Virgin Atlantic has ordered 16 B787-9 Dreamliners, with the first delivered this week.
Although this is a review of the inaugural to Atlanta, the first official route will be from London Heathrow to Boston six times a week from October 28.
UPDATE 28/10: Virgin Atlantic says: "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.” It will return to the Boston route after two weeks, later in November.
Further B787s will be deployed on London services to Washington DC, and New York Newark and JFK, over the next five months.
I arrived at London Gatwick airport's South Terminal at 1145, heading to the Virgin Atlantic check-in area in Zone A, where I was issued with a boarding pass before heading upstairs to security.
It should be noted that this was not a normal flight – it was the launch of Virgin's Dreamliner service to Atlanta, with live music in the air and a host of press and VIPs. (There was also a country band playing at check-in.)
Premium security was reasonably quick (laptops and liquids out), with about five people ahead of me. Once airside, at 1200, I headed for the lounge.
Normally, Upper Class passengers would use the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse but I was directed to the V Room Virgin Holidays lounge on the opposite side, along with other attendees.
It had free wifi, plenty of seating, lots of natural light through floor-to-ceiling windows, a media room with seven Samsung computers, and a refreshment zone with hot and cold breakfast items. There was no spa, however, as offered at the Clubhouse.
The flight was called for boarding at 1315 from Gate 15. This was about five minutes' walk away.
The country band was by this point playing music at the gate and there were various photographers and film crews doing interviews as people were called according to cabin class to board (Upper Class passengers were called first).
I was in my seat by 1330, and was promptly offered a glass of English Meonhill sparkling wine.
There was plenty of space in the overhead bins for cabin bags, which can stand on their sides. These lockers, which are above all seats, also hold duvets in cotton bags.
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).
There were 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 and galley, is a bar. Click here for the seat plan.
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 a smooth, moulded shells, mesh fabric covering the interior panels, dark, aubergine leather, cutting-edge technology and lights inside the ottomans where you can store your shoes.
On this special flight, every business class passenger had been given a pack containing a black One Piece onesie (a product Virgin has been trialling instead of normal sleep suits), and an amenity kit with an eye mask, socks, toothbrush and paste, ear plugs, lip balm, pen, tissues and a mint.
There was also a bottle of water and a personalised bottle of Coke (because Atlanta is the home of Coca Cola but this is not a standard offering), while in the 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.
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.
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.
Crew handed out menus at 1500 and cards with logins for the wifi (on this occasion it was free but normally it will be £14.99 for the journey).
During the live-streamed DJ sets, wifi was not available for passengers but I did manage to get on it briefly for a short period. After that, the connection disappeared again and my two-hour voucher expired. The service is provided by Panasonic Avionics and T-Mobile.
I had more success charging my phone, which plugged in conveniently next to me (every seat in the whole aircraft has this facility). I also tried the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system, which was a state-of-the-art touchscreen Panasonic Avionics Vera Touch 2 set-up with an 11-inch monitor.
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 (I had several random messages coming through from people I didn't know who were obviously trying it out).
The cabin itself looked beautifully contemporary and stylish, with coloured mood lighting in red 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 didn't take place immediately, within about a minute they were black. You could also adjust them to a partial tint to block out the glare of the sun.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE?
Even though this was a particularly noisy flight, I would still avoid sitting too close to the bar (rows nine, ten and 11).
Sitting in row one means you can see into the galley at the front so may suffer some disturbance from crew/light. 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 captain came on at 1400 to welcome everyone and inform them that the flight time to Atlanta was estimated to be 8.5 hours. Take-off was a little late at 1430, following a safety video on the IFE.
Hot towels were handed out once airborne and, at 1500, menus were offered and drinks orders taken. At 1550, meal orders were noted down.
The Dreamliner has been designed to be 60 per cent quieter and also less dry than conventional planes, factors that I think both contributed to it being a more comfortable experience. I definitely didn't feel quite as dehydrated as I have done on other flights.
My table, which popped out the side to the left, was set with a cloth, metal cutlery, napkin, plane-shaped salt and pepper shakers, and glasses for wine and water.
A choice of brown, seeded and garlic bread was presented. I had the starter of blue cheese and pear salad with candied walnuts and red endive, which was so delicious I wished it had been a bigger portion. The two other starters were spicy lentil soup and ballotine of Scottish salmon.
Celebrity TV chef Lorraine Pascale has partnered with Virgin to create dishes to be served on board. In Upper Class, there were two mains by her to choose from – Thai beef salad with roasted cashews and chilli dressing, and warm salmon fillet with puy lentils, Spanish chorizo, fresh asparagus and balsamic. There was also lemon thyme chicken breast and the vegetarian methi kali mirch paneer (Indian cheese) curry with tomato rice.
I went for the latter – like the salad it came in a china bowl, and was really tasty, topped with fresh coriander and made with good quality ingredients. The people next to me, who were availing of the dual-dining option whereby one is seated on the ottoman, both ordered the salmon, which looked to be restaurant quality.
For dessert, there was salted caramel chocolate pudding or vanilla cream profiteroles. Alternatively, diners could go for the cheese plate with crackers, red grapes and port.
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. A selection of mojito cocktails were also listed.
For anyone peckish later in the flight, there was a classic gourmet burger, sushi, asparagus and Brie souffle, cold charcuterie, and warm vegetable pakora and samosa.
The first DJ set was scheduled for 1715, after people had eaten. This took place in the bar, which meant there wasn't space for serving drinks so crew took bottles to the galley at the front to knock up gin and tonics and the like.
I was very impressed at how well the crew coped and how good humoured they were, despite having to work on a new plane in unusual, crowded, hectic conditions.
I watched a film and found the system very intuitive to use and the screen great quality. The cabin lights were dimmed at 2000, with red mood lighting creating a party atmosphere for the ongoing DJ sets (although some people were trying to sleep). Afternoon tea was served shortly after, with sandwiches, cakes, tea and coffee laid out.
The cabin was prepared for landing at 2200, whereby everyone had to return to their seats, put them in the upright position, slide tray tables and monitors away, and make sure bags were placed in the overhead bins.
Customs forms were handed out at 2230, and landing was finally at 2300 (1800 local time).
After a six-minute taxi to the stand, passengers disembarked via an airbridge and made their way into the terminal building where they joined long queues for immigration. It took me about 40 minutes to get through but luckily I had hand-luggage so could go straight through baggage reclaim to the landside meet and greet area.
A superb addition to the Virgin Atlantic fleet. In Upper Class, the product isn't too different to what already exists on other Virgin planes except that on the Dreamliner is its more contemporary. The bar was a highlight, as would be the wifi if it had worked properly. I was also impressed with quality of the picture on the IFE screens, the food and the service. Finally, I am pretty sure the mood lighting, electro-chromatic windows and increased humidity made me feel more relaxed and less dehydrated. I look forward to flying this aircraft again.
- SEAT CONFIGURATION 1-1-1 (A-G-K)
- SEAT WIDTH 34.5in
- SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees
- CONTACT virgin-atlantic.com