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A half-empty cabin meant quick and relaxed service. And, the food was really tasty.
There was actually more usable space in the empty economy cabin, droopy head rests and the flight was too short for a proper sleep.
After a fantastic week in TPG’s New York office, I headed back to London. Having experienced Virgin Atlantic’s newer Airbus A330 premium economy class on the outbound flight, I purposely booked an A340 service home on one of their oldest aircraft to see if the experience would differ.
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 arrived at JFK’s Terminal 4 around two and a half hours before the scheduled departure time of 11pm.
The Virgin Atlantic check-in area was deserted, and I was helped immediately.
Virgin Atlantic had a departure to London every hour during the evening. As I was so early, I did ask about the possibility of moving to an earlier flight, but this request was met with an immediate no without any explanation.
I was advised by the check-in agent that I could use the priority security line, which was an unexpected perk and saved a lot of time, as the standard security line was enormous.
After security, the terminal did not feel overly busy.
Virgin Premium does not come with lounge access, so I fired up the Priority Pass app to see if I had any lounge options in Terminal 4. The only result was the Wingtips lounge, past security near the Swiss lounge. I was advised I could only stay until 9:30pm, as it was then being used exclusively as the lounge for the premium passengers of one flight.
I wasn’t expecting much from a JFK Priority Pass lounge, but I was still disappointed. It was grim.
The coffee machine wasn’t working, the drinks were not cold, because the fridge was either not turned on or not working properly, and the food when I arrived did not look at all appetising.
I didn’t really feel like toast or cereal at 9pm.
There were several staff on hand who I was amazed managed to look so busy doing nothing. One was mopping the floor and then spent a good 10 minutes attempting to dry the floor by casually flapping a tea towel over the floor. Not wiping the floor with it, just waving the tea towel a few feet above the ground.
This was about as effective as breathing on the wet floor to dry it.
So I wasn’t disappointed to leave the lounge at 9:30pm and head to Gate B26.
What I was sad to hear was that boarding and departure would be delayed by around 40 minutes due to the late arrival of the inbound flight (which had arrived 29 minutes late). An 11pm scheduled departure is late enough, and everyone at the gate seemed anxious to get on board, get moving and get some sleep.
Boarding eventually began at 10:35pm, and I was the first one to board the premium cabin order to get passenger-free photos.
Cabin and Seat
Like the A330 I had flown on my outbound flight, the A340 had a 2-3-2 seating configuration. There are five rows proper rows, with an extra row of middle seats at the back of the cabin.
From the front at least, the seats appeared identical to the newer A330 cabin.
I had Seat 20G, an aisle seat in a middle row of three, midway to the back of the cabin.
Waiting on the seat were the same wrapped blanket, unwrapped pillow, and cheap headphones with a charity-envelope wrapping as my earlier A330 flight. I was pleased to see a Herschel amenity kit for the overnight flight.
It contained simple but welcome contents: an eye mask, socks, pen, earplugs and toothpaste.
I thought it odd toothpaste was provided without an accompanying toothbrush. When boarding was complete, the seat next to me remained empty.
There was another amenity kit on that seat, so out of curiosity I checked its contents. That kit contained the same contents as mine with the addition of a toothbrush, so I can only conclude mine was missing one in error.
Though the seats appeared to be the same as on my earlier A330 flight from the front, once I had started exploring the seat there were noticeable differences. Seat width and pitch were the same, but the IFE screen was noticeably smaller and lower-resolution, and the remote was a much older style.
While the seat had the same large, plush, adjustable headrest, neither flap stayed upright when I rested my head against it, rendering the feature useless.
The armrest that housed my tray table was falling apart.
Other than that, the cabin felt quite fresh for a 12-year-old aircraft.
With boarding complete, it was clear the flight was nowhere near full, and both seats next to me remained empty. With limited storage space, it was fantastic to have the empty middle seat to keep all my stuff in without having to constantly retrieve things from the overhead.
While the Premium cabin on the A340 is small, it’s a long plane, so the economy cabin is huge. The purser announced over the intercom that because of the number of empty seats in the economy cabin, passengers were free to move to other rows once the captain had turned off the seatbelt sign after takeoff.
The economy cabin was laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration.
The bulkhead seats in the front of the economy cabin looked fantastic for economy seats.
There were 172 passengers and 10 crew on board, and we expected a lightning-quick flight time of six hours and five minutes. The ultimate flight time was slightly longer than this due to the standard Heathrow air-traffic-controller delays. Nonetheless, this was a short flight for an Atlantic crossing. We departed around 30 minutes late because of the late boarding time.
I checked out the bathrooms, which were kept clean for the duration of the flight.
I tried to get as much sleep as I could on the six-hour flight while still receiving both meals in order to complete the review.
With the failing headrests and and limited recline, even with the seats next to me empty, I didn’t find the seats that great for sleeping on. As the headrest did not stay up, it meant the pillow I rested my head against on the side of the seat next to me fell through the gap between the seats (into the seat behind me), so I awoke confused with a sore neck and a missing pillow.
The armrests could not be adjusted because they housed the tray tables, so I couldn’t lie down on the empty seats next to me.
The tray table was a perfect size for my laptop (and a mouse), although I was more focused on sleeping than working on this flight.
I did wander back to the economy cabin after the first meal service to see how empty the economy cabin was. I was surprised to see that not only did several passengers have middle rows of four to themselves, the cabin was so empty there were actually rows of four seats still completely empty.
Had I not been reviewing the Premium cabin, I would have downgraded myself and quickly grabbed an empty row of four seats, turned it into a poor man’s lie-flat bed with pillows and cushions, skipped the second meal service and slept the rest of the flight.
I never thought I would be looking at an economy cabin so longingly!
Amenities and IFE
The smaller-screen IFE system was noticeably different than the newer A330 system on my outbound flight. It did not have a working touchscreen, but I was able to navigate through the options using the old-style remote control.
There was a decent selection of movies and TV shows, but on a quick overnight flight I was far more interested in trying to catch sleep than all of a two-hour movie. The flight offered Wi-Fi, but for the same reason I didn’t try and connect.
The screen quality wasn’t great.
The navigation map was grainy but worked OK.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Given there was no menu on my outbound flight, I was pleasantly surprised to be provided with a full menu showing the food and drink options.
There were drinks offered during boarding, including water and prosecco.
Given the late-night delayed departure, I appreciated how quickly the crew served dinner following takeoff. It started with a drinks service and packet of pretzels just 10 minutes after wheels up.
Water bottles were also distributed (always welcome for overnight flights).
There were three main course options: Vietnamese caramelised pork, Italian chicken stew and spinach cannelloni. Vietnamese is my favourite cuisine, so I jumped at the chance to try the pork.
The tray was the same mess I had received on the outbound flight, but at least the crew handed it to me facing the right direction this time.
Had the covers been removed and the contents straightened up before handing to me, this could have easily passed for a business-class meal. I don’t know why Virgin Atlantic don’t add this five-second step to the Premium service.
The pork was delicious, though the red-velvet hazelnut pudding was dry.
Just three hours after the trays were cleared, the lights were slowly turned on, and breakfast was served. I wasn’t very hungry but wanted to see what the menu description of “a light breakfast of fresh fruit, yoghurt and a warm almond croissant with tea or coffee” looked and tasted like.
It all tasted fine, though I continue to be surprised to see airline persist in serving flakey pastries in confined cabins — they make a huge mess, with flakes going everywhere.
An easy evening for the happy crew.
Even though the flight was lightning-fast, such an empty plane meant I expected service to be fast and efficient, and I wasn’t disappointed. The crew member working the Premium cabin seemed happy to have a fairly easy evening, and everything was delivered quickly, professionally and with a smile.
I appreciated that he whispered most communications to passengers around me, as some passengers opted to sleep the entire flight.
We landed five minutes early despite the delayed departure and air-traffic-controller delays showing just how lightning-fast the flight was.
Short overnight flights are all about maximising rest, and Virgin Atlantic did a great job in that regard. Meals were served quickly, cheerfully and quietly to passengers who wanted them. With so many empty seats, there was plenty of elbow room and storage space for each passenger. The older aircraft and seat did have a low-quality IFE but otherwise did not feel like a very old plane. It’s great Virgin Atlantic can offer relative product consistency amongst planes of different ages.
But at the same time, a big restriction of the design of these (and most other) premium economy seats is that it’s better to have an entire row to yourself in economy rather than premium economy. The headrests could not be raised, so I was stuck sitting up, losing my pillow to the failing headrest and ultimately still arriving fairly tired and disheveled despite booking a premium economy seat.
It’s difficult to accurately predict how full flights like these will be in advance, but had I not been reviewing the premium economy experience in this flight, I would have preferred to be in a row of four empty seats, skipping midnight meals and 4am breakfasts and getting as much sleep as possible.
All photos by the author.
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