Globetrender flew on Virgin Atlantic’s new A330NEO to Tampa in Florida to try out the airline’s new Upper Class seat, which features sliding doors for privacy, wireless charging and sky-high wifi. Jenny Southan reports
Virgin Atlantic has unveiled a new state-of-the-art plane called the A330NEO, which has also been fitted out with completely new cabins across economy, premium economy and Upper Class, the last of which has been conceived with help from creative design agency Factorydesign. (A couple of years ago the company devised a new airline pod concept called Air Lair that looks like bunk beds but this hasn’t appeared on on any airlines yet.)
Always on the look out for innovation, Globetrender was invited aboard its special inaugural flight to Tampa – which also happens to be a new daily route for the airline from London Heathrow (complementing the airline’s services to Miami and Orlando), to see how Virgin Atlantic’s premium in-flight experience is evolving.
Corneel Koster, chief customer and operating officer at Virgin Atlantic, says: “When it comes to innovating for our customers, we never stand still. Our desire to create memorable experiences means we’ll continue to imagine with fresh ideas. We care about every detail of the cabin design and every step of our customer’s journey.
“We’re proud to unveil our state of the art A330NEO and show the evolution of our customer experience, with each of our customers receiving a premium experience regardless of the cabin they travel in. They’ll be better connected with their fellow travellers and our amazing crew in the air, and with their friends and family on the ground.
“The A330neo plays a significant role in our multibillion dollar fleet transformation, demonstrating our commitment to the planet. We know the most impactful thing we can do as an airline is to fly the cleanest, greenest, youngest fleet possible and the A330neo is integral to achieving this goal. It’s truly a plane for the future.”
In 2019, Virgin Atlantic became the first UK airline to announce a firm order for up to 16 Airbus A330NEOs, reaffirming its commitment to flying the cleanest, greenest fleet in the sky. Following a multibillion-dollar investment in fleet transformation over the last decade, the airline operates a fleet with the average aircraft age of just under seven years and 68 per cent next-generation aircraft.
By the beginning of 2027, all its planes will be next-generation. This means Virgin Atlantic’s aircraft are equipped with the most efficient engines and state-of-the-art technology designed to save fuel and reduce emissions. This has so far delivered a 20 per cent reduction in fleet carbon emissions.
Over the next decade, the airline says it will save another 10 per cent in carbon emissions. The A330-900NEOs are designed to be 11 per cent more fuel and carbon efficient than the A330-300 they’re directly replacing and will deliver a 50 per cent reduction in airport noise contour.
Upon boarding, those familiar to Upper Class will immediately notice the bar has been replaced with a new social space called the Loft. Designed to be the “focal point” of the cabin as customers board the aircraft, as well as being a “core part of the Upper Class experience”, it is essentially a lounge area with two raised couches facing each other and a fridge where you can help yourself to cans of pre-mixed negroni cockatils.
A less cosy version of the Loft found on Virgin Atlantic’s A350 aircraft (see below), it has space for eight people to sit down, as well as a few extra passengers standing. Flyers can also connect Bluetooth headphones to the two 27-inch touchscreen monitors or pop their phones down on the communal wireless charging pads for a quick boost.
Another new feature is the Upper Class Retreat Suite that takes the form of two exclusive suites at the front of the cabin in row 1. This is the place everyone will want to sit. (They even give flyers special burgundy-coloured, plane shaped salt and pepper shakers here, instead of the silver ones everyone else gets in Upper Class.)
The airline’s most spacious suite yet, it has seats that convert into six-foot seven-inch-long beds (even longer than the beds in BA’s first class), as well as buddy seats to allow four people to sit together and chat or have a meal. (It’s similar to the Qatar Airways business class QSuite but sold as two rather than four seats.)
If you want to sit in the Retreat Suite, passengers have to pay for an upgrade from Upper Class on a first-come, first-served basis, 14 days before departure.
THE UPPER CLASS EXPERIENCE
In addition to the Retreat Suite, there are 30 Upper Class suites that are all fully forward-facing, rather than positioned at an angle like on older Virgin Atlantic planes. They also come with sliding doors that close to create a self-contained booth (although people can see over the top when walking past).
Passengers will also find “do not disturb” signs to advise crew not to wake them up, personal cupboards with a mirror inside, universal plug and USB sockets for charging devices, wireless charging pads, expansive surface areas for personal items, and full-width vertical dropping dividers between middle seat pairs (seats are arranged 1-2-1).
There are also superb, glossy, 17.3-inch HD touchscreen monitors with a good selection of new films and TV shows. When you want to sleep, you can make up your six-foot five-inch-long bed with a bedding bundle that is stored in the over-head lockers – there is a soft white mattress, thin cotton duvet and proper squishy pillow, all cotton. Pyjamas are also available at night and every passenger is given a simple recyclable amenity kit with a toothbrush, paste, and REN moisturiser and lip balm in.The Upper Class seat itself has been manufactured by Thompson Vantage XL and the same model can also be found on sister airline Delta’s A330s, as well as on other airlines such as Malaysia Airlines, SAS, Swiss, Qantas and JetBlue. (Because the A330NEO is narrower than the A350, Virgin Atlantic couldn’t install the same Upper Class Suite product on to this new aircraft, hence it went for an off-the-shelf alternative.)
I was interested to learn that Virgin Atlantic has gone for vegan upholstery instead of leather, which is also 50 per cent lighter, and that the airline makes efforts to reduce jet lag with the use of mood lighting that changes according to each stage of the flight.
There is wifi available (the airline’s “fastest ever”) for the duration of the journey and it worked well for me, although it struggled to handle uploading video clips to Instagram Stories (pictures and emails were fine). You can get 20 minutes free with adverts, or pay £5.99 for an hour or £18.99 for the whole flight. Other cutting-edge tech capabilities included the option to pair your phone with the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system to browse the movie library, control your screen and activate the call bell. (Cool but what’s the point, I wondered?)
You can also use Bluetooth to synch your own headphones with the IFE, which is genuinely useful. That said, Virgin Atlantic also loans good quality over-ear headphones to each passenger.
FOOD AND DRINK
Whether you are taking off at morning or night, Ayala champagne is always offered to Upper Class passengers before take-off (as well as water and juice).
Once in the air, menus are handed out. I was curious to see that Hambledon English sparkling wine and Italian prosecco were also available, as well as a trio of signature cocktails including the Orchard Margarita, made with Patron Silver tequila, apple juice and Fever Tree light lemonade.In October, Virgin Atlantic announed a partnership with London craft beer brewery Two Tribes, which has subsequently created a bespoke beer for the Tampa flight called Metroland Florida. What a novel idea! The tasting notes describe it as having “bright, tropical flavours such as passionfruit and peach”.
The Limited edition beer is available for purchase online, but fans of the brewery can also head down to the Two Tribes Campfire Taproom in King’s Cross for a taste of the new Session IPA.Evidence that the “Sober Travel” trend is taking off, Virgin Atlantic has also invested in “functional” cocktails made with trendy zero-alcohol brand Three Spirit, which I have reviewed in-depth here. I ordered a couple of “Liveners” throughout the journey, which are high in natural caffeine and mixed with tonic water.
What about food? On my outbound daytime flight (the return is at night), I had a starter of roasted and finely diced beetroot salad with goats cheese mousse, which was as good as a dish you would get in a fine-dining restaurant. (I like the fact that Virgin Atlantic always has a vegetarian option on the menu so you don’t need to order one in advance.)The vegetarian main course was a humble vegetable korma curry with paratha flatbread but it was certainly fresh and tasty. Other options were chicken and wild mushroom pie, and miso and sesame-crusted salmon. For dessert there was black forest gateau or brioche bread and butter pudding, and a cheese plate with port.If you get hungry later in the afternoon, you can order a cream tea, samosas or a gourmet fish finger sandwich. On the return from Tampa, most people want to get to sleep quickly so crew can bring a bowl of soup and a cheese toasty to tide them over until morning.
As stellar new Upper Class experience from Virgin Atlantic with lots of new innovations to get excited about. The crew were all fantastic (although I didn’t see any men in skirts since it changed it uniform policy) and even though the flight to Tampa was ten hours, I would have been happy to stay on the plane longer. I loved creating the feel of a private office to work in during the day (as well as watch a couple of sneaky movies), and at night the sliding door made me feel more secure when sleeping.
Upper Class fares start from £2,296.