Yesterday, September 25th, a Virgin Atlantic plane landed in Tel Aviv, Israel for the first time. Summer temperatures in the city by the Mediterranean Sea may be dropping, but the launch of this new route for Virgin Atlantic brings a distinctly red hot flare unlike anything else presently flying between the two cities. I was on board the first ever flight from London to Tel Aviv, and back from Tel Aviv to London to watch passengers soak in the brand new experience, and it was absolutely fascinating.
Every passenger has their own opinion and style, but watching customers typically accustomed to EasyJet, Wizzair, El Al or British Airways walk past the Upper Class bar upon boarding a Virgin Atlantic plane for the first time – as Virgin, virgins- was unlike many first impressions you’ll have ever seen on an airplane. Love it or loathe it, Virgin has flare, Virgin has spirit and a crowd of generally conservative travellers seemed to instantly loosen their proverbial tie.
In every cabin, this is an ultra competitive new offering between the two cities, on par with the best of British Airways or El Al on the bolted down elements, and miles ahead of the “discount” airlines, which are often anything but on this premium route. Whether you prefer the bolted down finishings of the El Al 787, the British Airways 777 (soon to be A350) or any other plane, it was Virgin Atlantic’s signature soft touches and personal elements which seemed to had people toasting with a l’chaim.
What makes this route so interesting is not that another airline is selling low fares to one of the fastest growing destinations, or that a plane will fly from one place to a new one – it’s the way it’s being done. But yes, Virgin goes currently have the lowest prices on the route, with Upper Class business class at £999, around £500 cheaper than others, Premium in the £400s and economy under £290 return in the current sale.
Putting Tel Aviv aside, airline passengers are sadly now accustomed to cookie cutter computer based rigidity. It doesn’t matter where you fly, you’ll basically get the same food, the same feel and the inevitable fret, wondering “are they going to weigh my carry on this time, or measure it?!” Not here, at least not on this flight.
From the moment the welcome greeting was delivered in both Hebrew and English, you could tell that Virgin wanted to stand out from the sea of blue on this unique, and often boring mid haul route. The Flight Service Manager on board studied Hebrew for 6 months in anticipation of the new route launch. He delivered an equally meaningful welcome upon touchdown, which receives some of the more raucous applause I’ve ever heard on an airplane. There was buzz here.
Guests in each and every cabin were legitimately blown away to find that Virgin had specifically curated a kosher selection of red wine, white wine- and champagne in business class – something other airlines had oddly neglected to capture. I can’t even recount how many times I heard someone offered a glass of champagne, only to have a friend say “say yes, it’s kosher”. Yes that’s right – this detail was so simple, and not actually that impressive on its own, but it filled a void no other airline had actively chosen to conquer!
Going further, dishes from standout London restaurant The Good Egg, known for its authentic Israeli cuisine, feature across each and every cabin, for the non kosher meals. By airplane food standards, they were great. Speaking to kosher guests, they seemed quite pleased too, not only with their actual food, but the fact that each and every snack offered on board was also kosher.
There were rumblings on board that Virgin would begin catering kosher wine on New York, due to the overwhelming number of passengers choosing to connect from Tel Aviv to New York via London with the airline.
The chips, the multi grain bars – everything. For non kosher guests, nothing was compromised. The Canard Duchene champagne was still there in business class, and the mains and desserts were every bit as indulgent in each cabin.
As cheesy as it may sound, and perhaps due to Rosh Hashanah coming up imminently, there was a sense of comradery on this inaugural flight that bonded all denominations. I’m about as religious as I am versed in proper grammar (not at all), but I was welcomed as an outsider to observe prayer, and maybe a few toasts too. There’s something cool about bringing a new experience to a destination.
For no comprehensible reason, while not a Virgin-virgin, I was a Tel Aviv virgin prior to this trip, and with a flight time of just 4 hours and 8 minutes outbound and circa 5 hours on the return, I’m now eagerly plotting my return to this oasis of a city. It’s chic, it’s fresh, it’s vibrant and if you like a long walk around a beautiful stretch of beach, you’ve found a gem.
If fares remain the way they are, there’s a lot of comfort to be had at exceptional prices right now, and with the added competition Virgin now brings, I don’t see that changing. One dinner Mashya and a milk punch at Imperial Cocktail bar just weren’t enough. I’ll be back…