Rough Around the Edges: Virgin Atlantic Upper Class on the Airbus A340-600 From New York to London
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On another transatlantic hop between the TPG offices in New York City and London, I wanted to test out one of Virgin’s older aircraft, the A340, against the newer Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which I took on the outbound journey. The core product is the same, but would the newer aircraft make a real difference on my flight from New York-JFK to London Heathrow?
One-way Upper Class tickets cost 47,500 miles plus about £445 tax. We booked this as part of a return flight, and paid 95,000 Virgin Flying Club miles and £648 tax. For more information on Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club programme, see this post.
On arrival at New York-JFK’s Terminal 4, I was directed from the main Virgin Atlantic desks to the combined Delta and Virgin premium area, and approached the three Virgin Upper Class desks, which were completely empty.
With waiting staff and no queue, the formalities were completed within minutes.
The TSA PreCheck queue was also nonexistent, and I breezed through security. It’s worth noting that I was traveling with a colleague who did not have PreCheck, and the security process took him almost 20 minutes in comparison to my two minutes.
I hopped up the stairs by Gate A5 and into the Virgin Clubhouse, the third Clubhouse I have visited (after London Heathrow (LHR) and Gatwick (LGW)), and was especially excited after loving the Heathrow Clubhouse so much.
The JFK Clubhouse was similar in decor and vibe to its counterpart at Heathrow but on a smaller scale. There were plenty of varied seating areas, which at 9pm with the last flights leaving the airport were not too busy.
Clubhouse guests, as in London, are eligible for a 15-minute complimentary treatment, so I headed straight to the spa and nabbed the last remaining slot at 10pm. I was almost surprised to have got this at 8.45pm when I asked. I have rarely been able to ever get a BA spa treatment within the time I’m actually going to be at the airport.
I found a nice table in the restaurant section and ordered a number of things from the menu. Deep-fried brie was screaming for a tangy dip, and dim sum was just OK, and the 50/50 burger (one fried chicken and one beef slider) was nice, but the Beyond Burger, a vegetarian alternative, was absolutely delicious.
Before my treatment, I wanted a quick shower. There was no attendant manning this area, and people were queuing to use the toilets, which were peppered around the three shower rooms. Once I managed to get myself in the shower room, completely undress and get the water on, I realised the thermostat was broken and the water was ice-cold. I was forced to traipse up and down the corridor in a towel looking for assistance or a new room. Thankfully, the shower next door opened up after a couple of minutes, and I dragged my gear in there to shower.
The 15-minute Unwind treatment was excellent. A combination of massage and pressure-point manipulation, hot towels and eye pads, it was a wonderful way to relax preflight. The wonderful apron views from the treatment room did not go unnoticed.
Gate A5 was meters from the stairs of the Clubhouse, and I arrived just as boarding commenced 40 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time. Boarding began, and I was amongst the first to board without any need to queue.
Cabin and Seat
I was welcomed warmly by two crew at the door, and they asked if I knew where my seat was.
The cabin, lit by gentle, red and purple mood lighting, was arranged in a 1-1-1 herringbone configuration with the centre and lefthand seats facing each other until Row 7 and the righthand and centre seats facing each other from there to the back of the cabin.
My seat, 9A, therefore did not face a seat but instead the wall behind the centre seats. It felt private and, with a wall higher than the one the 787, the privacy was somewhat increased.
The cabin and especially the seat, however, were a little rough around the edges.
The inflight-entertainment screen was incredibly annoying, small and stuck on a bright white light. The crew said it’d switch on properly after takeoff and was just the music holding screen, but every other screen in the cabin looked normal. Once they dimmed the cabin for takeoff, at 11pm, the glaring light right in my face was a lot to handle.
After takeoff, the crew admitted there was a fault and reset the screen, it took 10 minutes to reset but remained faulty.
I was offered an iPad but realised there was nowhere to put it once I was in bed, so it made little sense to take one. And there was no table to use because of the positioning of the tray table and the bed, and sleeping with the table out was not possible.
One more reset did not do the trick. The crew were incredibly apologetic and issued 10,000 Flying Club miles as compensation on the spot, which was fair. I appreciated that they dealt with this immediately.
The small cocktail table at the side of the seat was also faulty. It took about five bashes to get it out each time.
Shortly after a quick meal, I flipped my seat into a bed and prepared for sleep. With a flight time of six hours, it was a rush to get to sleep, and the crew did their best to help everyone make up the beds.
I found the seat a little hard on the shoulders for sleeping, but the flip-over style of the bed meant there were no lumps and bumps, which you may have otherwise felt in the creases of a usual business-class seat. I managed about two and a half hours of uninterrupted sleep, which is about as good as you can get on a short transatlantic hop when needing to stuff your face at the top and tail of the flight!
There was one toilet at the front of the cabin, and two more flanking the bar at the back of the the cabin. The toilets were run-of-the-mill but with the added benefit of Noble Isle amenities (hand wash and hand lotion), setting the premium-cabin toilets apart.
Amenities and IFE
The amenity kit’s bag was made by Hershel and was larger than the previous one I had received It contained socks, an eye mask, Virgin Atlantic-branded pen, earplugs, toothbrush, toothpaste and Rituals body moisturiser, lip balm and eye cream.
A pillow and blanket were already positioned behind the seat, and pyjamas were handed out minutes after boarding.
I like the pyjamas on Virgin, especially the bottoms, which, unlike some others, have an all-important pocket (although only one!).
As mentioned, the IFE was broken On my seat, so I couldn’t test out the A346 product properly. From what I saw, though, there was a decent selection of programming, but all controlled via a clunky remote — no touchscreens to be seen here! One saving grace for me was a more old-school version of moving map. The older the better for me.
Wi-Fi was available for one hour for £6.99, for the entire flight for £20.99 and a basic messaging-only option for £2.99, which was limited to certain apps and did not allow photos to be sent. I bought the one-hour pass.
Speeds were OK for basic use like messaging and emails, but Instagram was slow to load.
A speed test showed download speeds of 0.6 Mbps and upload speeds of 2.46 Mbps. A 5 MB file would have taken one minute download at these speeds.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Predeparture Champagne, water and orange juice were offered. I took a glass of water and an OJ.
The inflight drinks service kicked off soon after takeoff.
I had already eaten in the lounge, so I only took a quick bite, although I was impressed that Virgin split its menu with real consideration for those who wanted to eat very quickly and then try to sleep.
The sushi quick bite did indeed arrive incredibly quickly and was a tasty snack. Judged by plane standards, the sushi was more than acceptable.
The raspberry cheesecake and Key lime mousse were small but a nice, sweet end to the meal, and again served very quickly.
A cup of Pukka Love tea rounded off the meal before bedtime.
I wasn’t planning on eating breakfast, but as I’d woken up earlier than I’d hoped, the crew were more than happy to put together a breakfast plate for me. The bircher muesli and fruit plate really hit the spot.
Service is where Virgin Atlantic really pulls through. My experience across the board with them is that service is cheeky, fun, and top-notch. The crew do seem to go out of their way to give you a good experience, despite the hard product, which is certainly lacking.
A night flight is never the best way to test a crew, as contact time is limited, and everyone is tired. However their way of dealing with my broken IFE really showed their professionalism. I had a rubbish, broken seat, but ended the flight not feeling bad about it because of the way the crew had dealt with the issue quickly, fairly and apologetically.
The flight was OK but by no means great. Virgin is hugely let down by the uncompetitive hard product, and this showed even more starkly on this older A340 aircraft. The seat is not my favourite for various reasons (faces away from the windows and no mode between a slight recline and a fully flat bed), but when it’s scruffy and beaten, it’s even worse. The broken IFE was another negative, but this issue again showed the Virgin crew to be excellent in the way they dealt with the issue.
The entire experience of flying out of Heathrow, including the Clubhouse and on the newer Dreamliner, was head and shoulders above this experience, and I would definitely suggest you aim to be on Virgin’s newer aircraft if you can, even though the actual seat is mostly same.
Earning and burning options from the UK with Virgin are actually pretty great, so I can’t wait to see what happens when the magic Virgin service is combined with fresh, new aircraft and the new seats on the new A350 aircraft due to start flying later in the year. For now, I will be saving up my Flying Club miles!
All photos by the author.
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