coffee shop, or slightly more variety of shops, but the area was pleasant enough and clean.

BOARDING We were called to board at 1950. I walked to the front of a long queue at the gate with my fast-track boarding pass. I was greeted by friendly cabin crew and I took a seat at the bar, where I was offered a glass of champagne with raspberry liqueur. The bar was a hub of activity, with a crowd standing around and chatting, and there was a large birthday cake at either end in celebration of the Virgin London-Miami route’s 25th birthday. We were politely asked to head to our seats at 2025 for take-off.

THE SEAT The same aircraft was used as the outbound journey – a triple-class B747 divided into upper class, premium economy and economy, with an upper deck that had both upper and economy seating. Upper class on the lower deck was into two sections (rows 12-19 and rows 20-25) divided by a kitchen, and the latter was separated from economy by the bar, stairs, another food preparation area and foldable doors (which were open). Rows 12-19 were configured 1-1 (A and K) and rows 20-25 were 1-2-1 (A,D,G and K).

I was seated in window seat 20A, which was the front row of my section and faced away from the window. It was the closest seat to the toilets and the kitchen, which meant people were walking past my feet quite often, and the passenger in seat 20D complained that cabin crew occasionally would brush against his footrest as they passed by. However, our row was the first in the section to be served food, and the furthest from the bustle of the bar.

The seat itself was comfortable and private – it was upholstered in purple leather, with cushioned leather around the base of the seatbelt and a footrest which allowed more than enough room to stretch out my legs. The seat reclined electronically with the push of a button on the armrest, where there was also a button for summoning the table from the wall to my right, and cabin crew came to help me set the table up for me whenever they served food. The solid white plastic table was a good size for dining or working. Also on the wall to my right was a magazine rack, a reading light, a small drink rest and the in-flight entertainment system, the V- port.

On my footrest when I arrived was a “snooze pack” which provided an eyemask, toothbrush and toothpaste, ear plugs and socks. Pyjamas were provided (plain black cotton with long sleeves). There was a storage space behind my head where there was a plump pillow and a thin, soft duvet. The seat can be converted into a fully flat bed, and as this was an overnight flight I made use of this. Cabin crew made the adjustments for me, which took about 30 seconds. The bed was lined with a mattress protector, and I found the cushioning from the seat/ bed made it reasonably comfortable to sleep on. It was nice to be able to lie completely horizontal when I wanted some rest, and there was enough space for me to turn, move around and curl up if I wanted, although occasionally I would wake to find my feet had slid off the footrest.

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Of the three sections of Upper Class, I think rows 1-5 on the upper deck were the most appealing, as they were separated by the widest aisle and so this section felt the most spacious and exclusive. The configuration of 1-1 in rows 12-19 meant that there was more space, however I did think that seats 12A and 12K, closest to the nose of the plane and facing each other, must have felt a little too close together as the aisle gradually got smaller. The back row of rows 20-25 were the first to disembark out of Upper Class, and rows 19 and 20 (my row) were either side of the two Upper Class toilets, so out of all the rows, these are perhaps the least desirable. All seats seemed to offer the same amount of legroom, as this was determined by the fixed footrests.

THE FLIGHT The plane took off on time at 2045, and the lights remained off to help passengers sleep. Few passengers returned to the bar, and most seemed to settle down to read- the atmosphere was peaceful. A member of cabin crew introduced herself to me, said she would be looking after me during the flight, and she asked if there was anything I needed. I thanked her and had a couple of hours’ undisturbed sleep.

When I woke, she returned and asked me if I’d like anything to eat. I noticed there was no set menu for this flight, and asked for some sandwiches. She promptly brought me a selection of sandwiches including chicken tikka, cheese, and egg and bacon, which were tasty and fresh. I watched a film, on Virgins in-flight entertainment system, the v-port, which I found easy to use, and found that a couple more films were included in the selection since my outbound flight two days before. With four hours of the flight remaining, I went to the kitchen and asked cabin crew if they would mind setting up my bed for me. I ended up chatting to them for a little while, after which one of them came and helped me out. I then slept well, waking occasionally.

I stirred myself to find that we had 30 minutes until landing, and the pilot announced that we were also 30 minutes ahead of schedule. The cabin crew put my bed back into a seat and offered me a bacon roll and a coffee, which was delicious. I appreciated being offered something to eat even though it was so close to the end of the flight- I was even offered another coffee five minutes before landing. Despite circling the airport for a while, we finally landed at Heathrow Terminal 3 at 1000, half an hour early.

ARRIVAL On arriving, there was a five-minute walk to passport control, which had short queues, but it only took a couple of minutes for us to get through. I headed to baggage claim, where my bag arrived within ten minutes, and I was ready to leave the airport by 1025. I decided to make use of Virgin’s Revivals lounge, so I took an escalator up, walked through the Arrivals hall and then took the lift up one floor just before the exit. The lounge was right next to the lift. On entry I showed my boarding pass, booked a slot to use one of the showers and was offered a complimentary treatment in the Cowshed Spa, so I booked a manicure for 1115. I took a seat in the main lounge, where I was offered a complimentary breakfast and coffee, but instead I just had a water.

I charged my phone in one of the plug sockets and left it there with a fellow passenger while I took a shower. There were roughly 20 showers within the Cowshed spa, each with a toilet, basin, towels, clothes hangers, Cowshed products and a hairdryer. When it was time for my manicure, I headed to the treatment room where a friendly beautician gave me a good manicure. It was just a tidy-up without nail varnish, but it made me feel refreshed. Other available treatments include massages and wet shaves. Afterwards I gathered my luggage from the lounge and headed downstairs to get the tube home, by which point it was 1130.

VERDICT Excellent service – the flight was over before I knew it, and the Revivals lounge made me feel as if I’d barely been on a plane.

PRICE A mid-week flexible Upper Class single ticket in July costs £3732.

CONTACT virgin-atlantic.com

Rose Dykins


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19 − three =

Virgin Atlantic B747-400 Upper Class

BACKGROUND: This was a special flight, being part of Virgin’s celebration of its 25th anniversary of flying the route. It was the second route launched by Virgin, two years after the airline began in 1984, and operates once a day, seven days a week at 1150.  

CHECK-IN: Running dangerously late – but having phoned ahead – I arrived at Zone A of Heathrow Terminal 3 at 10.35. There was no queue and I was greeted warmly by Virgin staff before checking in my suitcase and rushing off to security, which was a short walk away. My fast-track boarding was hardly necessary, as I was through security in no time as there were no queues, and to my relief I made it into the Virgin Clubhouse (through Duty Free and up a black marble staircase) by 10:45.

THE LOUNGE: Boarding began later than I had expected, so I had enough time to cancel my treatment at the Cowshed Spa, grab a paper and enjoy a glass of champagne, which was served to me at my seat. The Cowshed Spa was offering a variety of treatments, including free manicures, facials and massages. The lounge seemed quite full, but the free food and drink service was running efficiently and there was a good selection of magazines and newspapers, and plenty of places to sit.

Unfortunately I didn’t feel I had enough time to order food, but there was a table service, with food also being served to people in the lounge, and I’m told by fellow passengers that the food was excellent. There was a screen showing the departures for flights, which said that we should go to gate, but we were told to wait until we were called. The lounge felt spacious despite being busy and the design and furnishings were modern, interesting and attractive.

BOARDING: We were called to board at 1115. I took the lift down from outside the Clubhouse and then walked for about five minutes before reaching gate 16. I walked straight onto the aircraft without queuing and was greeted and shown to my seat. I was settled there by 1125 and presented with a glass of Bucks Fizz.

THE SEAT: This triple-class B747 was divided into Upper Class, premium economy and economy, with an upper deck that had both Upper Class and economy seating. Upper Class on the lower deck was into two sections (rows 12-19 and rows 20-25) divided by a kitchen, and the latter was separated from economy by the bar, stairs, another food preparation area and foldable doors (which were open).

Rows 12-19 were configured 1-1 (A and K) and rows 20-25 were 1-2-1 (A,D,G and K). I was seated in window seat 23K, which was near to the back of my section and faced away from the window. It was very close to the bar, which was slightly annoying at times, as often people were queuing or gathering near my feet, but at least it was the opposite end from the toilets and overall I still felt that I had plenty of space and privacy thanks to the high walls either side of me. The seat itself was very comfortable – it was upholstered in purple leather, with cushioned leather around the base of the seatbelt and a footrest which allowed more than enough room to stretch out my legs.

The seat reclined electronically with the push of a button on the armrest, where there was also a button for summoning the table from the wall to my right, although cabin crew came to help me set the table up properly if I needed it, as this was quite tricky. The solid white plastic table was a good size for dining or working. Also on the wall to my right was a magazine rack, a reading light, a small drink rest and the in-flight entertainment system, the V- port. On my footrest when I arrived was a “snooze pack” which provided an eyemask, toothbrush and toothpaste, ear plugs and socks. There was a storage space behind my head where there was a plump pillow and a duvet.

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE: All seats seem to offer the same amount of leg room, as this was determined by the fixed footrests. Of the three sections of Upper Class, I think rows 1-5 on the upper deck were the most appealing, as they were separated by the widest aisle and so that section felt the most spacious and exclusive. Rows 12-19 were quieter than my section, and the configuration of 1-1 mean that there was more space, however I did think that seats 12A and 12K, closest to the nose of the plane and facing eachother, must have felt a little too close together as the aisle gradually got smaller.

The back row of rows 20-25 were the first to disembark out of Upper Class, but as I mentioned, they were also the rowdiest due to being so close to the bar (and possibly more than usual due to the nature of the flight). Rows 19 and 20 were either side of the two Upper Class toilets and so may be the ones to avoid if possible.

THE FLIGHT: We prepared for take-off at 1145 but didn’t actually take off until 1210. As soon as the seatbelt sign was off, people headed to the bar and a crowd began to gather there. I remained in my seat with a magazine that I’d picked up from the rack by the bar – Glamour, Daily Mail, The Independent and The Economist were among those on offer. A flight attendant offered me another drink and asked me if I had used the in-flight entertainment system before. She talked me through it and explained that if I wanted to use a laptop, I would need to borrow a special adaptor.

As she brought me a mojito and offered me some canapés (olives, crisps and salmon on rye bread) I familiarized myself with the entertainment system, which reminded me of a Nintendo 64. I found it quite easy to use, although I think I prefer touchscreen, but this may just be out of habit. There was a wide selection of music and a choice of 71 fairly recent films. I tried playing a couple of games but gave up as they kept freezing for a couple of seconds at a time. I liked the fact that films could be paused and resumed and the headphones were of a good quality and comfortable to wear.

About an hour into the flight, having selected a film to watch, I picked up a menu to have a look and a very attentive member of crew asked me if I’d like a meal. I ordered a pea and basil risotto with prawns, which was very tasty, and was served with metal cutlery, and for my main, a salmon fillet served on a pillow of crab, mascarpone and string vegetables. I didn’t enjoy this as much as it was a bit overcooked and the sauce tasted a bit strange, but the dessert of lemon tiramisu was delicious and went well with my black coffee. I had a look at the drinks list, which offered a choice of two reds, two whites and two types of champagne, as well as a variety of spirits and soft drinks.

I watched my film, after which I slept upright in my chair for a couple of hours. When I woke, I went for a walk around the cabin, hung out around the bar for a bit before heading back to my seat, and began watching another film. I was offered afternoon tea, which consisted of a selection of sandwiches, which included vegetarian fillings, and a scone with cream and jam. Throughout the flight, service was efficient and friendly, and crew were happy to answer any of my questions. We were offered drinks frequently and hot towels at the end of the flight.

ARRIVAL: We landed at Miami International at 1600 to grey and windy weather. Upper Class was first to disembark (after photographers and film crew who were called to disembark for Branson’s photo stunt on the wing of the plane) and the back rows of my section were the first to leave. The walk to passport control was short and to my delight, we were through customs in five minutes thanks to the lack of queues, possibly aided by our exclusive passes for the anniversary event. A further five-minute walk took us to baggage claim at carousel seven, where it took about 15 minutes for my suitcase to arrive, but mine was one of the final ones of my group. We were in a minivan to our hotel by 1630.

VERDICT: An extremely efficient and enjoyable flight, where I felt comfortable and pampered.

PRICE: A mid-week flexible Upper Class ticket in July costs from £3,904.

CONTACT: virgin-atlantic.com

Rose Dykins


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three × one =

Virgin Atlantic B747-400 Upper Class

CHECK-IN Being the tenth anniversary of Virgin’s daily London to Las Vegas route in June, this was by no means a normal journey. Flight VS043 was set to depart at 1125, and I arrived at Gatwick’s South Terminal at 0830, in good time to enjoy the celebrations in the lounge. I was greeted by balloons and singing Elvis impersonators on stilts in Zone A, where I was immediately checked in at one of several business class desks that were open. I was presented with a lounge pass and boarding pass, as well as the necessary immigration and customs forms. (For changes to the registration process to the ESTA visa waiver scheme for UK travellers going to the US without a visa, click here.) 

THE LOUNGE Fast-track security was very quick (liquids and laptops out, jackets off as usual), and I was able to head straight upstairs via an escalator to the Virgin Clubhouse, which is located between Kurt Geiger and Sunglass Hut. Staff were dressed in red feather boas and Elvis sunglasses, and plenty of champagne, bucks fizz and breakfast canapés (bacon/sausage rolls, mini croissants, fruit and granola yoghurt pots) were on laid on. The lounge was busy with regular Upper Class travellers enjoying coffee and reading the paper, as well as the Vegas-bound passengers who were in high spirits. 

The facility was refurbished at the end of last year, and now features a Cowshed spa, which provides one of five types of 15-minute treatment (facial, manicure, pedicure, shoulder massage or facial hair grooming) to all guests free of charge, as well a selection of paid-for experiences ranging from 60-minute cut-throat shaves with a face and scalp massage (£50), to a hot stone leg and foot treatment (£30). The therapists were obliging and upbeat, and I had a very effective 15-minute neck and shoulder massage. Treatments are available on a first-come first-served basis. 

As well as sporting floor-to-ceiling windows, 130 seats (at tables or in the form of armchairs and sofas), free food and cocktails, waiter service, and a selection of complimentary reading material including The Economist, Business Traveller, the FT and The Independent, the venue has a kids’ play area at the back with Wii entertainment systems, a business centre with four laptops, the Snug for meetings and free wifi. 

The à la carte morning menu included: the Clubhouse British breakfast with poached or scrambled egg, Cumberland sausage, grilled back bacon, vine tomatoes, field mushrooms and toast; smoked salmon on toast with scrambled eggs and black pepper; an open sandwich of warm marinated chicken on a Caesar salad with fresh Parmesan; a bloody Mary cocktail made with Grey Goose vodka; and a classic mimosa with freshly squeezed orange juice, a splash of Cointreau and topped up with fizz. 

BOARDING Despite there being a number of departure screens on view throughout the Clubhouse, the Las Vegas flight was called at 1025, with boarding from Gate 19 about five minutes’ walk away. There was a short wait before business passengers could board via the airbridge at will, and were welcomed on board by crew, again in feather boas and sunglasses. Coats were hung, and champagne, juice and water offered once people were seated. 

THE SEAT I turned left to find my seat (20D), was in the middle, at the front of the second business class cabin (the first is in the nose of the plane). The upper deck of this B747 is exclusively for business passengers. Upstairs, rows one to 11 are configured 1-1, as they are downstairs in rows 12-19 (no row 13), while rows 20-25 are 1-2-1. All are arranged in a herringbone layout and provide passengers with direct aisle access. Rows 28-37 are for premium economy passengers, and 39-66 for economy. 

There are 54 Upper Class Suites in total on this version of Virgin’s B747, with each seat flipping over into a fully-flat bed at the touch of a button, with storage compartment behind for the cotton duvet, sheet and soft white pillow. The design of the suite, which has a hard shell surround, provides added privacy and looks contemporary, and the large sturdy table that slides out of the side is excellent for working and dining on. At one end is an ottoman with a seat belt, which is ideal for guests who want to join you for a drink, and also forms the end of the bed when converted. 

The seat, with full lumbar support and upholstered in stylish purple leather, has a width of 22 inches/56cm, a length of 79.5-82 inches/202cm-208cm, and ten-inch individual in-flight entertainment (IFE) screens that pull out from the side of the suite and feature a good selection of movies and TV shows on-demand. There is storage space under the buddy seat, a slot for magazines, lilac mood lighting, noise-cancelling headphones, bottled water, a chrome reading light and in-seat power. Menu cards, “snooze packs” containing an eye mask, socks, toothbrush and paste, earplugs and a shoe bag, were placed on the ottoman. Seat belts are broad and padded, which make them more comfortable to wear, especially when sleeping. 

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? The front cabin downstairs is quieter, more spacious and feels more private than the main cabin configured 1-2-1. However, those in row 19 may be disturbed by light and noise from the galley. The upper deck is also a good choice, except for seat 11K by the staircase, which may suffer from footfall nearby. 

My seat (20D) was near the washrooms so I did experience some disturbance from people banging the doors and walking by, but the worst ones are in rows 23-25, which are closest to the bar (particularly rowdy on this flight, but on normal daytime services, when you are not trying to sleep, it shouldn’t be quite so much of a problem). I also didn’t like being in the middle of the twin aisles as prefer to have a window seat, and given all have aisle access anyway, you don’t have to choose between having a view and the freedom to get up and move around. Legroom is the same for all Upper Class seats. 

THE FLIGHT At 1100 passengers were given a warm welcome by the pilot on behalf of Richard Branson. The in-flight safety video was then played. It was the most entertaining and informative I have seen, with a voice-over by Vic Reeves and music by Mr Scruff. (Click here to watch.) Take-off was on time at 1125, and 35 minutes later hot towels were handed out. The journey was estimated to take ten hours, 45 minutes.

Orders for lunch were taken at 1330, when most passengers started to return to their seats for lunch, after about an hour spent at the bar drinking mojitos and champagne. Tables were set with white cotton cloths, chinaware, large wine glasses, metal cutlery and little plane-shaped salt and pepper shakers with “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic” written on the base, which I thought was quite humorous. 

The starters were poached flaked salmon salad with avocado, feta cheese, pea shoots and fresh mint with a lemon vinaigrette or a (vegetarian) virgin Mary soup with blended tomatoes, Tabasco sauce and a celery julienne garnish (a shot of vodka can be added on request). I ordered this latter dish (without the booze) and it was first rate. 

The mains were: lavender and garlic-infused lamb with crushed, minted new potatoes, green beans, buttered carrots and thyme gravy; braised flaked ham hock on summer vegetable consommé; or the vegetarian option of chickpea, chilli and coriander cakes with cumin-roasted sweet potatoes, sun-blushed tomatoes and onion raita. I also ordered this last option, and it was very tasty. 

A choice of warm breads included roasted red pepper, sesame, and poppy seed, with olive oil. For dessert there was either clotted cream cheesecake with strawberry compote or summer berry pudding. A cheese platter combined Garstang Blue, Denhay Cheddar and Cornish Camembert, and fairtrade tea and coffee were also available. 

The wine menu listed Lucas Carton brut NV champagne and Berry’s extra dry Blanquette de Limoux NV, Jean-Louis Denois sparkling wine. Whites were an Australian Working Dog chardonnay (2009), a French L’Herre Gros Manseng sauvignon blanc (2009) and a South African Signal Cannon chenin blanc (2009). Reds were a Spanish Tochuela Tempranillo Seleccion (2007), a French Domaine de la Cessane grenache/merlot (2008), and a South African Signal Cannon merlot (2008).  A range of spirits, beer and soft drinks were stocked in the bar, but when I asked for a vodka and tonic at around 1700, I was told they had run out of vodka. 

I watched a couple of films, making the odd trip to the bar to stretch my legs throughout the flight. At 1600, ice cream was served and at 2000, afternoon tea, which consisted of tandoori chicken, egg mayo or prawn mayo sandwiches, warm sultana scones with clotted cream and jam, and Victoria sponge cake, came around. There were also “smaller bites” such as Red Leicester and tomato focaccia, chicken tikka masala with steamed rice and pitta bread, and mackerel fillets with red chard and gooseberry coulis, all of which could be ordered at any time. 

ARRIVAL The plane started its descent at 2115 (1315 local time) and hot towels were handed out. It was very bumpy coming into land because of the rising hot air, but the pilot assured us there was nothing to be concerned about. Upon landing on time at 1410, the crew thanked everyone for flying on “this special anniversary flight”, and after taxiing for a few minutes came to a standstill on the tarmac where a dozen more Elvis impersonators were waiting, along with a mob of paparazzi, burlesque dancer Dita von Teese – who was painted on to the tail of the aircraft as the “flying lady” – and Richard Branson himself.

As I mentioned before, this was not your average flight, so once the premium and economy passengers had been disembarked, Sir Richard ascended the B747 via a flight of stairs with von Teese following behind him. He then walked through the cabin and out on to the wing, where he lifted her up to pose for the cameras. Once the 40 minutes of publicity stunts were out of the way, Upper Class flyers were disembarked and shuttled to the terminal, where there was another 40-minute wait to get through immigration, in spite of there being 14 desks open. Fortunately, once at baggage reclaim, my priority-tagged suitcase arrived within five minutes, and I was able to hand my customs form to an official upon quickly exiting the airport. 

VERDICT Outstanding service from a jovial cabin crew in far from easy working conditions – the bar staff worked particularly hard. The fully-flat business class product is excellent for working, sleeping and relaxing, and the AVOD entertainment system and drinking and dining options very good indeed. 

PRICE Internet rates for a return business class flight from London Gatwick to Las Vegas in October started from £3,235.

CONTACT virgin-atlantic.com

Jenny Southan


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