Upper Class On The Ground – Inside Virgin Atlantic’s 747 Farewell

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has led to the premature retirement of older and larger aircraft among many airlines worldwide. Virgin Atlantic is one such carrier. The last of its iconic Boeing 747 aircraft is set to depart London Heathrow for the last time next week. However, before this final departure, the airline hosted a farewell event in its maintenance hangar at LHR.

Virgin atlantic 747
Since commencing operations in June 1984, Virgin Atlantic has operated 30 Boeing 747 aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

What happened at the event?

Prior to today’s public event, which sold out in minutes, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the press day for Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 747 farewell yesterday. The airline prematurely retired its seven remaining 747 aircraft in May, ending 36 years of the type’s use at the airline. While everyone would have liked to commemorate the type’s departure with farewell flights, the present situation rendered this impossible.

However, the airline has been able to host a limited-capacity event in its hangar at its hub at London Heathrow. This took place onboard a 747-400 registered G-VROY, its final remaining example of the ‘Queen of the skies.’ It bears the name Pretty Woman.

Welcome drinks

I attended the afternoon session, which commenced at 13:30 with a welcome drink of champagne on the aircraft’s top deck. Rather aptly, this part of the day was known as ‘bubbles in the bubble.’

Corneel Koster Virgin Atlantic 747 Farewell
Virgin Atlantic’s Corneel Koster addresses the event’s guests onboard G-VROY. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying

While enjoying the welcome drink, we were addressed by Corneel Koster, the airline’s Chief Customer & Operating Officer. He welcomed us to the event and spoke of his optimism despite the challenging year 2020 has proven to be for commercial aviation. Among his reasons to be cheerful were:

  • Virgin Atlantic’s 2020 Black Friday sale surpassed its expectations.
  • Its cargo operations have grown by 50% this year.
  • The last decade has seen a 20% reduction in emissions at the airline. With the 747 no longer operating, this will fall a further 10%.
  • Huge fleet investment – the airline now has seven active Airbus A350 aircraft, with a further five on order. Virgin Atlantic also expects to begin receiving its Airbus A330neo aircraft by the end of 2022.
  • Inaugural flights this week from the UK to the Pakistani cities of Islamabad (served by Heathrow and Manchester) and Lahore (served by Heathrow).
Virgin 747 Cockpit
Best seats in the house – the cockpit of the Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying

Tour of the aircraft

Following the welcome drinks, our group of 14 was divided into seven pairs for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of G-VROY. This took in the following areas of the aircraft and the maintenance hangar:

  • Cargo hold
  • Engines and engine maintenance
  • Crew rest area
  • Cockpit and pilot rest area
Virgin Atlantic 747 Cargo Hold
One of G-VROY’s sizable cargo holds. This aspect of operations has become increasingly important to Virgin Atlantic this year. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying
Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 General Electric CF6 Engine
One of G-VROY’s four General Electric CF6 engines. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying

Upper Class lunch

Following the tour, we took our seats in the Upper Class cabin, situated in the aircraft’s nose. As Virgin Atlantic tended to operate leisure-focused routes with the 747, this consists of just 14 seats. According to SeatGuru, the remainder of the aircraft features 66 premium economy and 375 economy seats. The upper deck is configured with a small amount of each of these.

From the comfort of flatbed seat 11K, I enjoyed a full three-course Upper Class meal served by Virgin Atlantic’s amiable cabin crew. Having talked to staff members across various divisions (pilots, cabin crew, and engineering), many find that the airline’s relatively small size makes working there feel like a family. This nature really shines through in its wonderful customer service.

Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 Upper Class Menu
The three-course Upper Class lunch menu at Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 747 farewell event. Its quirky ‘Wilbur and Orville’ salt and pepper shakers can also be seen. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying

The 747 – ever-present with Virgin until now

According to Planespotters.net, Virgin Atlantic operated 30 Boeing 747 aircraft between 1984 and 2020. These consisted of the following variants:

  • 747-100 – 1 example, 1990-2000
  • 747-200 – 16 examples, 1984-2005
  • 747-400 – 13 examples, 1994-2020
Virgin Atlantic G-VROY London Heathrow
G-VROY has been stored in Virgin Atlantic’s maintenance hangar at Heathrow for a month. It is set to depart the British capital for one final time next week. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying

In his speech at the start of the event, Corneel Koster underlined that “the 747 is Virgin Atlantic.” The airline also holds several records in terms of 747 captains. For example, it had the first-ever female 747 captain – Yvonne Kershaw, who was also at the event. Furthermore, the airline has also had the youngest 747 captain, and the 747 captain with the most hours on the type in the world.

On the whole, the event was a fitting farewell for an iconic aircraft. It will be sad to see it go, but, moving forward, Virgin Atlantic can look forward to its most modern and efficient fleet yet.

What are your thoughts about Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 747 aircraft? Let us know what you think in the comment section.