Fly with one airline and you’d best pack your own lunch, even in first class. Fly with another, and you might not know covid-19 had changed the world, minus the mask you wore on board. Some airlines are back, others are not, and it’s just hard to know what to expect these days.
Virgin Atlantic always offered one of the best and most enjoyable ways to fly business class with Upper Class, the cabin originally launched by Richard Branson to bring first class features to the business class cabin, and as an avid flyer, I was really curious to see if the things I enjoyed before still existed today.
I certainly wasn’t going to be happy with a ziplock bag and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, no matter how enjoyable one may be. Not in business class.
Would Virgin Atlantic Upper Class just be a bigger seat and a nicer blanket during covid-19, or the same fun and jazzy experience that made travel feel like something special, and something more. In almost every way, it was the latter.
Virgin Atlantic Covid-19 Experience
Based in locked down London, Virgin Atlantic, like many airlines has been forced to make changes which are noticeable instantly. For the time being, Virgin operates out of T2 at Heathrow, rather than their home base at T3, which features the Upper Class Wing and famed Clubhouse Lounge.
When will that change? That’s likely contingent upon the UK removing impractical 14 day quarantine measures in favor of safer, covid-19 testing based solutions, which they say they’re “looking at”. Try not to let your eyes roll all the way into the back of your head with disdain in the interim.
No one is coming to visit the UK when they can’t leave their hotel room door for 14 days. Whenever that change to testing meaningfully happens, expect Virgin and other airlines previously based in T3 to make their way back home.
For now, this means you’ll find Virgin Atlantic immediately upon entering Heathrow T2, where you’d struggle to miss the well placed desk. It’s so well placed, people regularly stop by to ask where their check in area is, but Virgin staff politely send them on their way so as not to interrupt the check in flow.
Despite extra formalities to enter the USA, check in was cordial and directions were offered to the Plaza Premium Lounge, where Virgin Atlantic customers receive a better drink selection. Yes, that means champagne.
The Plaza Premium T2 space is surprisingly nice. Not Clubhouse nice by any means, but still nice, and the food wasn’t half bad. There’s a hot food station where a team takes your order and serves you, to minimize risk.
Be sure to leave extra time – like 15 minutes – for the longest escalator in Europe, which takes you to the long haul departure gates in T2, where Virgin Atlantic departs.
A small, but positive side effect of covid-19 is that it forced a lot of airline clunkers into retirement. Virgin took first deliveries last year of its outstanding Airbus A350-1000 fleet, and planes continue to trickle in.
If you’re not lucky enough to get the flagship A350, you’ll get the 787 Dreamliner, which offers the old Upper Class seats, but with a much better cabin experience, and gigantic windows. Short story: aim for an A350. We had both, with the 787 outbound to New York and A350 back from Los Angeles.
At the boarding gate, there was something comfortable and soothing about still seeing the same – famed Vivienne Westwood red coats. After a quick contactless scan, it was time to board.
On Board Virgin Upper Class
Same cabin, same uniforms, just some extra masks. The first thing I was thrilled to see was that pillows and bedding were in tact, to pre covid-19 levels. You’ve got a really top quality duvet – at least in plane terms – multiple pillows, mattress topper and more.
Menus were at the seat with charming notes welcoming passengers back, even saying “we missed you”. It’s not a big deal, but it’s a nice acknowledgement of the weird times we’re all living in.
Pre-departure it’s bottled water, but once airborne I was ecstatic to see a proper drink trolley come around, with full sized bottles of wine, booze and champagne.
I’m not much of a drinker on planes, but knowing that many airlines are serving economy cabin wines to premium customers, it was nice to see Virgin Atlantic hasn’t cheap’ed out and taken then easy way.
The team, who I must say was about as friendly and welcoming as can be, were around quickly to take meal orders. That’s the main bad news: there were between 5-8 people in Upper Class on flights which would typically be oversold, showing just how hard it is for airlines right now.
Would we get a “meal box” with inedible treats better fit for feline friends? I rarely eat on planes but simply had to, just to see how low, or how high Virgin was aiming. Pretty high, actually. Virgin claimed to be offering a full service, but were they? Yes.
Wine was served in the usual crystal glasses, tray tables were dressed with the usual cloth table setting, the beloved ‘Wilbur & Orville’ salt and pepper shakers live on, and everything but the main course was plated on actual dishes, with real cutlery too.
The one exception was the main course main dish, which was served in a sealed box from the caterer. The dessert and cheese plates had a little plastic dome on top, but I actually like that. I don’t want to think of someone breathing on my food right now before serving it to me. Maybe once a vaccine emerges, but even then…
In one of the sweeter things that’s ever happened to me on a plane, one of the crew members, Yuki, made an origami swan for our 8 month old daughter, Olive. Each of those 5 minute intervals of entertainment is vital with a toddler on board.
On board, there’s not much else to talk about, at least not in any meaningful way. I’d say that’s a good thing, because the flying experience is nowhere near as changed or different as many would expect. It felt safe, fun, stuffing and enjoyable. I even had a glass of champagne because I missed flying so much.
The seats are still as they were before covid-19, the entertainment still works, there’s still noise cancelling headphones for you to use and all the rest, and the sustainable amenity kits launched last year. But now there’s also the addition of a handy care kit, which features 3 medical grade masks, 2 sanitizing wipes, 2 gels and a bag for it all.
The Upper Class bar slash social space on each aircraft is a bit of a grey area, but that’s the only remotely different bit.
Would I do it again? For sure. With so few people (sadly) flying, the extra space gave me great peace of mind when traveling to catch up with family and being able to enjoy the finer points like multi course meals and business class level wines made it feel all that much more “normal”.
Flying is generally much safer than people think during covid-19 anyway, but every little helps. I missed the Virgin Clubhouse for sure, but I was impressed with how Virgin has adapted, without compromising on things purely for the reason of cutting costs.
I just don’t get the logic of making your product – aka your flying experience worse when you’re fighting to stay in business. Surely it’s actually the exact time to invest in customers to show they why you are worth spending money with. If you ask me, Virgin Atlantic has here.