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Virgin pioneered the concept of a 'mid grade' cabin that is halfway between coach class and business class in 1992. Other airlines have subsequently copied this idea.

Virgin's Premium Economy cabin is wonderfully better than coach class, and in most respects clearly superior to BA's competing product.

 
 
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The Virgin (Airways) Experience Part 1
Heathrow to San Francisco
Premium Economy Class

Flying becomes enjoyable again with lots of room and comfort.

In addition to a greater degree of comfort, one of the best features of a flight with Virgin is their friendly helpful staff.

 

 

With some embarrassment, I confess to having been a Virgin virgin until now.

After reading so many positive things about the airline for so many years, I was expecting to find that they too had succumbed to complacency and the 'ugly airline' syndrome which many of their competitors suffer from. With some skepticism, I decided to give them a try.

Good news - I need not have worried. They're as great today as they ever have been in the past. An excellent airline in almost every respect.

Pre-pre-Flight

These days if you're flying on most Star (but no longer oneworld, who ended this service in Oct 03) alliance carriers, you can check in for your Heathrow flight at Paddington. The check in lines are usually short, and because the checkin time is the same at Paddington as it is at the airport itself, this can allow you to start your journey the better part of 30 minutes later than if doing an airport checkin.

Unfortunately, Virgin Atlantic Airways (to give them their full proper name) does not offer this service.

Pre-Flight

Good news awaited me upon arriving at Virgin's Terminal Three checkin counters. No lines of people waiting to check in. Indeed, for the Economy Class counters, I counted an amazing total of six checkin agents all waiting to serve passengers, and all with no passengers in front of them!

Unlike BA, Virgin also offer a separate priority checkin line for their Premium Economy cabin. A friendly agent quickly checked me in; leaving me then with plenty of time to browse through the various shops in Terminal 3 prior to boarding the flight to San Francisco.

Another positive difference between the BA product and the Virgin Premium Economy product was that the Premium Economy passengers are allowed early boarding prior to the main coach class passengers. With BA, their Premium Economy passengers are boarded last of all!

On-Board

Virgin split their Premium Economy seating, with 20 of the 32 seats upstairs and 12 additional seats downstairs between the coach and Upper Class areas. Seating is two plus two upstairs, and similarly downstairs (with service area between the two sides).

The seats are wider than coach class seats, and recline further back. They also have leg rests and massive sized video screens set in the back of the seat in front. Best of all, the leg room is increased up to a generous 38" (same as BA).

However, although the seats were much nicer and larger than in coach class, they were not well designed for using a laptop. The tray table was too high, and only supported on one side (it came out of the armrest rather than folding down from the seat back). This meant that when typing on the computer, the whole tray table and computer were springing up and down, making it very unsatisfactory to work on.

The greater height of the tray table not only interfered with the ergonomics of working on the keyboard, but also made the laptop screen more susceptible to the impact of the seat in front being fully reclined, and even with the increased seat pitch, working on my large sized laptop was difficult with the seat in front fully reclined.

Clearly the seat designers do not expect people to want to work on the flight. However, in the 20 seat section that I was seated in, I counted six other people using computers for much of the flight, and most of us ended up with the laptop on our knees rather than on the tray table - also unsatisfactory, but an improvement over the tray table.

I was seated upstairs. The first half of the upper deck held part of the Upper Class section, and the rear half was Premium Economy. Due to the curvature of the roof, the overhead lockers were not very capacious, but there were also side lockers between the window seat and the actual body of the plane, providing extra storage area.

A generous selection of newspapers was available at the rear of the cabin. A useful amenities kit even included a pen and notepaper, as well as the usual things such as socks and eye shades.

Food and Drink

Just like in the better airlines' business or first class cabins (but not on BA in either their premium economy or business class!), immediately upon boarding the flight one was offered a glass of real French champagne (or orange juice or water if preferred). This was a nice first impression that was followed up with consistently good food and drink service throughout the flight.

We had two meals served, with a choice of three entrees (one of which was vegetarian) for the main meal. In addition, two snack services also occurred, and drinks were regularly offered. Although the food was not significantly better than any other airline meal, the regularity of food being offered was splendid.

Amazing, this premium food service is also offered in their regular coach class as well.

We were also provided with hot moist towels twice during the journey - and they were true towels, not those horrible paper things that some airlines provide and which end up leaving paper fragments all over your face!

In Flight Entertainment

Virgin is now equipping its planes with a truly state of the art 'V:Port' system (as of March 2003 on 6 of their 26 planes, and in the process of being added to all remaining planes).

This provided a staggering 52 different movies to choose from, any of which could be watched at any time. It was just the same as having your own DVD player and movies - any movie could be started at any time, and you could pause it, fast forward or rewind it, and, of course, stop it if you didn't like it. No longer does one need to suffer the agony of the 'really good bits' being interrupted by in-flight announcements or meal services!

In addition to the library of movies, there were also umpteen video and audio channels (literally too many to count) plus a bunch of computer games and a moving map showing flight information.

Sadly, all these wonderful capabilities were obstructed by a counter-intuitive interface that was difficult to master. I suspect few people will make full use of all its features.

Every seat also had its own phone, which could be used both to communicate with anywhere in the world (albeit at a rather steep $9 per minute!) and also to have conversations with other people on board - you simply dial the other person's seat number into the phone. 'Local' calls on the plane were free.

For the workaholics among us, one of the other benefits of Premium Economy is an in-seat power supply for laptop computers. This was another area where Virgin shined in comparison to BA. With BA's identical in-seat power supply, you have to either provide your own special power adapter cable (your normal 110V power supply doesn't work) or else buy one onboard for $100. Virgin will lend you one for free, a much fairer attitude.

Virgin, like BA too, close down everything way too far in advance of landing. We had to return our computer power cords 50 minutes prior to landing, and the video systems were turned off 40 minutes prior, with passengers being required to be in the 'seat backs upright and safety belts fastened' position for the entire remaining 40 minutes. There seemed little reason for this.

Service

The cabin crew on both my flights were positive, helpful, and friendly! Unlike some other airlines, Virgin's staff appear to be consistently nice and personable. One feels that they are pleased to have their passengers on board, and one is certain that the staff are always delighted to be able to assist with any request.

Unlike other British airlines that suffer from uneven staff attitudes, Virgin's onboard staff don't disappear for most of the journey. Even though it was a very full flight in all three classes, the Virgin crew were omnipresent, always moving through the cabin, and always smiling and quick to assist, never giving the impression that they were too busy or unwilling to help.

Other Issues

The flight pushed back from Heathrow five minutes early and arrived into SFO a gratifying 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Wonderful.

Premium Economy passengers don't get any extra luggage allowance, but unlike some US carriers, you can still check two suitcases, each weighing up to 70 pounds. However, you are given priority luggage handling, although in my experience (on all airlines), priority luggage tags often make no difference at all to the speed at which your suitcases arrive at the other end!

Virgin's Premium Economy fares are set at similar levels to those on BA. Normally they are measurably more expensive than a discounted coach fare (ie as much as $1500 extra) but sometimes they have specials which allow you to upgrade - even from super discounted coach fares - for as little as $500 extra.

If your company won't spring for a business class fare (which costs in the general range of about $8000) then Premium Economy, even at its full price, is a remarkable bargain, especially if it enables you to get some productive work done on board and gets you to your destination feeling more refreshed and ready for business.

If you are paying for your own travels, a $1500 premium for extra comfort for 20 hours of travel may be something to carefully consider, depending on your budget level. But any time you can find Premium Economy available for only a $500 premium (ie $25/hour of travel) this is a 'no brainer' that most people would be well advised to take advantage of. With only 32 Premium Economy seats on board (and I noticed that all seats were sold on both my flights) you'll want to grab such deals as urgently quickly as possible!

Members of Virgin's 'Flying Club' frequent flier program get 150% of flown miles when flying Premium Economy. On a 10,000+ mile roundtrip, the extra 5000 miles are a substantial extra benefit.

Reference

Virgin Atlantic Airways website

My reviews on BA's Premium Economy equivalent and BA's business class.

My review on Virgin's Upper Class (business class).

A Quick History of Virgin Atlantic Airways

Virgin Atlantic Airways commenced flying with a single leased 747 in June 1984, and since that time has grown to become Britain's second largest international airline.

Founded by British high-profile extrovert entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, the airline has always differentiated itself from its major competitor, BA, by choosing the exact opposite of the 'stuffy Brit' image that some people might ascribe to BA. Instead, and building on Branson's involvement in the entertainment industry, the airline has adopted a rather 'hip' image, combined with genuine friendly and good customer service.

These days Virgin operates a fleet of eight 747-400s, 10 A340-600s and four A340-400s. It also has six of the A380 'super jumbo' planes on order, due to enter service from 2006. At one stage Sir Richard was talking boldly about putting double beds into the new A380s, but their exact configuration and amenities are not yet confirmed. Singapore Airlines purchased a 49% share of Virgin in 1999.

Nowadays Virgin flies to 20 destinations in 11 countries, including from Manchester, Heathrow and Gatwick to nine cities in the US (Boston, JFK, Newark, Dulles, Orlando, Miami, LAX, Las Vegas and SFO). Although too independent and distinctive an airline to closely join any of the airline alliances, they do have some code sharing with their shareholder Singapore Airlines, plus additional codesharing with Continental, bmi British Midland, and Malaysian Airlines.

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Originally published 21 March 2003, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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