Last week I had the privilege of flying Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class between Manchester and New York, aboard one of their Boeing 747-400 aircraft.
Virgin base their 747s at Manchester and Gatwick and now use them on leisure routes. Virgin has plans to retire this aircraft by 2021, so I figured I really ought to ride on one before time was against me.
Naturally, I filmed my experience for my YouTube channel:
Virgin uses Terminal 2 at Manchester, which is a much weaker premium experience than its other bases at Heathrow or Gatwick. There is, however, priority check-in for Upper Class, and fast track security and lounge access too.
The Virgin Clubhouse is not ready to open yet, so a voucher is given to eligible passengers for the Escape Plus Lounge, which is airside.
This lounge is used solely by Virgin’s and Qatar’s premium passengers. The “regular” Escape lounge is at the other end of the corridor and can be accessed using a Priority Pass. They’re similar, although there is a better alcohol selection in the Plus lounge. There are no good views from this lounge, but it is better than waiting in the terminal and the WiFi is decent.
G-VROS would be operating the flight, still in the older livery. There is just one jetbridge here, so all passengers boarded through door 2L.
Sitting in the nose of the 747 is very special; front seats get a slightly forward view owing to the graceful curve of the fuselage.
Priority boarding is offered to Upper Class. I boarded a little early with permission from the crew to take some pictures. Premium Economy lies directly behind Upper Class and is in a 2-4-2 configuration. There is also a 2-2 cabin upstairs on the upper deck, which I’ll review next year (as part of the same ticket this flight was booked on).
No matter how dated the product is, the Upper Class 747 product looks superb on entering the cabin.
There are 14 seats in a herringbone pattern. Nearly all the seats have difficulty looking out of the window; this is an infuriating part of the design.
This is not the case with seat 6A, right at the front. The alignment of windows and the curve of the fuselage mean the window is no further away and no more difficult to see out of than any reverse herringbone seat on any other carrier! (Sorry for the gloomy pictures…the weather was appalling.)
Seat 6A also has the benefit of a disused console behind the front divider where you can place things during the flight; this is really useful, as storage is otherwise very limited. Notice the frayed covering – these aircraft are now quite elderly and won’t be updated until they are retired.
There is a bar with two stools at the back of the cabin. Nobody sat at the bar during the flight, and it was mostly used as a base for the staff to prepare drinks.
The charming Manchester-based crew were very attentive throughout and I had two glasses of champagne before departure. It was clear from the outset that this would be a great flight.
Takeoff was punctual and we rotated quickly into the grey Manchester skies.
The service began with salt and pepper popcorn with a choice of a drink. I went for water and a mimosa.
The IFE screen swings out from the console. The screen is small but the size does not matter too much as it ends up fairly close to the viewer. However, the style of screen is older and it is curved, which means it suffers from glare, so you will need to enjoy the content with the window shade closed.
The screen was a little slow to react so I recommend using the remote to control things.
This shelf is for drinks and is located in an awkward position by the shoulder; I’m sure many people have spilled drinks from here!
Storage is limited to the literature pocket and a small cubby by the armrest, but with the TV screen deployed, a small shelf becomes available.
The seat can be adjusted electronically but not beyond about a 45-degree angle. To turn the seat into a bed, the crew need to physically come and turn the seat over and convert it for you. However, in the sitting position, the seat is very comfortable even if it is not particularly wide.
Bedding is stored behind the seat, in the void between there and the wall.
The menu for my flight:
I chose the cumin cauliflower, braised beef and raspberry sponge. Main courses can be pre-selected a few days in advance of travel on the Virgin Atlantic booking management tool, and customers should get an email prompting them.
I chose the beef and the sponge as comfort food. Virgin know their market; the food, while it was great, was not exquisite. Instead, it was familiar, tasty, and very British.
I finished the meal with a cheese board, served with port.
Unlike BA’s 747s, there are only two bathrooms in the space by the first set of doors, meaning there is no loo with a view! The rearmost bathroom on BA’s 747s have a window.
Turn down service is provided; a mattress topper accompanies the bedding. The bed is surprisingly comfortable, although passengers taller than six foot may find it a little too short. I slept well for a couple of hours.
I ordered a coffee when I woke up, which was sadly not good – the only item of catering which was a disappointment.
Herschel amenity kits were available to every passenger; I like the bag and will probably keep it as a souvenir.
WiFi was available powered by GoGo. £20.99 covered the whole flight, although there was a £6.99 option for an hour. The prices were reasonable in my view, and the connectivity was excellent – the connection did not drop once and the speed was more than adequate.
An hour before descending, afternoon tea was served. The “burger” is actually a chilled pulled pork slider.
Eric Lanlard designs the patisseries for Virgin, and the eclairs and macaron were superb. I’ve had BA’s afternoon tea in Club a few times, and I really like both airlines’ offerings, although the excellent sweet options with Virgin help them shade that particular contest for me.
They also have the cutest table settings!
As we descended, Love Hearts were distributed (these are a very British thing, and are very sweet candies emblazoned with cute messages).
There were some fine views of New York on approach.
Landing was punctual and our taxi mercifully short!
In summary, a very good experience with Virgin, despite the expected shortcomings of the cabin and seat. It was also rather affordable.
I booked this ticket round-trip in Premium Economy for £683. A few weeks after I booked, the opportunity to upgrade the outbound leg became available through Manage my Booking for £449. At these prices, you cannot expect a world-beating hard product, but the service and general aesthetic of the flight were memorable.
I’d put this flight at one of my favourite this year, mostly because of the crew and the special feeling of being at the front of the plane. Nothing quite beats sitting in those front seats – do it while you can!