A tale of two A350s: A weekend across the ocean on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we are still publishing new flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken just before the lockdown, like this one. The experience both on the ground and on board will be very different from the one described here, until restrictions due to the pandemic are lifted.
One of the biggest stories in commercial aviation in 2019 was the delivery and introduction into service of brand-new Airbus A350s for both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic: the U.K.’s two largest airlines, and among the most iconic names in aviation.
Perhaps even more exciting than the planes themselves was the fact that both airlines installed on them brand-new business-class
seats suites, which looked like they’d finally allow these two British carriers to better compete with rivals who had vaulted ahead of them in recent years with state-of-the-art seats.
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You can read full reviews of the British Airways Club Suite and the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite from some of the first flights. But the AvGeek in me wouldn’t rest until I could get on board myself and compare the two.
Both are A350-1000s, the longer of the two variants of the European twinjet. Both are outfitted with three classes: business, premium economy and economy.
And, thanks to my credit card points, I was able to try out two of the most exciting business-class products in sky — and get a long weekend in London, to boot.
Booking the Club Suite and Upper Class Suite
Business-class tickets between North America and London tend to be priced obscenely high, like, £6,500 one-way high. This is the beauty of points and miles. Even factoring in the steep taxes and fees that the U.K. levies on award tickets entering or departing the country, I still feel like I got a great deal for two business-class tickets.
I hoped that I would be able to find space with British Airways to London and then with Virgin Atlantic back to New York. At launch, Toronto was BA’s only North American A350 destination, and New York-JFK was the first destination to see Virgin’s A350s, so with just one positioning flight I’d be able to fly both of these new planes pretty easily on the same weekend -—if I could find the availability. I planned to use my stash of American Express Membership Rewards points for both flights, since BA’s Executive Club was running a transfer bonus during the time I was booking my flight, and Virgin prices awards very reasonably, especially in the off-peak season.
Sure enough, when I searched ba.com, I was able to find two seats in business class between Toronto (YYZ) and London Heathrow (LHR) on a Wednesday evening for 50,000 Avios and $412 (about £330).
Next, I went to book my Virgin flight home. I got lucky again, and Virgin had space in the Upper Class cabin on VS137, one of the frequencies on which the A350 flies the LHR-JFK route. Initially, I thought that I’d use 47,500 more Amex points to book the one-way flight home, but then I thought to check Delta to see if the same ticket was available in the 80,000-SkyMiles range. Sure enough, the flight was available for 86,000 SkyMiles and an eye-watering $582 (about £465) in fees. Even though I’d be using almost double the miles, I much preferred to use SkyMiles — of which I had an abundance at the time — than my Amex points, which I’d prefer to save for further high-value redemptions down the line.
On the ground
Going into this fun weekend of flying, I knew that it wouldn’t be an equal comparison between the two airlines. After all, they’re both based in London and thus offer their best ground experience there. I was OK with my decision, though, because after reading TPG U.K.’s coverage of all of BA’s lounges at Heathrow, I figured I wouldn’t be missing much.
Conversely, I did not want to miss Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse at Heathrow, which is my favourite airport lounge, and one of the top options in the world.
BA doesn’t operate its own lounge in Toronto, so when I checked in I was invited to visit the Plaza Premium lounge in Terminal 3, which had recently undergone a refurbishment. I actually found it to be very nice, and higher quality than many airline lounges I’ve visited.
The food selection was great, with made-to-order noodles, among plenty of other options, on offer. Perhaps best of all, though, there was plenty of seating and great views of the airport’s operations — and the still-shiny A350 that would be taking me to London.
Coming back from London was the main attraction, at least from a lounge perspective. My flight was scheduled to depart around 12:30 p.m., but I wanted to arrive early enough at Heathrow so that I would have enough time to hang out in one of my favourite airport lounges.
Upper Class passengers get can access a separate “Upper Class Wing” at Heathrow’s Terminal 3, which consists of a separate drop-off and check-in area as well as a separate security screening. Then, it’s a short (enough, for Heathrow, at least) walk to the Clubhouse.
This particular space has been covered extensively in numerous flight reviews, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but the lesson here is that if you’re flying in business class on either Delta or Virgin Atlantic or otherwise have access through elite status, get there with plenty of time before your flight. There’s a lot to see and do (and eat and drink) in the space, and you’ll want to do as much as physically possible until you have to get on the plane.
On board the British birds
Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic installed proprietary seats in their A350s. BA’s appears to be more or less an off-the-shelf Collins Aerospace Super Diamond seat, but with one huge addition: a closing door.
I loved the look of BA’s A350 cabin. It felt modern and sophisticated thanks to its grey-and-blue colour scheme and nice design touches like tufted fabric seats with off-white cross stitches in between each one.
The only gripe I had with BA’s new Club Suite is the exact same as what TPG U.K. senior writer Ben Smithson noticed on his flight on BA’s first Boeing 777 with the new Club Suite: the door just isn’t tall enough. With the two other closing-door business-class products I’ve tried — Delta One Suites and Qatar Qsuite — the seat reclines much further down into the well so you don’t feel close to the top of the door. In the Club Suite, I felt like even if I sat up a little bit, I’d be looking right out over the top of the door into the cabin, sort of defeating the purpose of a door.
Besides the one minor quibble I had with the Club Suite, I thought it was a great product. BA has finally brought itself up to speed with the competition and has a seat and cabin that can compete with some of the top players in the game.
Virgin Atlantic has long been famous for its fun interiors, and its A350 is no exception, though I don’t think this cabin made quite the same impact as some of the older “clubby” cabins on Virgin Atlantic like the 787-9 Dreamliner.
In contrast to BA, Virgin put all of the Upper Class Suites in one large cabin, with a space called “The Loft”, which replaces the famous Virgin Atlantic bar, at the rear. I didn’t use it during my flight, but each time I got up and walked around, I noticed several people sitting and working on their laptops, though not conversing at all.
Virgin calls this new product a “suite,” but it’s really not; it’s a regular business-class seat with a shield that extends to give you a little more privacy. This isn’t a bad thing — I found the seat plenty private — but in today’s world of business-class seats with closing doors, calling this product a suite is a bit disingenuous. And, the previously noted lack of storage at each seat is very real.
All that being said, I really liked Virgin’s seat. The colour scheme and finishes are unique, fun and high-end-seeming. It really feels like a Virgin product. And it’s a massive improvement over the Upper Class product found in the rest of Virgin’s fleet.
Food, beverage and soft product
Going into this weekend of flying, I imagined that I’d be impressed by BA’s soft-product elements such as the flatware and bedding, but let down by the food. Service would be a wild card. On the Virgin side of things, I would be less impressed by elements like the bedding, but would have a delicious meal and great service from take off to touchdown.
And that’s exactly what happened. I loved BA’s bedding and amenities from The White Company as well as the gorgeous tumblers and flatware the food and beverages were served on. They’re so classy-looking and feel high-end when you’re using them.
However, the food itself wasn’t especially flavorful. Both the tuna appetizer and chicken tikka masala main dish didn’t have a ton of flavour and felt underwhelming overall.
When it comes to service, I’m generally very easy-going, though I did notice a few missteps on this flight that I found peculiar. Specifically, after boarding was complete up front, cabin crew came through to pour Champagne. After that initial service was through, we ended up being delayed at the gate by over two hours. So, naturally, passengers asked for more glasses of Champagne to help pass the time. The passenger in front of me asked for a second glass, and I did right after him, though my first glass wasn’t quite done yet. The flight attendant was perfectly pleasant and said she’d be right back. Then, a different FA passed through and collected the empty glass of the passenger in front of me while he was looking away. Then, at just about the same time, the first FA came back through with a bottle of Champagne and was confused when she went to the passenger in front of me and saw he didn’t have a glass. She checked that he indeed wanted a second glass, and then the other FA turned around and explained that she had picked up his glass, pointing to it. So, the FA with the bottle grabbed the glass that had already been picked up and poured the passenger a second glass.
I understand that miscommunications happen, and this is not at all meant to nitpick the cabin crew, who worked hard to keep passengers happy in the face of a very long delay and were very pleasant to deal with, but it’s things like these that led me to believe the crew wasn’t as polished as it could have been.
On the return to New York with Virgin Atlantic, I noticed right away that I much preferred BA’s bedding and amenity offering, though the pillows themselves were about equal. However, Virgin pulled away both with its food and service. Meal service began with a passion fruit mojito and popcorn instead of the traditional nut mix, which was a lot more fun.
Then, it was a delicious mixed cauliflower and vegetable dish with a tahini sauce that I couldn’t get enough of. For the main course, I had a beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes and vegetables, which felt traditionally British and was a perfect comfort-food dish to eat while watching a movie at 35,000 feet.
Virgin’s service was also top-notch, with flight attendants anticipating what I might want, and doing so in a totally fun and relaxed way, which I very much appreciate.
I have no regrets booking both of these flights on Britain’s largest carriers’ newest aircraft. It was a very fun weekend of flying for this AvGeek, and spending a long weekend in London is never boring. At the end of the day, these two carriers now have business-class products on shiny new aeroplanes that they can be very proud of, and they once again can compete on a more level playing field with airlines from around the world.
As for the winner in this contest? It’s hard to say definitively, as the conditions weren’t exactly equal, but if I were put on the spot I’d have to say I’d be most excited to fly Virgin’s Upper Class Suite again. There are some flaws with it, but it’s got just about the whole package. That being said, I certainly wouldn’t scoff at you if you were to ask me to fly BA’s Club Suite again.
All photos by the author except where otherwise noted.
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