Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Is Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Upper Class?

I have taken to flying Virgin quite a lot recently and when I do I usually book in advance (for price) into the Upper Class cabin. This is mainly because I go to the Caribbean quite frequently and Virgin take off earlier and are far more prompt than BA on this particular route. This is important to me as I am usually catching a connection which BA often miss necessitating an unwelcome night-stop in Barbados. I cannot understand why BA keeps making such a gaffe but I digress.

My early booking got me a pretty good Upper Class fare and I sat back anticipating the holiday to come. I was particularly enthusiastic as Virgin were introducing their new executive seating on the route and I was looking forward to seeing how they could make an excellent product even better. Despite taking a little time getting used to their 'wishbone' shaped seating plan I found the service combined with seat comfort unbeatable compared with their competitors.

Virgin on the ground are very slick. There was no queue at Upper Class check-in and very little at the fast flowing economy desks. The staff were polite, efficient and very welcoming. We even avoided the scrum at security via the priority lane and, apart from joining the growing numbers of people trying to walk while replacing belts, shoes, loose change etc etc we were air-side very quickly.

We visited their lounge which was a little disappointing. OK, it is light and airy, and the staff were nice but sadly their famed breakfast was cold and it was rather noisy with excited visitors. You also need to be ready to be called early as they are determined to get the flight off on time, or early in our case. They used to use their jumbos on this route but now they mainly operate Airbuses with their newest seat configurations and in-flight service.

As I said earlier, how can you improve on the already excelent? Well, I am afraid you can't. sadly this was not an improvement but more a step backwards. This might sound mean minded but I have been flying once/twice a week for the last 40 years so I should know what I am talking about. The joy of virgin was the impression and reality of space and this new cabin did not look like that. I think someone looked at the last set-up and wondered how they could squeeze more seats into the same space. There were rank after rank of tightly joined seats with tiny foot-rest/visitor stools, no arm rest on one side and a much narrower feel. You cannot really sit alongside anyone and, if you tried you would have to choose a different centre seat row to your window seat to get close. as the seating is now staggered across the cabin.

The seat still folds over to become a mattress at nights but the fit is narrow and you need extra pillows to stop your head being lower than the rest of you. Your feet have to perch on the little stools and the narrow aisle means that people knock into them when you are trying to sleep.

The in-flight entertainment is still unbeatable and the tray tables are still big but they are monsters to drag out un-aided and spring back into your mi-drift if you are not careful. The ability to use your phone is a bonus to some and a curse to others. It made a change to hear folks brag to surprised relatives that they are 'on the plane' rather than 'on the train'!

Was the cabin full? Yes it was. Did they all pay the fare? No they didn't. Like BA Virgin operate an upgrade policy where they overfill economy and upgrade the surplus into Premium Economy and Upper classes. It can be rather annoying to those that booked and paid for the comfort, ambiance and space. Upgraded folk are often not the best behaved and it also means that cabin resource like food and drink take longer getting to you. It is irritating if you are in the part of the cabin that gets served last and your food choice gets sold out before it reaches you. I have to admit to double standards here.

I used to constantly battle to get upgrades but now I am there by right I get very tetchy when seeing some of the folk that get 'moved forward'. My mood is not improved when I hear that Virgin and a few others may auction off upgrade seats on departure. Brilliant! Now I can pay a lot of money to book a better seat only to witness some kind of financial competition among other passengers to join me. And this is all because they either overbook the back end of their flights or want to make a quick buck on departure. Not happy with that!

So what did I think of the flights? Both were perfect on timing to the point of arriving early. I saw the BA flight come in later afterwards and their passengers missed the connecting services. The staff was nice and the food was fully acceptable by airline standards. The tea and coffee was either stewed or tepid but you always get there. The new seats? A disappointment and a step back. I doubt if they would get away with them unscathed on a major business route.

Is it 'Upper Class'?     NO.

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