Tried & Tested

Virgin Atlantic B787-9 Upper Class

27 Oct 2014 by Jenny Southan

BACKGROUND

Virgin Atlantic has ordered 16 B787-9 Dreamliners, with the first delivered last week.

Although this is a review of the one-off return to London from Atlanta, the first official route will be from London Heathrow to Boston six times a week from October 28. (Click here, to read my review of the inaugural.)

However, the airline is taking the B787-9 off this route for training purposes between October 31 and November 14 (see news, October 28).

Virgin said in a statement: "Following the first week of flying between London Heathrow and Boston, the aircraft will be operating several flights around the UK each day to complete its training schedule. Redeploying aircraft from commercial fights to training and development flights is absolutely normal when bringing a new aircraft into service."

Further B787s will be deployed on London services to Washington DC, and New York Newark and JFK, over the next five months.

CHECK-IN

I arrived at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Terminal at 1645, with 90 minutes to spare until my 1815 flight to London.

The Virgin check-in area was in zone 3, but as I was travelling with hand-luggage only and had already got a boarding pass, I headed straight for security nearby.

It was virtually empty but I went through the premium lane anyway where two members of staff checked my documents before ushering me onwards for screening (laptops and liquids out, shoes and belts off). I also had to go through a body scanner.

THE LOUNGE

I was airside by 1655. As Virgin doesn't have a lounge at Atlanta, I went upstairs to the mezzanine level to the Delta lounge.

Inside, there was plenty of seating over two areas to both the left and right with a refreshment station and staffed bar between. Alcohol was only available at a price (from US$8 for spirits), but snacks and soft drinks were free.

I got a tomato juice and headed out to the al fresco terrace, which faced the runway and aircraft stands – great for plane spotting and getting some sunshine and fresh air before a long flight.

The only problem was the free wifi didn't work out here. Flights are not called so you have to keep an eye on the departure screens near reception (it would have been handy to have one outside).

BOARDING

I was advised to head to the gate at 1730 when boarding was likely to have begun, which I did and it had.

Upper Class passengers were called first and, after my passport and boarding card had been checked, I was directed to cross the airbridge to the plane.

I found my seat, 6A, and was promptly offered a glass of orange juice, water or English sparkling wine (Meonhill NV, Hambledon Vineyards, Hampshire).

A member of crew also offered to hang my jacket and later gave me two menu cards – one for dinner and one for breakfast, whereby I was to make my selection and they would deliver it to me in the morning.

Given this night flight was relatively short, and I wanted to maximise my time asleep, I just ordered a black coffee and an orange juice but items such as eggs Florentine, fruit salad and yoghurt and bacon butties were also listed.

THE SEAT

Virgin's Dreamliner is configured for 264 passengers, with 31 business class seats that flip over to create fully-flat beds, 35 in premium economy (Zodiac Reverb with a 38-inch pitch) and 198 in economy (Recaro 3620 with 31 inches of legroom).

Those familiar with Virgin’s pre-existing Upper Class suites will notice the B787 version is not the same as its newest product with the semi-transparent windows (click here for images).

Instead, it combines design features from both the older version (click here) and the newer one, with alterations to the layout, improved technology and minor aesthetic changes.

No great innovations have been made, which will please some and disappoint others. In my opinion, I think it was wise not to do anything too dramatic.

Virgin Atlantic says: "We tend to tweak all of our product depending on the aircraft, and customers on board the 787 will enjoy a new iteration of Virgin Atlantic’s iconic Upper Class Suite, which incorporates all of the popular features along with some new design elements."

There are no washrooms in the nose of the plane – instead, there are four located between Upper Class and premium economy. Between Upper Class and the washrooms (the nearest to business class are bigger) is the newly designed bar. Click here for the seat plan.

This bar runs in a vertical rather horizontal manner along the centre of the aircraft and had four fixed stools and a “perch” along the bulk-head beneath the 24-inch touchscreen monitor for mood videos and maps.

While the sit-up bar is for business class passengers only, those in premium economy can use the "Wonderwall", which is in the galley between the four restrooms.

It has a self-service fridge of cold drinks (although this is not obvious) and other provisions laid out.

I had been assigned 6A, a window seat in Upper Class. The business class seats (Zodiac UCS3) are the same style as on existing Virgin aircraft, but modernised further, with nice touches such as smooth, moulded thermo-plastic shells, mesh fabric covering the interior panels, aubergine leather and cutting-edge IFE systems. All have seats that flip over to create the bed. 

Each passenger was issued with a black sleep suit, and an amenity kit with an eye mask, socks, toothbrush and paste, ear plugs, lip balm, pen, tissues and a mint inside (I would have liked to find some moisturiser). A bottle of water and thick cotton sheets, duvets and pillows were also supplied.

In the illuminated recess below the IFE monitor was a universal plug socket, a set of noise-cancelling headphones, and a touchscreen remote that could also be used to watched films on.

The ottomans are also illuminated inside and offer a handy place to store shoes, while the overhead are more spacious.

Upper Class occupies rows one to 11 (up to nine in the central set of seats) and is arranged in Virgin Atlantic's traditional herringbone formation, with every seat having direct aisle access and arranged 1-1-1 (A-G-K).

The only thing I didn't like about the design was the fact that each seat, which is self-contained in its own shell surround for added privacy, is on a slightly raised surface so when you are walking along the aisle you can trip on it slightly if you have to move out of someone's way.

I liked the discreet reading lights by your shoulder above the small drinks table – they used to be mini spotlights that got in the way of your glass but now take up far less space.

Wifi is provided by Panasonic Avionics and T-Mobile, and costs £14.99 for the entire flight. If it doesn't open up a login page automatically (as I found), you need to type http://www.virgin-atlantic-wifi.com into your browser. The web page also gives you details about your remaining flight time and information about the plane. I didn’t try it on this occasion but found it worked okay on the outbound flight.)

Under the IFE screen is a universal plug socket for charging devices (in premium economy/economy cabins there are two sockets between three to share).

The in-flight entertainment (IFE) system featured a state-of-the-art touchscreen Panasonic Avionics Vera Touch 2 with an 11-inch monitor, and a separate remote/console. It had a good choice of movies (60, apparently, although only about a dozen new releases), 70 hours of TV shows, 285 albums, games, a sky map, USB connection, travel health tips, and seat chat function.

The cabin itself looked beautifully contemporary and stylish, with coloured mood lighting in red, orange and purple, streamlined white walls and ceilings, and the Dreamliner's signature tinted electro-chromatic windows that go dark blue at the touch of a button, meaning there is no need for blinds. They are also somewhat bigger than normal windows.

While the transition from clear to dark doesn’t take place immediately, within about a minute they go black. You can also adjust them to a partial tint to block out the glare of the sun.

At night, the seat flipped down to a fully flat bed by meeting the ottoman at the end, which I also found really comfy for resting my feet on when sitting upright.

I really like how private this product feels and don’t really mind the fact that window seats face inwards instead of being aligned with the windows. It does mean that you don’t get such a good view though. On the plus side, all seats have direct aisle access, which is important.

The bar looks really cool at night, when the cabin lights are dimmed and the textured white plastic walls with diamond patterns glow red and pink, giving people enough light to see what they are drinking but not so much as to disturb anyone.

The Dreamliner has been designed to be 60 per cent quieter and also less drying than conventional planes, factors that I think both contributed to it being a more comfortable experience. I definitely didn't feel as dehydrated as I have done on other flights when I woke up.

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE?

I would avoid sitting too close to the bar (rows nine, ten and 11) as you may suffer some disturbance from noise, although on this night flight it was very quiet.

Sitting in row one means you can see into the galley at the front so may hear crew chatting and see light coming through if the curtain is opened. I was very happy with my seat but, as all offer direct aisle access, you can't really go wrong with any of the others in Upper Class.

If you want the best of both worlds, go for window seats A or K. The central bank of G seats have the benefit of the lip of the outer shell, which runs along the aisle, curving over so when you are lying down it offers you even more privacy.

I liked sitting on the left-hand side of the aircraft in A as these seats face the wall of the G seats instead of towards the legs of those sitting in K.

THE FLIGHT

A safety video was played at 1800, before the captain came on to announce that thanks to tail winds, the journey home would be quicker, at seven hours ten minutes, with an ETA at Heathrow of 0625 local time. However, because of landing restrictions at the airport, planes wouldn’t be able touch down before 0600 so our departure was delayed by 30 minutes.

Take-off was at 1845. Hot towels were handed around at 1910, and drinks orders were taken soon after. Small china bowls of crisps were presented and, at 1920, my drink arrived. (I noticed the menu listed five different mojitos – curious, I ordered a Classic. It was obviously made with pre-mixed lime and mint juice but it wasn’t too bad.) I then ordered my dinner.

My table, which popped out the side to the left, was set with a cloth, metal cutlery, napkin, and glass tumblers for wine and water. A choice of brown, seeded and garlic bread was presented.

Celebrity TV chef Lorraine Pascale has partnered with Virgin to create dishes to be served on board but on this flight there weren't any from her because they were just for the inaugural. Her dishes will be introduced properly from October 28 when the B787 flights to Boston begin.

There was a choice of three starters: potato and leek soup; mozzarella and sun-blushed tomato salad with crisp leaves and vinaigrette; and seared sesame-crusted tuna with asparagus and dressing. I went for the mozzarella salad, which was pleasant enough.

The four main courses were: seared fillet of beef with spelt risotto, carrot puree and sautéed field mushrooms; prawn Penang Thai curry with steamed rice, bok choy and carrots; agnolotti pasta stuffed with artichoke and cheese with roasted pepper and almond sauce; and grilled chicken Caesar salad.

I chose the vegetarian pasta, which came nicely presented in a large white china bowl. It could so easily have been a really delicious dish but unfortunately the sauce was more like a dry pesto so didn’t quite work.

For dessert, there was chocolate lava cake with cream, or salted caramel cheesecake, which was sweet but not as artificial as I was fearing. Not bad at all. If I’d had room, I would have had the cheese as well (Port Salut, Stilton and Swiss with Carr’s Table Water crackers and port wine).

There were three white wines: Mistirio, Lyrarakis, Dafni, Crete, 2013, Greece; Chardonnay/Roussanne, Felines Jourdan, 2013, France; and Fistful of Schist Chenin Blanc, 2013, South Africa.

And three red wines: Tour de Biot Vieilles Vignes Bordeaux, 2011, France; Jaki Nero d'Avola Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013, Italy; Mayu Gran Reserva Carmenere, 2012, Chile (enjoyable). These wines had all been selected by Berry Bros.

I would have liked to have a drink at the bar but on this seven-hour night flight I felt it better to try and get some sleep.

At 2045, tables were cleared and instead of dimming the cabin lights, the flattering illuminations were changed from pinky purple to warm orange, which felt relaxing. At 2100 they were turned off completely and crew went around the cabin making up people’s beds. I settled down at 2130 after finishing my film and found the bed to be very comfortable.

I slept well for three hours before being woken for my coffee and juice.

ARRIVAL

The lights came back on at 0100, whereby people changed out of their sleep suits and freshened up for landing.

Although beds had to be returned to upright seating positions, it was possible to continue watching the IFE until the plane landed, so long as the screen was stowed. The plane touched down at 0210 (0610 local time – the clocks had gone back) and taxied to the stand.

Disembarkation was via an airbridge directly into the terminal but there was a 15-minute delay because the set of doors to the building wasn’t open yet so we just had to stand and wait. After a ten-minute walk to immigration, I joined a fast-moving line for the e-gates and was out the other side by 0645.

VERDICT

While some people will be disappointed Virgin hasn’t completely redesigned the Upper Class product, it continues to tick all the essential boxes – the seat is supportive and spacious, offers plenty of privacy, a universal power socket, quality bedding and direct aisle access. A top-range IFE system, onboard wifi (no phone calls yet), and a few aesthetic and ergonomic improvements have modernised it.

I didn’t have a problem with the fact the seat still flips over to create the bed – in fact I found it to be a very comfortable fully flat product, and long at 80 inches (6.6 ft).

Overall, I thought the cabin was stylish, the mood lighting a genuine enhancement, and the increased humidity a subtle way of making you feel better. I'm a big fan of this aircraft.

I’d like to commend the superb crew who couldn’t have been more attentive, friendly, hardworking and professional.


FACT FILE

  • SEAT CONFIGURATION 1-1-1 (A-G-K)
  • SEAT WIDTH 34.5in
  • BED LENGTH 80 inches
  • SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees
  • CONTACT virgin-atlantic.com


Jenny Southan

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