I’ll never forget my first time flying international business class featuring a flat bed. Once I experienced the joy of a night’s sleep on a plane, I was in love. On somewhere around my 1,000th experience — trust me, I’m not complaining — it’s hard to get that same buzz.
But lately, the Virgin A330neo is giving me all the feels. To most eyes the experience is like many other top quality business class experiences with a modern display, a seat that turns into a bed and lounge access on both sides, but the devil, or delight, is in the details here.
I’ve sampled all the cabins that fly between New York and London with direct service, and for business class, I think this may be the very best, particularly after my most recent flight last week. And even despite some weird food! Let’s make that case.
First Things First: Airport & Lounge
At both New York JFK and London Heathrow (LHR), Virgin Atlantic has a fantastic setup. Dedicated Virgin Atlantic clubhouse lounges feature in both cities and defying its age, the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow Terminal 3 continues to rank as the best business class lounge by just about everyone who judges it.
At Heathrow though, the experience really starts well before that, with arguably the coolest welcome for a business class experience in Europe or the United States.
Those arriving by car (Uber is fine too) can skip the main terminal and direct their driver to the ‘Upper Class Wing’, which looks like a hotel lobby. Check in is consistently fast and professional and you’re quickly popped over to a dedicated security lane which is rarely tedious. Uber drivers are always like… who are you?
Once in the Clubhouse it’s hard to be anything but smiles. The long bar remains social and fun, the deli counter remains a perfect place for healthy veggie options and some smoked salmon (my go-to) and the a la carte waiter service in all the cool seating areas with a full menu remains.
My Verdict: Judging by airport experience alone, Virgin is easily in the top 2 for ground experience between these markets, with honorable mention to United for its work on the Polaris lounge at Newark. I’d say Virgin sits one here.
Onboard Upper Class On The A330neo
Upper Class on the Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330neo (339) may look familiar to SkyTeam flyers. The seat, a modified Thompson VantageXL seat is the same bones as you’ll find on Delta’s much loved A330neo’s in Delta One Suites.
Plenty of other airlines are adapting these seats, but to date — no one has taken the tech or space as far as Virgin Altantic. Virgin is the last airline that still offers a social space slash bar area on board on this route. It’s a great place to stretch your legs out, even on these shorter “long hauls”. On something like LA — it’s a godsend.
Virgin Atlantic offers fast and responsive 17.4” 4K screen, which certainly beats most tablets and offers a resolution you’d be happy with at home. Not only that, you can pair your own headphones with the seat for wireless listening without rifling through plastic to uncover some disappointing headphones.
The delight of this can’t be underestimated for me.
The time from stepping across the threshold of the aircraft door to settling in and feeling like i’m in my own world is minimal. I quickly pair my buds, queue up the IFE, choose some movies and off we go.
Virgin Atlantic uses impressively fast Viasat wifi on these airbus A330neo (339) aircraft and it’s typically worth the expense, given the productivity and full connectivity you can achieve. Streaming is easy, even downloading large files typically is too.
Seat controls on the modified Thompson VantageXL ‘Upper Class’ seat are easy to use and easy to find and for most body types, the bed mode is comfortable. If you’re of the taller or wider variety the first row is really worth fighting for because the extra width is tremendous.
If you’re really looking for space, the ‘Retreat Suites’ in the center of row one are much larger seat and are actually first class seats sitting in business class. These two ‘Retreat’ seats offer up as much space as British Airways First Class or American First Class, so that is kind of a cool hack to “first for less” if you get my drift.
This is just a really functional setup with nice tray table space, plenty of storage space and lots of privacy with full on privacy doors. When you’re seated with the door shut you can’t see anyone else.
Almost Perfect But Always Opportunities — Like Food
Seat, check. Tech — double check. Food, sometimes.
I don’t quite know what’s happened with Virgin’s catering arrangements, but it sometimes feels like they’re getting other airlines leftovers. I’m all for the lip to tail approach of using everything and minimizing waste, but sometimes meals feel odd.
The hot smoked salmon feels like off cuts from another airline’s filets thrown on a plate. The poke halloumi bowl takes fusion to interesting places, and certainly ones where you’d need a lot of water afterward to counteract the salt. Halloumi plus soy plus seasoning creates an explosion of sodium, if you ask me.
Food and beverage has started to climb back up from a weird place with great additions and championing of delicious but less pop culture growing regions. I adore the “three spirit” non-alcoholic “night cap” mocktails which allow me to feel like I’m being indulgent while actually staying professional enough to work on the other side.
My Verdict: Virgin Wins By Door To Door Experience And Tech
These new modified Thompson VantageXL seats are the most advanced in terms of technology flying between London and New York. I think that puts them in anyone’s top three for seat comfort alone on the route, alongside British Airways Club Suites or perhaps United Polaris.
Well, until of course the world’s gift, Global Airlines starts flying their “game changer” cabins, once they clear the little flying hurdles like you know, getting a license to fly, or seats on actual plane, or getting those things called landing slots.
I like American’s 777-300ER business class seats and love British Airways Club Suites as well, but both lack the tech and are a jump ball on comfort. If you prefer the feel of the Club Suite, that could easily be fair, but the sum total experience and the additional of the on board social space is worth something.
What solidifies the win for Virgin is the end to end experience. You’re in dedicated nice areas almost from the word go at Heathrow and JFK, with the Upper Class Wing at LHR and the SkyPriority area at JFK T4. On both ends, the Clubhouses outrank their rivals for standard access.
It’s just plain dumb to try to compare higher levels of lounge access or spaces that a general customer flying in this cabin wouldn’t have, so on a business to business play, Clubhouses win, or draw with Polaris at Newark. American and British Airways have a nice setup at JFK T8, but it’s not as fun.
The final cherry on top — the arrival lounge at Heathrow. Having this extra level of comfort and detail for customers is big. I’ve stopped in for a coffee, a shower or a life reboot many a times.