I recently had the opportunity to experience the brand new Virgin A350-1000 on a return trip from London to New York. While The outward trip was a bit unusual, due to it being a celebratory flight for invited guests, the return flight was more run-of-the-mill. Here’s how I found it.
Arrival and check in
Arriving at New York JFK airport, things were decidedly less glamorous than they were back in the UK. At Heathrow, Upper Class passengers get access to a private entrance with dedicated check in and bag drop area. At JFK, there was no such facility, meaning we entered the terminal (under the shade of a beautiful sunset) in the same manner as everyone else.
As we entered, there was a speedy check in desk for Upper Class passengers traveling with hand luggage only. However, due to the time of night (around 8pm local) this was closed. The lanes for check in a bag drop for Upper Class passengers were slightly less crowded than the economy lines, but we still had a much longer wait than we’d had on the outbound flight.
Nevertheless, within a few minutes we were through the bag drop and into fast track security, then onwards to the Virgin JFK Clubhouse.
As is the standard with all Virgin Clubhouse facilities, it’s really a very gorgeous lounge. I’ll do a full review of this some other time, but let’s just say it’s huge, very modern and full of smiling staff all too willing to help.
As well as a large luggage storage area and spa, the lounge boasts a variety of places to get settled in and relax before your flight. This includes sofa seats, dining tables, workstations complete with PCs and even a sports bar type area with a pool table.
Despite arriving fairly late and fairly well fed, I grabbed some snaps of the menu, and have to say, it looks amazing. Next time I’ll be sure to arrive hungry!
One of the best things about the JFK Virgin Clubhouse is its dual aspect viewpoints of two sides of the apron. On the left of the Clubhouse, we could see G-VLUX getting ready for departure, complete with her purple mood lighting shining through the windows. On the right, the lounge overlooked another part of the airport, where we spied a Singapore Airlines A380 among other things.
Boarding was directly from the lounge, which was super convenient. From getting called for boarding to stepping onto the plane was done in a matter of minutes, and as it was just Upper Class boarding first, we stepped into an empty plane.
Stepping onto the Virgin Atlantic A350 really packs a lot of wow factor in. Everyone enters through The Loft, and even though I’d seen this social space just 24 hours before, it takes my breath away every time. The huge TV, gold chandelier and glamorous lighting really makes it feel very special indeed.
In case you don’t know already what The Loft is, it’s basically a replacement for what was traditionally the bar. Rather than being an actual bar with bar stools, which means you need to leave and return to your seat every time the seatbelt sign comes on, you can instead remain in this area, as seatbelts have been provided.
Virgin are incredibly proud of this unique feature on the A350, and rightly so. The huge 32″ touchscreen can be paired with Bluetooth headphones so that groups of people can enjoy a film together, listen to music or even host a silent disco.
The cabin was lit with Virgin’s signature purple mood lighting, which made it warm and inviting but a little difficult for photos. Nevertheless, I arrived at my seat, 6K, and got comfortable for the flight.
Everything has to be stowed for takeoff, and that doesn’t mean shoved in the ottoman. Apart from anything you’re holding in your hand, like your phone for instance, everything must go into the overhead locker until the seatbelt sign is switched off. This is a little inconvenient, but ultimately a safety issue, so I wasn’t going to argue.
Food and beverage
In order to maximize sleeping time on the flight, the flight attendants began preparing for meal service the second the seatbelt sign went off. We already had our menus at our seats, so we could be ready with our order when they came around.
It wasn’t required to eat at this point; indeed, on the new A350, Virgin offers a dine on demand feature, where you can order food via the IFE screen and have it delivered either to your seat or to The Loft. However, as I was keen to test drive the seat/bed, I was happy to order early on in the flight.
For the benefit of our readers, you can download the full menu for this redeye flight here: VS A350 menu.
For starters, there were options for salad or soup. I opted to skip the starter, as I’d arrived fairly well fed and wanted to save room for dessert! For main, we had a choice of fillet steak, gnocchi or chicken salad. Having had an amazing beef dish on the way out, I went with the steak.
For me, the steak was too chewy. I’m not a huge fan of red meat for this exact reason, but the ribs we’d had on the way out had been so good, I thought I’d give it a try. Despite the slightly tough beef, the vegetables were beautifully cooked (possibly drizzled in butter – naughty!) and the little potato cake was delicious.
All the meals are served on real china plates, with proper metal cutlery and a cotton napkin. Accompanying the meal are a pair of salt and pepper shakers which are just too cute. Happily, they all have embossed on the bottom “pinched from Virgin Atlantic”, so clearly the airline is under no illusions about how many of these will accidentally fall into passenger’s hand luggage.
Dessert had only one option: Flourless Valrhona Chocolate Cake fresh berries and raspberry coulis. A choice would have been nice, but as a self-confessed chocoholic, I was happy. It was a dense chocolate tart, absolutely super rich and absolutely gorgeous. I washed it all down with a delightfully rich cup of coffee. A cheeseboard was on offer to follow the meal too, but with sleep in mind I decided to forgo this in favor of a timely turndown service.
The amenity kit
Virgin has recently revamped its amenity kit in favor of a more ‘sustainability’ focused alternative. Gone are the fancy bags, with a rather toned down Kraft paper bag in its place. While it’s not as glamorous as their previous offering, it’s not a bad little bag and feels sturdy enough to be used for toiletries or make up for some time to come.
Inside, Virgin offers a pretty standard array of bits and bobs, albeit with a bit of a nod to sustainable practices.
Instead of a plastic toothbrush, they’ve added a Bambuubrush – a toothbrush no less, but with a compostable handle made from bamboo. The bristles, infused with charcoal for whiter teeth, are unfortunately made from PBT (polybutylene terephthalate) which is not compostable; the manufacturer recommends snapping the head off prior to recycling.
As well as this, there are some super socks, and I mean super. These aren’t your normal flight socks; they are thick, high quality and in all sorts of funky colors. I love them, and will definitely be reusing them. The included pen has changed too, now featuring a recycled paper body to reduce plastic content.
Accompanying all this are the standard ear plugs, eye mask and a selection of wonderful REN skin care products. I was also given a loungewear set, which actually fits very well and is made of the softest cotton – I have to admit to having worn it many, many times at home since returning from our trip! It’s a solid amenities kit with an ethical message, and I liked it.
Virgin’s A350 uses the Vera platform for content. The shows are delivered via a huge 18” screen, all in full HD, which is really great to see. The selection of movies, TV shows and boxsets is pretty good, although certainly not the largest catalog I’ve seen on board. At a rough count, there were around 100 movies preloaded onto the system, which included a few new releases as well as plenty of old classics.
For kids, there were only about eight movies, mostly aimed at younger children. The selection of TV shows was much better (you can’t go wrong with a Horrid Henry), but with only a couple of shows for each title, I couldn’t help feeling my nine year old would be a little bored on this flight. Teens would be well catered for, with a fair selection of superhero movies and comedies that are age-appropriate.
As well as movies and TV shows, there were audiobooks, a solid library of music and some guided meditations / relaxation tracks. You could also take a tour of the A350, order food and drink and, of course, watch the fabulous tailcam on the screen. The noise-canceling headphones are of very good quality indeed.
The pairing with a smartphone business never worked at all. I did think it was perhaps my own ineptitude, but several others had experienced issues too, so I think perhaps the system is not working as well as it should. I felt the WiFi was not working as well as it could have done either; it seemed to fluctuate between working really, really well and not working at all, and due to the firewall I was unable to run any sort of speed test to check out the performance in more detail.
One big disappointment is that the entertainment is not gate to gate. Letting passengers watch their movies from the moment they board (excluding during the safety demo, of course) is a great way to improve the onboard experience. I’m not sure why Virgin didn’t include this, but it’s a missed opportunity. It was particularly apparent how good it could have been on our outbound flight, when there was a problem with the jet bridge and we ended up waiting on the aircraft for over half an hour. A bit of TV or music would have helped this pass much more quickly.
What you do get from gate to gate, however, is the tail and belly cam. I can’t stress enough how fun this is, particularly on takeoff and landing. However, when you’re parked at a gate waiting for the airport to get its act together, there’s nothing much to see so switching on the IFE would have gone a long way to placating the frustrated passengers.
The seat and bed
I’ve undertaken a complete review of the seat and ‘suite’ surrounding it already, so I won’t go on about it. What I will say is it’s super easy to convert it to a bed. The flight attendants were happy to do this for me, but I thought I’d have a go myself just to see if it was straightforward.
The seat goes from sitting to flat at the touch of a button. You can, of course, stop pressing the button at any point, to get the seat into a ‘reclined but not completely lying down’ position. On the way out I’d found this fab for watching movies and relaxing.
Once flat, the flight attendant will grab a mattress pad from the overhead locker. As you get an entire locker to yourself, having this up there too really isn’t any hardship. Despite being somewhat thin, the mattress pad adds a decent level of comfort and warmth to the leather seat. Topping it off is a real duvet (with no cover, also part of Virgin’s eco-drive… I assume it gets washed regularly though?) and a wonderfully fluffy pillow.
At 5’4”, the bed was more than large enough for me. I found I could sleep comfortably on my back or side, although perhaps taller people wouldn’t find it so easy, as there is a marked taper towards the foot end of the bed as it goes into the footwell.
Warm and cozy, I got a good three solid hours of sleep on this redeye flight before it was time to start descending into Heathrow.
I was delighted to discover that the flight crew were the same ones we’d flown out with. Id developed a wonderful rapport with all the Upper Class flight attendants on the way out, and was pleased to see their smiling faces on the way back too.
Nothing was too much trouble for these guys. Whether you wanted another drink or simply had a question to ask, everyone went out of their way to be helpful. My big shout out goes to Fiona, who was everything you’d want from a great FA. Despite being rushed off her feet and probably walking several miles up and down the cabin, she was always smiling and happy and ready to help.
Virgin’s new A350 is a belter of an aircraft. It’s been designed with passengers in mind, and the crew seem to love flying it too. The food in Upper Class is generally of a very good standard, and the IFE screen is something else!
There are certainly improvements to be made, both in terms of the hard product (the seat) and the amenities (the WiFi and gate to gate entertainment, for example). However, the Clubhouse and the infectious enthusiasm of Virgin’s crew goes a long way to making up for this.
If I ever get the chance to fly with Virgin Atlantic on the A350 again, I would jump at it, and not just in Upper Class either. I believe the airline has done wonders with the economy and premium economy cabins too, and while the Upper is certainly a marked improvement over what came before, I really think their other cabins are what will draw passengers away from their competitors.
Have you flown on Virgin’s A350 yet? What did you think of the experience?