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Virgin's new Upper Class Suite gives you a first class experience at a business class price.

Their new Upper Class suite gives you a roomy lie-flat bed, plus all sorts of other extras such as chauffeur limousine transfers to/from the airport and on board massages.

 
 
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Virgin Airways Upper Class Suite

A new approach to lie-flat sleeper bed type of airline travel

By day it is a very comfortable leather seat, with every seat enjoying direct aisle access (even the window seats.

By night, it is an unusually comfortable lie-flat bed.

All the time, it is the Upper Class Suite on Virgin Atlantic Airways - the latest and perhaps greatest approach to airline seat comfort.

 

 

Virgin Atlantic's previous Upper Class cabin provided an excellent quality experience, but suffered in comparison to BA by not having lie-flat sleeper seats.

Their new Upper Class Suite cabins offer a convertible seat/bed that is, in most respects, appreciably better than the BA alternative.

A mix of other services before and after each flight round out what is generally a very positive flying experience.


History repeating itself

Much the same as when I was reviewing the earlier Upper Class product in April 2003, I was able to easily check my bag in with Alaska Airlines in Seattle and not see it again until London, even though my Virgin flights were on a separate e-ticket to my Alaska flights.  This makes it very convenient to travel by just about any other US airline to the city from which Virgin has service.

And, in San Francisco, there was again a zero wait to checkin for Virgin's flight on to Heathrow.  Good airlines have short checkin lines - it shows a heartening concern for customer service and an ability to manage and control their airport services.  Bad airlines have long checkin lines and sometimes even have to cancel flights due to their inability to process people through checkin fast enough (as was the case with BA a couple of months back).

Service Cutbacks?  Not with Virgin!

My last visit to the Virgin Clubhouse in San Francisco was a wondrous experience, and I was concerned that in the tougher economic environment these days, service cutbacks might have diminished the quality of this experience.

I did not need to worry, because their Clubhouse continues to be the ultra deluxe experience it always has been.  Same as last time, I was offered a menu and was able to order from it, as if I were dining in a fine restaurant.  The food was excellent, and remains completely free, as do drinks from their well stocked bar.

The Clubhouse now offers free Wi-fi internet access as well.

It remains spacious and uncrowded, and I noticed another thing that I've never come across in other airline lounges.  The passengers in the lounge seemed to be generally happy and cheerful - could it be they were even enjoying their Virgin travel?!  A group of people got to know each other at the bar and were laughing and joking among themselves and with the Virgin staff.

Full marks to Virgin for all pre-flight services.  And now, on to the plane itself.  Even that was well managed - the Clubhouse waited until all other passengers had boarded before inviting us to go to the plane, so we didn't have any crowds or waiting in line when boarding - although it was a bit alarming, while still several minutes away from the boarding gate, to hear announcements over the airport pa system saying 'The Virgin flight to London has now closed'!

On the return flight, Virgin's London Clubhouse continues to define 'state of the art' in terms of airport lounges and the comprehensive range of amenities offered, stretching now even to things such as having suits tailored and also video game stations.  Although much busier than the San Francisco clubhouse, there was still spare space, lovely food on offer, and the same positive buzz about the place.  The London Clubhouse is on the far side of security, making it easier and more predictable, time-wise, to get from the Clubhouse to the gate.

The Innovative New Lie-Flat Sleeper Seats

The concept of lie flat sleeper seats is no longer new.  It is probably ten years since BA first introduced them in their first class, and maybe three years since they added them to their business class as well.  Other airlines have been increasingly copying the concept, and they are now almost an essential feature of any airline's premium cabins.

Virgin's lie-flat seat is a relative latecomer, but this has worked to their advantage, because they have been able to draw from the positive and negative features of past designs of sleeper seat and then, adding a dash of innovative flair, come up with something very different and perhaps very much better, too.

Seats are laid out in a herringbone type fashion.  Seats are facing generally forward, but at an angle of approx 45, angled in to the center of the cabin (upstairs) or center of each aisle (in the twin aisle downstairs section).

This angle makes for an interesting sensation when taking off and landing.  The acceleration occurs at an angle to the direction one is sitting, and so it feels a bit like the plane is turning rather than proceeding straight ahead.  This is not an unpleasant feeling and only very briefly experienced, and for the rest of the time, there is no unusual sensation from being on an angle.

One minor disadvantage of the angled seats is that it is difficult to look out the window.  This is only an issue if there is something to see, of course, and most of the time, it seems the plane is either flying at night, above cloud, or over the water.

The tray table is very large.  There was plenty of room for my laptop and mouse also.  The table was also solid and good to work on.

The seats have laptop power outlets, and unlike BA, Virgin lends you the necessary power adapter.  (BA will sell you one at an above market price, but won't lend you one, even after you've paid top dollar for a business class seat.)

A common problem with all other sleeper seats is they are awkward compromises between a seat that is comfortable to sit in and a bed that is comfortable to lie in.  A comfortable seat has a certain type of design, firmness, shape and contour.  A comfortable bed has a different approach to its design.  One single surface can not - and, demonstrably, does not - adequately perform a dual role as both bed and seat.

Virgin have come up with a brilliant solution to this conundrum.  To convert your seat to a bed, you don't just lie it down flat.  You push a button and the seat flips head over heels, and so instead of having the seating surface to lie on, you have the other side of the seat to sleep on - a surface that is more comfortable and amenable to sleep.

However, even this approach embodies some necessary compromise.  With BA, the seat just keeps on reclining until it eventually ends up horizontal.  You can set the recline to any amount from horizontal to upright seating.

On Virgin, your Upper Class suite can be configured either as seat, which will recline a long way, but not all the way, or alternatively it can be configured as a lie-flat bed.  This is the seat's unique distinguishing feature and strength, but also a possible weakness.  With the BA approach, it is easy to transition between lying down and sitting up, as often and whenever you want.

In the Virgin Upper Class Suite, if you want to swap between bed mode and seat mode you must get off the seat/bed and push a button and then wait as the unit changes from one format to the other.  This isn't a huge deal, but it does force you to make a 'policy decision' as between choosing either to be sleeping or awake.

Virgin's creative solution to the bed/seat compromise has earned it six different design awards (so far!).

Sleeping on the Bed

The bed seemed appreciably longer than BA's business class bed, and I subsequently found out that it is a massive 7.5" longer.  This is a huge difference.

I am just over 6' tall and could fully stretch out and still have space at the top and bottom of the Virgin Upper Class Suite bed, whereas I feel uncomfortable wedged in with the BA bed.

It is important to realize that you need a bed longer than you are.  When you lie on a bed, your feet are often pointed down, adding to your length, and you typically want a bit of spare space at each end as well.

And so the claims by other airlines about their 'long' beds need to be taken with a grain of salt and the realization that you need several inches more in bed length than you are tall.  In Virgin's case, their Upper Class Suite is the largest fully flat bed of any airline, and varies in length between 79.5" - 82".

It was also wider at the top than at the bottom, with a generous 33" of width at your shoulders, narrowing to 22" in the middle parts and slightly less at the far end where your feet go.  This 33" shoulder width is 12" wider than BA's 21" business and first class bed-seats.

The extra shoulder area width can be quite important if you don't want to lie with your arms narrowly wedged straight down your sides.  The extra room enabled one to toss and turn and find exactly the best position to lie in for maximum comfort.

As for the actual comfort issues, the Virgin approach to a lie-flat bed is definitely the best I've come across so far, and in particular I was unaware of any joins or seams in the mattress surface.  It was plain that my fellow passengers were also enjoying their bed-seats, with most of them happily tucked into their beds and fast asleep for most of the flight.

The bed comes with two pillows (one large, one small), a bottom sheet and a substantial duvet.  In addition, Virgin gives each passenger a tracksuit type pair of trousers and long sleeved top to sleep in.  These are available in different sizes, making them more comfortable than the 'one size fits all' approach on other airlines.

Making a Seat into a Suite

It isn't just hype to call the Virgin Upper Class seat a suite.  A reasonable degree of privacy on either side gives you your own space without intrusions from fellow travelers.

Although you have lateral privacy, you do have eye contact with the passengers seated opposite which is a new sensation while flying.  However, you also have a much greater sense of open space, because your view forward is over an empty aisle and to other people comparatively far away.  This view makes the perception of wide open space better than on any other airline, and is vastly preferable to a view of the seat back in front!

The foot rest, or as Virgin grandly call it, the ottoman, does double duty as a guest seat, complete even with safety belt, enabling you to have a friend come and sit opposite you to talk and even to share a drink or meal.

Virgin have just announced an extension to their suite concept.  They are making it possible for the paired suites downstairs to be combined into double suites, enabling people to, well - insert your own choice of innuendo here!  :)

Which are the best seats to choose?

Virgin has upper class seats both in the front half of the upstairs cabin and in the forward-most part of the main cabin.

Interestingly, the beds upstairs are 2.5" longer than the beds downstairs (82" compared to 79.5") - if you're very tall, you will find the extra 2.5" useful.

I had seat 1K on the way over - normally row 1 is the ultra-VIP row because it is in the very front of the plane with the most privacy and commonly is also the first row to be served meals and drinks.  But with Virgin, instead of numbering the first row downstairs as row 1, they do this for the first row upstairs, and this is not a good row to be in.  Immediately in front of this row is the corridor to the cockpit and two toilets, so there is a fair amount of traffic with people walking to and from the toilets.

This is a particular bother at night, because every time the toilet door opens, you get a sudden burst of light that potentially wakes you up if you're only sleeping very lightly.  If you are in the upstairs cabin, the best seats are probably one row from the back (the very back is at a flight attendant work station and so is likely to also have noise, traffic and light issues.  I had this row on my flight back and it was an excellent location.

However, my recommendation is not to go upstairs at all.  There is one very big minus factor with the upstairs seating - very inadequate overhead locker space, and no side locker space.  Forget about trying to fit a regular full size wheeled carryon into the overheads, and there's no underneath the seat in front of you type space either.  I came on board with a relatively small carry bag, and even that couldn't fit into the overhead compartments, which were nearly full anyway with bedding for the sleeper seats.  Of course I moved the bedding away, but the overhead size was just too small to fit a bag in.  The flight attendant took my bag from me for take-off, and then objected to me having my bag alongside my seat during flight (she said the captain wouldn't allow it, but in reality, the bag was not intruding into the aisle but did make it slightly more difficult for her to reach over to place and remove things from my table).

The downstairs cabin has the usual enormous sized overhead bins, making it a better choice if you're bringing much onboard with you.  In the downstairs cabin, the best rows start at the very front.  The last row is probably not a good choice, because immediately behind it is the passenger bar, and although this is screened off from the cabin, if you have some passengers enjoying themselves too much, you might be distracted by their talking and laughter.

Food and drink

A roomier and more comfortable seat is one reason to choose business class.  Better food should be a second reason.  Even though I'd recently had a meal in their Clubhouse, I choose to have dinner, too.

Dinner

On the flight to London, for dinner, there were four main choices of entree - Osso Buco, pesto crusted chicken breast, poached salmon or a vegetarian curry.

Before the entree, there were three appetizer choices - a salad, cheddar cheese soup, or smoked duck wraps.  And afterwards, there was a selection of three cheeses plus two choices of dessert.

I had the salad, which had nice fresh crisp lettuce, the Osso Buco which had indifferent meat in a wonderful sauce, and some cheese.

A selection of fresh rolls were also offered - I had a lovely warm moist cheese roll, so nice that I had a second when they were offered a second time.

Dinner was described as available any time during the flight, but the cabin crew seemed to prefer one to order it shortly after takeoff - a timing that made sense to me much more than 2am or some other hour, and so I didn't test to see if it would also be cheerfully served at some strange time.  Everyone else in the cabin also chose to have their dinner immediately after takeoff.

On the day flight back from London, we were treated even more generously for our 'lunch' which had a four course meal served, with four different choices of entree.  I had a wonderful braised lamb shank with a glorious sauce - truly a gourmet experience, and with an unusually generous quantity of food as well.

Rather than offer a plastic knife and metal fork and spoon, Virgin have chosen to use only plastic cutlery.

Snacks

Virgin also offered what they referred to as 'snacks' during the flight.

The snacks were actually quite substantial - for example, a roast beef, Portobello mushroom and caramelized onion panini, or a Boboli pizza topped with Mozzarella, roasted tomatoes and basil, or Asian shrimp cakes served with cucumber salsa.

I think most people chose to sleep off their big dinners rather than take advantage of these snacks.

On the day flight back, there were a range of 'small bites' available at any time during the flight.  These comprised your choice of potato skins filled with cauliflower cheese, parmesan and breadcrumbs, naan bread pockets with chicken tikka filling, and a steak and mushroom pie.

Breakfast

We were given forms to fill out, shortly after taking off, on which we could specify what we wanted in the way of breakfast items.  The cabin crew said they'd then bring this to us about 90 minutes prior to landing, and as it turned out, breakfast service started a mere 60 minutes prior to landing, which was very good - it maximized the undisturbed sleep we could enjoy.

Breakfast, alas, was a disappointment.  First up was a leathery dry waffle with artificial rather than genuine maple syrup.  I'd hoped these might have been cooked fresh on board.

The next item was a citrus fruit assortment, optionally with yoghurt on top.  I specified, on my breakfast card, no yoghurt.  Unfortunately, when it arrived, the dish was drowned in yoghurt.  Ooops.

I also asked for Earl Grey tea.  It is hard to know exactly what type of tea was poured into my cup, but it was overwhelmingly over-brewed and any bergamot flavor was lost in with the tannin.  In the past, one used to joke about 'railway tea' - these days, the more modern joke seems to be 'airline tea'.  However, every cloud has a silver lining, and Virgin has gourmet coffee machines on board, so I had a lovely double espresso instead of the tea.

On the flight back from London to San Francisco, instead of breakfast we had a lovely 'afternoon tea' with a mix of sandwiches and cake.

Drinks

Virgin offer their Upper Class passengers a good selection of wines and spirits to enjoy.  There were three different reds, three different whites, and a non-vintage champagne.  Drinks were all generous in measure and refills offered frequently.

Passenger Bar

One of the features of Virgin planes is their walk up/sit down bar in Upper Class.

Their new cabin redesign has slightly reduced the size of the bar, but it is still there, with five stools around it for passengers to sit at.

The bar was well used by four of my fellow passengers on the flight over, and I chose to sit on the fifth stool and sip a fine single malt for a while before retiring to bed.

On the flight back, there were a changing number of people making shorter stops at the bar.

I should also give kudos to the personable Virgin flight staff, who generously took the time to show an interest in their passengers at the bar and chat with them during the flight.  A friendly bar tender makes all the difference.

A very relaxing way to fly.

Other in-flight experiences

Although the Upper Class Suites have been on planes for less than a year, mine already had two minor problems on the flight over.  The frame around the tv monitor was coming off - plainly some people had tried to swing the monitor out of its storage position just by pulling at the screen frame rather than by pushing the release button and moving it by its swing arm.

More bothersome was a malfunction in the seat adjusting motor.  Pushing the button to make the seat go up often didn't result in any motion, or, when it did work, it would just jerk up an inch or so and then stop again.

On the flight back, I had to change seats due to a problem with the video monitor that couldn't be resolved.  However, the video was perfect at the second seat, and the seat motors (and everything else) worked perfectly at both seats.

The video monitors were large (10.4") and had a good quality picture, with a massive variety of different channels to choose from (at least 20 and perhaps more), presented in various different groupings of common themes.  But, strangely, for the first hour or so of the flight, Virgin restricted them to showing only one channel of programming - you couldn't even switch to the moving map, and neither could you turn this mandatory programming off.

We left San Francisco in the fading light of late afternoon, and as we traveled east, it quickly became darker outside, and I went to turn on my at-seat light.  I looked up - but there were no lights in the usual place underneath the overhead bins.

I looked to my video control unit, but there was no light switch there.  And neither was there a light switch on the seat arm.

Eventually, I realized that there was only one light, a tiny little bauble mounted on the side of the seat.  This gave a pathetic amount of light, and none of it seemed to shine where I wanted it.

Plainly, I was not the first person to have this problem, because a flight attendant came around offering battery powered mini book lights to anyone who wanted them.  I took one, but it was hard to position this anywhere to get useful light from it, either, and so spent most of the flight in a dark gloom that made it very difficult to work on the computer or to read.

The light was also positioned so that it was shining into the corner of my eyes.  And, the lights from passengers opposite me were also shining into my face while I was sitting up, adding further to the discomfort of the bad lighting.

The bad lighting is a strange oversight and serious weakness that urgently needs improvement.  Plainly neither the seat designers nor the six bodies who gave it design awards ever sat in a real seat, on a plane, for an overnight flight.  And - good news - Virgin tells me they're aware of the lighting issue, and some significant improvements are due 'imminently'.

Lighting wasn't a problem on the flight back due to it being daylight all the way.

Virgin still have their in-flight masseuse who offers a choice of six different massage therapies to Upper Class passengers.  I've never accepted her offer of services, but I know many readers have and found it to be a great addition to their inflight experience.

Between my flight over and my return flight, Virgin upgraded their amenities kits.  They are now even more full of goodies than before, and in distinctive new tri-fold pouches.  In addition to the usual small toothpastes and various 'smelly things' they now give their passengers small gifts, too - reminiscent of the tradition that used to be in place on the Concorde.  My small gift was a set of cufflinks - quite nice, but instead of having the Virgin name or logo on them, it had a meaningless logo of their affiliated tailor (Ozwald Boateng).  Suggestion to Virgin - promote yourselves, not your tailor!

One nice little freedom was the freedom from having to put one's seat back upright for takeoff and landing.  You are free to have your seat in any position you wish at any time in the flight.

The seatbelt on the seat side of the bed/seat has an airbag built in to it.  There is a sleeve with the airbag along part of its length.  Hopefully these airbags aren't as volatile as car airbags, and hopefully they won't be triggered by a sudden bit of inflight turbulence or a particularly rough landing.

Arriving

On the flight to London, I suddenly realized, when hearing an announcement just after we landed and were taxiing in, that no-one had passed out landing cards to complete, or  priority passes to go through the special immigration lane with a shorter line.

I asked the flight attendant in charge of the Upper Class cabin why she hadn't given me either.  Her reply surprised me.  Instead of honestly saying 'I forgot' she said 'Oh, I think you had your headphones on when I was handing them out'.  I guess I was lucky my headphones didn't also interfere with her ability to serve me food and drinks!

On the return flight, the crew were much more attentive to handing out US Customs and Immigration forms.

One of the special extra features offered by Virgin to its Upper Class passengers is an arrivals lounge at Heathrow.  You can go there and have a shower and generally freshen up after your flight - this is great for business people wishing to go directly to meetings, and good for all other passengers, too - a nice hot shower is a wonderful restorative after a long flight.

Peculiarly, Virgin keep this service a close secret and seldom tell their passengers about it.  On this flight there was no mention of it at check-in, in their San Francisco lounge, or upon arrival.  It seems strange to offer a great extra service and not to then promote it.

Indeed, one of the passengers was trying to work out how he could get admission to the Arrivals Lounge.  He had asked at the Clubhouse in San Francisco and was told that he could get an invitation card from on-board the flight.  And so he asked on the flight, and was told that he had to get the invitation from the Clubhouse in San Francisco!

Luggage very quickly appeared on the luggage belt, and soon I was leaving the airport, refreshed after a comfortable flight, and ready to then hop in a rental car and drive 250 miles.  It would have been much harder to do this if I'd been in the 'back of the bus'!

On the flight back, my two bags came off the luggage belt as the second and third bags off the plane.  Amazing.

Summary

Virgin Atlantic Airways' Upper Class Suites continue Virgin's tradition of offering innovative and high quality products and services.  My return flight was perfect in all respect, although my flight over was marred by some small disappointments and problems.  On balance the experience and product was very positive, and better than that offered by their major competitor, BA.  It also is an improvement over their previous Upper Class cabin.

Virgin now have a dedicated website to provide more details of this new cabin.

Note : See also my reviews of Virgin's Premium Economy class and of British Airways' competing Business and Premium Economy classes.

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Originally published 5 Nov 2004, 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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