I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to check out Virgin Atlantic’s newest aircraft, and its newest onboard product too, as part of a celebration to welcome the new plane. The Upper Class cabin has been completely redesigned for the A350, and is a world away from its oddly laid out premium cabin seen on the A340.
Overall, the seat is a triumph, comfortable, luxurious and with a touch of that special Virgin X factor. But, it was not without some issues. Here’s what I thought about the Upper Class seat on Virgin Atlantic’s new A350-1000.
What was once a Zodiac Aerospace seat, but is now under the brand of Safran Seats, the Cirrus has been around a while and has been tried and tested by plenty of airlines. You’ll find versions of it on American Airlines’ 777-200 and 777-300ER, on Cathay’s 777-300ER and A350 and on Delta’s A330-200. However, Virgin has done some serious modifications to the standard Cirrus seat, making it truly their own.
The first thing you notice on arriving at your seat is the wonderful fabrics and craftsmanship that’s gone into upholstering the seat and surrounds. The leather of the seat is thick and high quality, and the weave of the fabric around it is clearly something quite bespoke.
I can’t say I was a massive fan of the color of the fabric; it’s kind of a mix of black, white, salmon pink and terracotta, but the overall hue is a kind of off-orange and somewhat old fashioned. It’s the kind of color that your granny’s sofa was.
The seatbelt is built into the seat, and comes out at shoulder height… well, shoulder height for a normal person, which was much too high for my short self and meant it was digging into my neck a bit. It then requires attaching to the lap belt part of the seatbelt, which can then be fixed into the clip on the other side.
The issue I had with this was that the return on the seatbelt is a bit enthusiastic. Perhaps it’s because it’s new, but once you unattach it from the lap belt, it whizzes back up to the seat and a couple of times it almost disappeared into the seat entirely!
Naturally, the seat completely lies flat and has a variety of other settings between being completely upright and completely horizontal. In all positions, it was comfortable, particularly in the ‘fairly reclined but not lying down completely’ position, which still allows for easy viewing of the superb HD screen.
Going into bed mode, there’s a thin mattress pad added on top of the seat, which adds a surprising amount of comfort.
The only complaint I have with the seat itself is the controls. The buttons were really quite stiff to press, and totally confusing. The arrows on the buttons didn’t seem to correspond to what the buttons actually did, so you were never really sure if you were going to raise your legs a bit or crunch your stomach into the tray table. I figured out one button was for the lie down and another was for sit up, and simply stuck to those two.
Aside from the seat itself, Virgin has clearly put a lot of thought into the surrounding area, or suite. Everything is very easy on the eye, with a touch of glitz and glamor here and there to make it feel a bit special.
I love the little shelving unit. It makes it feel really homely and, yes, that is real actual glass, not some sort of Perspex. The only downside to this is the glass is super slippery because, well, it’s glass. The lower shelf has a sort of rubberized, non-slip surface, so your drink is safe in there, but I wouldn’t recommend putting anything too precious on the top shelf just in case.
In front of the shelf is a small surface, large enough to put your coffee on if you don’t fancy having the tray table down (you won’t – more on that in a mo). Beyond this, the literature pockets are below the window, and then the IFE screen is beyond that. Beneath the IFE screen is a small alcove for your feet when you’re reclined or in bed mode, furnished with a cushioned leather ottoman.
To the other side of the seat, there’s an armrest that is set to the down position on arrival. Unless you are channeling your inner He-Man or your flight attendant likes to hit the gym, that’s where it’s likely to stay too. The button to raise it requires the weight of a small elephant to press it down, and then you have to simultaneously hold in the said button while using powerlifter levels of strength to raise the rest. And, to be fair, it’s not all that comfortable when you do get it up, so my advice would be to just forget it’s there.
Onto the tray table; a crucial part of any business class product, and something which so many airlines get so, so wrong. Virgin hasn’t entirely failed with their new Upper-Class tray, but they haven’t done the best job either.
What I love about this tray table is that it’s sturdy. Super sturdy. I feel like I can hammer away on my laptop without it jiggling all over the place. It’s chunky and well made, and a great product in terms of craftsmanship and balance, It can either be folded directly down to give you a sort of slightly off to the side surface or slid around on an interesting mechanism to place it right in front of the seat.
However (you knew there was going to be a ‘however’, didn’t you), it’s just too big. I’m no size two, so it was really quite uncomfortable for me, pressing firmly into my stomach regardless of whether it was off to the side or right in front of me. I thought perhaps this was an issue with my own waistline, but having spoken to several (much skinnier) people who were also on the flight, it turned out it was a common problem.
Virgin has told us they are aware of the issue with the trays being a little too large and are planning to refit the cabin with trays that fold in half in the future. While this is commendable (taking action rather than ignoring it) it doesn’t really solve the problem. The meal service required most of the tray’s surface area for all the plates, cutlery, etc. Having it folded in half is just not going to work. What they really need is a tray that’s just maybe two inches less deep, then it would be perfect.
You might notice there’s something missing from my review so far; storage. That’s because there isn’t any. Not a sausage. I mean, there are those shelves, but they are only good for a glass or cup. As for all your personal stuff, the only real place to keep it is on the small triangular surface in front of the shelf. Or on the tray table, but that makes everything very uncomfortable and reclining impossible.
Because of the way the IFE screen swings out, it creates a small shelf in the alcove where it used to be. This is temptingly convenient for storing a phone, watch or any little bits and bobs you may have. However, don’t do what I did and forget you’ve put things there, only to swish the TV closed, crunching all your precious possessions behind the giant screen!
Even more irritating, Virgin does not allow you to have anything out when taking off or landing. Nothing. At. All. I put my handbag in the ottoman, thinking that would be OK. Nope, had to go into the overhead locker. Everything, even your pillow, has to go into the overhead locker for takeoff and landing. This was clearly quite tricky for my fellow cabin-mates to comprehend, as the poor FAs had to repeatedly tell everyone to get their stuff stowed… “Yes sir, that too… Yes ma’am, all of it.”
It’s not normal (or I feel necessary) to deprive people of their pillows for takeoff and landing. However, the overhead storage bins are mahoosive and you get a whole one to yourself, so there’s plenty of room up there. Just not the most convenient place to store stuff, is it?
In terms of privacy, there’s a divider which requires pushing in to pull it out, if that makes sense. However, pulling it out equates to all of about six inches. Virgin has previously said this is because they are a ‘social airline’; that’s all well and good, but for God’s sake let your passengers decide if they want to be social or not. A full door would have been an improvement.
So, the A350 Upper Class seat is jam-packed with interesting toys and gadgets. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into making it modern and fun, as well as functional for the most part. Some of the coolest things I found on this trip included:
This little reading light built into the seat surround. It turns on automatically when you push the cover open.
These double air vents overhead; now you can choose to be doubly refreshed!
The TV swing-out button
However, by far the coolest thing was the IFE itself. Not only is this screen absolutely massive, it’s also full HD. I’ve never seen such good picture quality on an aircraft, literally as good as my TV at home (and not that much smaller!). It’s ideal for watching whatever movies are showing on Vera, or perhaps binging on a box set or, my absolute favorite thing to do, tune in to the awesome tailcam!
The tailcam is available gate to gate; unfortunately, nothing else is, so even if you’re not a total avgeek, you’ll probably find yourself watching the tail or belly cam for at least part of the trip. It’s so cool watching takeoff and landing from this perspective; it’s probably my favorite feature of the whole IFE!
Coming in a close second is the ability to order food and drink right from the screen. You can pick anything off the menu from burgers to the awesome mile high tea and have it delivered right to your seat, or even to The Loft.
In terms of content, I found the IFE to be a little thin on the ground. There were a few good new-ish movies in most genres, but not a huge selection. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by Netflix. TV shows were decidedly disappointing, with only a couple of episodes of each show available.
In theory, you can connect your handset to the TV to use as a remote, which is kind of necessary if you’re reclining at all… the screen’s a really long way away. However, I could not for the life of me get it to pair. I assumed this was just me being inept, but having chatted to other passengers post-flight it seemed to be a common problem. In fact, I didn’t find one passenger who had successfully connected. Bit of a shame really.
The onboard WiFi works, sometimes. It’s not exactly blistering, but it’s functional and it’s WiFi, on a plane, 35,000 feet in the air, over the Atlantic Ocean. Let’s not forget how far we’ve come, guys.
One final ‘toy’ to talk about is the one you brought with you. Your phone, laptop, tablet, whatever you like, will need to be charged. Good luck in finding the charging point. It took me a good ten minutes of scrabbling, scrannying and searching to locate the powerpoint. When you do find it (I won’t spoil your fun) you’ll be pleased to know there is a universal US/UK mains point as well as a USB charger.
There is also an additional, more conveniently located USB charger under the shelves. However, annoyingly once you’ve plugged the noise-canceling headphones in, the socket becomes blocked. This would be an ideal charging point to use in bed mode, to keep your phone charged and close by. However, if you also want to listen to an audiobook or music as you drift off, that will no longer be an option for you. Such a silly problem, so easily solved by simply putting the headphone jack the other way around.
On the upside, the noise-canceling headphones are amazing. The A350 is super quiet anyway, probably the quietest aircraft I’ve ever been on, and once you don the headphones, it’s easy to forget you’re on a plane at all.
Overall I liked the seat. It’s comfortable, suitably luxurious and has enough toys and gadgets to keep anyone busy on a transatlantic flight. Is it better than BA’s? Probably not. The issues with the lack of storage space, the almost privacy screen and little bits of build quality annoyances put the Virgin seat on the back foot.
However (there it is again), when you put everything together, the Clubhouse, the chauffeur transfer, the private entrance, the amazing food, the Loft, the screens, the genuinely happy and enthusiastic staff… the whole damn Virgin-ness of it all… the balance starts to shift. I do think Virgin has developed a good product; a great product in fact, and I also believe they will learn and grow from these small niggles so that with each new cabin, we see something a little bit better.
As a bare-bones seat/suite with all its bells and whistles, BA is probably the choice. However, when you wrap in the entire Upper-Class experience, I know who I’d rather cross the Atlantic with.
Simple Flying/Joanna Bailey traveled as a guest of Virgin Atlantic.