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Delicious food, solid inflight Wi-Fi and drinks on boarding.
Messy food presentation, service gaps, limited recline and frustrating IFE touchscreen.
As part of the preparation for TPG UK‘s launch, I had to do a fair amount of traveling between my home in London and TPG’s headquarters in New York. Since others on the team had done plenty of Pond-hopping with British Airways, it was high time to try out one of its main competitors, Virgin Atlantic. My assignment was to fly Premium (the name of their premium-economy product) to and from NYC — I picked one of the newer planes in the fleet for one direction and an older jet in the other in order to compare the two. First up was their newish Airbus A330.
If you’re booking return Premium tickets far enough in advance, you can expect to pay about £800-£1,100, though if you’re booking close-in, you can pay much more. In fact, revenue fares for my flight were over £2,000 return. Fortunately, there was excellent award availability using Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club — this flight cost 17,500 miles plus a fairly hefty £345.52 in fees, taxes and fuel surcharges. Considering the cost of the revenue tickets, I received excellent value using miles, even with paying the surcharges.
I use all four active terminals at Heathrow regularly, and Terminal 3 is my second favorite terminal to fly out of after Terminal 2, which is home to the Star Alliance. Virgin Atlantic and Delta have joined forces at Heathrow Terminal 3 as two of the dominant carriers in the terminal, and their joint check-in area is impressive.
There were plenty of ground staff available as I entered the terminal, and they cheerfully asked which carrier and class I was traveling and pointed me in the right direction.
There was a large queue for economy but there was no queue for Premium, and I was quickly helped by the check-in agent. Despite an allowance of two 23-kilogram bags, I chose to travel with hand luggage only to ensure a smooth arrival at New York-JFK.
The flight was oversold, so there was little to no chance of getting an empty seat next to me in the Premium cabin. I had Seat 20K, a window seat toward the front of the cabin.
My premium-economy ticket came with many benefits but not fast-track security access at Heathrow, though I was surprised to be given this benefit on the return journey at JFK.
Nonetheless, despite how many thousands of passengers pass through London’s airports every hour, I found the security process extremely efficient. I’ve never waited more than five minutes to pass security, and my travel day was no exception.
Terminal 3 was busy, as expected, on this Sunday morning, with various US departures all morning.
My ticket didn’t give me access to their amazing Heathrow Clubhouse, so I had to settle for the No1 Lounge, to which I had access thanks to my Priority Pass membership.
As with every other No1 Lounge I have visited in London, this was crowded, loud and chaotic. While any lounge is better than no lounge, it wasn’t exactly a relaxing start to the journey. Stay tuned for a full review of that lounge, but since lounge access isn’t included with a Premium ticket, I didn’t factor it in to the score in this section.
I headed to Gate 13 about an hour before departure. The gate was a fair walk from both security and the lounge.
I caught a glimpse of my plane at my gate as I walked through the terminal. Aircraft G-VLUV, an 8-year-old Airbus A330, was the bird designated to fly me to New York.
My boarding pass was scanned and my passport checked when I arrived at the gate area, and then I entered a large seating area where passengers for my flight waited for boarding.
The area quickly filled up before boarding was called, around 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
Boarding began with families and those needing extra time to board, followed by Upper Class and status passengers, followed by Premium passengers. As boarding passes and passports had already been scanned prior to each passenger entering the gate area, boarding was quite a quick process.
Cabin and Seat
Virgin Atlantic’s A330-300s have seven rows of Premium, mostly in a 2-3-2 configuration. I liked the purple, though it did make the cabin feel dark even at midday.
The seats looked exactly as I’d hoped: wide and plush with decent legroom. Visually, at least, they were definitely a step above standard economy. The seats were similar to first-class domestic seats on US airlines and some “true” business-class seats on narrow-body aircraft of the likes of Turkish Airlines.
Waiting on my seat when I boarded was a wrapped blanket of an unusual shape — there was space for a head cut out at the top so it could be worn like a giant bib. There was also an unwrapped pillow and cheap over-ear headphones that turned out such appalling sound that I quickly swapped them for my own.
Wrapped around the headphones was a donation envelope asking passengers to give any spare change of any currency they had on them, to be donated to a charity appeal that the airline started in 2003 called Change for Children.
There were no amenity kits on this daytime flight.
With 38 inches of legroom, I definitely had room to stretch out (I’m 6 feet tall), but there was no chance of slipping past my seatmate to the aisle.
There was also a footrest that could be set into multiple positions.
After takeoff, crew retrieved footrest cushions from overhead lockers for those sitting in the bulkhead seats, as these seats didn’t have foldable footrests in front of them.
Although my aircraft (and therefore the seat) was not that old, the seat pocket was both scuffed and dirty, making it look older than it was.
In the seat pocket was the standard safety card, inflight magazine, duty-free catalogue and sick bags.
I hunted around the seat and seat pocket but could not find a menu anywhere. I know from experience that some airlines have menus already at the seats before boarding, even in economy, while others hand them out during the boarding process or after takeoff.
The floor around the seat as well as the lower fuselage wall (below the window) was filthy and had not been cleaned properly.
The seat pocket turned out to be the perfect size for my 13-inch MacBook Pro, as was the foldout tray table.
Pilot announcements were difficult to hear and understand because of a significant amount of static in the speakers.
The doors closed at exactly 12:55pm, the scheduled departure time, and we were advised there were 171 passengers on board, as well as 10 crew and two pilots. The Premium cabin was completely full.
The two bathrooms remained clean for the duration of the flight, and there were never more than a few minutes’ wait to use them.
They were stocked with Noble Isle products.
I napped for around an hour midflight. Though there was some recline in the seat, I was still sitting mostly upright.
As someone who struggles to sleep sitting up for more than 20 minutes at a time, I didn’t find the seat much more comfortable than a standard economy seat to sleep in, other than my knees not touching the back of the seat in front. But given the flight operated during the day, it was certainly a comfortable seat to sit in.
I did appreciate that on this relatively new seat the adjustable headrests folded up and stayed up. The older Virgin Atlantic seats on my return journey did not have this strength.
Amenities and IFE
Though the IFE screen appeared modern, large and crisp, it was almost impossible to use as a touchscreen. The scrolling feature barely worked, and when it did would shoot through the options far too quickly.
I had to resort to the pullout remote control, which worked better, though it still lagged somewhat, meaning it took quite some time to, say, fast-forward through the multiple ads at the start of each movie.
There were 33 different movies, and having watched the recent Academy Awards but not having had time to see any of the nominated movies, I was pleased to see several of the nominees.
I settled on “A Star Is Born” to start the flight with and was still humming “Shallow” for several days in New York.
The navigation map worked great throughout the flight.
There was Wi-Fi available on the flight. It failed to connect when I first attempted (two hours into the flight) but when it did, it worked fast enough to upload images for an hour.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Upon boarding, a crew member passed through the cabin with a tray of orange juice, water and prosecco. This was probably the biggest difference between economy and premium economy the entire flight.
A little over an hour after takeoff, lunch was served, beginning with a round of drinks and pretzels from the drinks cart.
About 90 minutes into the flight, the main lunch tray was served.
I was surprised not to be provided with a menu at all. I’ve received menus in normal economy class on leading carriers like Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways, so I was expecting one in premium economy on Virgin Atlantic. A flight attendant told me I could have beef lasagna, pumpkin risotto or chicken teriyaki. I went for the teriyaki chicken.
While I was surprised not to receive a menu, I was very surprised when I was handed this:
It looked like it had been dropped from a great height — everything on it was a mess. It would have taken a crew member all of five seconds to straighten the items on the tray, take off the plastic lids and hand it to me facing the right direction. This would have hugely improved the presentation of the meal.
Again, comparing this to a leading economy product like Singapore Airlines, I doubt they would ever hand me a tray as messy as this.
Once I got past the awful presentation, the food tasted fantastic. The chicken was really moist and the perfect temperature, although the rice could have used more of the delicious teriyaki sauce and more than a single leaf of bok choy. I wouldn’t have thought to add peas to the side salad, but it tasted great and fresh.
The cutlery was so cold I had to let it thaw before I could hold it. There was nowhere to put the plastic tray covers, so I ended up with an even messier tray as I ate it. I wished the crew had removed the covers before serving them.
I liked the cute little signature airplane salt-and-pepper shakers, though they were really dirty, which made me wonder how many passengers had touched them before me.
There were wines available in individual bottles. The only options (given to me verbally, not on a wine list) were “red” or “white.”
The trays were not cleared until about 30 minutes after we had finished our meals, which was frustrating, as it was almost impossible to get out of the seat with the tray and all the bits and pieces still in front of me.
Halfway through the flight, the crew passed through the cabin for a drinks run. As Virgin is a British airline, I opted for a gin and tonic and enjoyed the spectacular views out of the window.
Around 90 minutes before landing, afternoon tea was served, again from the trolley. I had a choice of a beef or vegetable sandwich.
This was a smaller meal served on a smaller tray. The presentation was better than lunch.
The rolls, while a decent size, were 99% dry, floury white bread, with a tiny sliver of roast beef and rocket filling.
Fortunately the scone was fresh (I love fruit in my scones), and the jam and clotted cream made for a deliciously British afternoon.
Best of all, while I don’t have a huge sweet tooth, the macaron and eclair were spectacular, some of the best desserts I have ever had, on the ground or in the air.
While alcohol was available on request, this being afternoon tea, coffee and tea were gladly accepted by most passengers instead. This was served in chunky white mugs rather than proper teacups with saucers.
These were the exact same mugs used in Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic that I’d been served before, but I think they’re bulky, ugly and out of place in a traditional British tea service on a British airline.
The service I experienced in Premium was relaxed and friendly, but a little sloppy
Service was mostly fine and similar to the service I received in Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic. The cabin was full, and, as this was a short, daytime flight, the crew had a lot of work to do in a fairly short period.
Meals were served with a smile and patience as they repeated food options to passengers in the absence of a menu.
There were a few slips in the service flow, though: As they collected the last bits of rubbish from the lunch service, I asked for a drink refill. After about five minutes of waiting, I pressed the call bell to follow up. The call bell was ignored.
Ten minutes after that, I tried again and was ignored. I eventually managed to flag down a crew member passing through the cabin (from another cabin), who quickly fetched the missing drink.
We landed around 15 minutes late, following a missed approach due to poor visibility. Immigration was quick, and I was out the door into an Uber and on my way to Manhattan quickly.
Virgin Atlantic has a great reputation in the premium-economy market, and there was plenty to like about the experience. Flying west across the Atlantic to the East Coast of the US is a quick and easy daytime flight, so there wasn’t a need for a lie-flat bed or an enclosed suite. Even with a full cabin, the mood was relaxed and calm for both crew and passengers.
There are touches that are definitely a step up from a standard economy experience: The cabin is smaller, the seats wider, with more legroom, and a drink on boarding was definitely a premium touch. The food also tasted excellent — especially the desserts. I was sad to see the cleaning around the floor of the seat was so lax, and there were gaps in the service flows, as, I assume, crew members had a rest and changeover period.
At the same time, if you haven’t flown premium economy before and are expecting it to be a substantially better than economy, this wasn’t, though it was still very much an economy product and there was a huge gap between this and Upper Class.
I’ve had some fantastic economy flights on the likes Singapore Airlines, and with, say, an exit-row economy seat with a good crew, there’s not a big difference between Singapore economy and Virgin premium. I’d be happy to pay a small premium in terms of cash or points for the extra benefits, as I think it is worth it, but would not go out of my way to seek this product over a leading economy carrier with a more convenient schedule.
All photos by the author.
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