Ready for Retirement: A Review of Virgin Atlantic’s A340-600 in Economy, New York to London
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I have flown many times across the Atlantic, but I recently made my first trip in Virgin Atlantic’s economy class and also my first time (that I could remember) on an Airbus A340. So with a double whammy of excitement, I headed to JFK’s Terminal 4 to fly back to London after 10 days working in the States. I had an amazing crew on my outbound flight from Manchester (MAN) to Atlanta (ATL), so my expectations (at least for the crew) on the return flight were high. Here’s how it went.
Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club offers great redemption options between New York and London, starting at only 10,000 miles and $89. The taxes and fees on the leg from London to New York are slightly more expensive but it is still excellent value, especially when it comes to one-way fares.
The airline’s most basic economy return fare can be as low as £280.
Virgin Atlantic operates several evening flights across the Atlantic to the UK and I didn’t have the luxury of a priority check-in with my ticket, so the queue was pretty long and I waited around 20 minutes before I was with an agent.
The staff lacked the enthusiasm and friendliness that I had experienced on my outbound flight to Atlanta from Manchester. As I always do, I asked if any last-minute seats had opened up closer to the front of the aircraft because of cancellations and people changing flights. This usually leads to some kind of conversation but it didn’t. I was then handed a letter explaining that there would be no inflight entertainment (IFE) or Wi-Fi across the entire plane and that as an economy passenger, I would receive 6,000 Flying Club miles as a goodwill gesture. This was a night flight and I was hoping to get a bit of shut-eye so I wasn’t too bothered, but if I’d had work to do or simply wanted to watch a film to pass the time, I think I’d have felt a little hard done by.
I had no lounge access on my economy-class ticket, but I used my Priority Pass membership and had a quick bite to eat in the Wingtips Lounge, which is used by several airlines and other lounge-pass members. It was busy and hot but there were nice views onto the tarmac. It’s times like these when perks with The Platinum Card from American Express really show their value.
The boarding gate area was drab and dark and I didn’t see many power outlets but the boarding process was quick. There was another announcement at the gate to apologise for the lack of IFE and the gate staff, in particular the duty manager, were very friendly.
What the gate area did provide was a view of the beauty of the bird, aptly named Sleeping Beauty (more about that later), that was about to fly me home across the Atlantic.
Because of construction work at JFK, there was only one runway in operation which meant we took off 90 minutes later than scheduled. Throughout the delay the captain kept us posted on changes to our slot time and the progress that we were making. This was a nice touch even though the delay was through no fault of the airline.
Cabin and Seat
I received a warm and friendly welcome from crew members as I boarded the plane. Turning (reluctantly) right, I walked through the small Premium Economy cabin with a total of 38 seats.
Then into the economy-class cabin which seemed to stretch forever down the fuselage. I was seated in the first section, closer to the front of the plane, which is better for deplaning and lessens the effects of turbulence slightly.
There was a smaller section in the middle.
And a final section which got narrower toward the back of the plane.
I much preferred the 2-4-2 configured cabin to compared to the 3-4-3 cabins you’d find on most wide-body aircraft.
The leg room was ample for a 5-foot-8-inch guy like me.
The only issue was this metal box that prevented me from stretching my legs out completely.
The plane didn’t stay quite as empty as this, but there were a few seats free, including the one next to me, which meant I managed to lie flat-ish by curling myself up into a ball. I actually got a couple of hours of proper sleep, hence the relevance of the plane’s Sleeping Beauty moniker.
A welcome drink isn’t offered as standard in economy but two passengers across the aisle from me had been given a glass of champagne each. They were a young family travelling with two small children so maybe this was just a nice gesture — once again Virgin Atlantic crew going above and beyond.
The tray table was certainly big enough even for my super-size 15-inch laptop and (I think for the first time ever) I could tell that the table had just been cleaned as the spray hadn’t fully dried.
I probably visited the washrooms twice during the flight and each time they were perfectly clean.
Amenities and IFE
Even scoring this flight a two out of 15 was generous because there were literally zero IFE and just ever-so-slightly more in the way of amenities. Granted, this is not as standard on Virgin Atlantic flights in economy. I would have probably been quite annoyed if this were a day flight without IFE or Wi-Fi, but I wanted to maximise my sleep time anyway. There was no amenity kit in economy but there was rather rough and cheap-feeling pillow, a bright red blanket (which I didn’t use; I get too hot on planes) and a set of headphones which I couldn’t test out with the absence of IFE.
I thought for a second that my screen displaying the message “Choose your experience” meant that some how the IFE had been fixed but indeed, as per the message delivered by many members of staff, the systems were definitely down .
Not even the USB outlet was connected. Luckily, I had my trusty battery pack with me.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Put your hand up if you look forward to economy-class food. Nobody? Thought so. I’ve been pretty spoiled of late with my inflight dining so I wasn’t overly excited about eating on this flight. If it hadn’t been for the review, I’d have probably just tried to sleep from the moment I got on board.
However, when I opened the menu (yes, a full menu in economy class), I saw a definite improvement on the usual variations of “chicken or beef”.
The presentation left a little to be desired but who cares, it’s all about the taste at the end of the day and this economy meal was a pleasant surprise. Initially, I was a little worried that the bits of green all over the mash were coriander which would have ruined everything. Lucky for me, it wasn’t and the creamy mash, meaty sausage and perfectly seasoned sauce combined to make the perfect economy comfort food meal. Well done, Virgin Atlantic.
Safe to say I polished it off.
I tried the dessert but it wasn’t to my liking. I’m sure that if you like creamy things, it would have been right up your street.
I liked that I was given a mini-bottle of red wine rather than just being poured a little glass. Beer and spirits also were available as complimentary.
Breakfast was a yoghurt and a breakfast bar which was actually quite tasty. Not really sufficient to get me started for the day, but it served as a quick little snack.
Typical for an overnight economy flight, interaction with the crew was limited, but it was friendly.
While waiting at the gate, a lot of people queued up at the desk to speak with the staff for various reasons. I was one of them as I wanted to try to board slightly before so I could get decent pictures of the cabin. Before I got to the front, a man who I later realised was the duty manager was making his way down the queue of maybe seven or so people to see if he could resolve their issues instead of waiting to speak to an agent. I explained that I was hoping to get on board a little early and he said that would be no problem whatsoever.
The onboard service was good, but nothing great or outstanding. I was greeted warmly and pointed in the direction of my seat. From then on, there wasn’t much in the way of interaction with the crew, but that’s often the case on overnight flights in economy. I think I just had high expectations, thanks to my first experience with Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class from Manchester to Atlanta.
There was one member of the crew who went over and above: Before I went to sleep, I asked the cabin crew member who was clearing the evening meal if she could just pop my breakfast into the seat pocket so I could maximise my sleep. Lo and behold, when I woke up, it was actually on the seat right next to my head where I was lying. Very nice that she remembered.
Compared with other short overnight flights across the Atlantic in economy, this experience was probably up there with the best I’ve had. I couldn’t scored it very high as there was no form of entertainment, Wi-Fi or working power outlets through the entire flight, which could have really impacted the journey for some people. Other than that, the crew were perfectly friendly and did a speedy job of the food service as well as clearing away afterwards. They were clearly working well as a team. I really enjoyed my meal too. I’ve had worse meals in business class in recent times.
All photos by the author.
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