Virgin Upper Class Trip Report 2010
I wrote this report in early 2011 about my trip to New York on Virgin at Thanksgiving 2010. During an overzealous clear out of my hard drive I inadvertently deleted it and couldn’t find a backup copy. This morning I found it on a USB drive that I had long forgotten about. So here it is. Like buses, there will be another trip report from me shortly. I am off to India again, this time on Swiss in F and back home on Emirates in F with a sector on the A380. More in early April.
Well Hello again! You seem well since we last met. Have you done something with your hair? I like it, it looks good. What do you mean who am I and what am I talking about? Surely you've read my previous trip report from earlier in the year when I flew BA
First to Miami and the AA
to San Jose, Costa Rica and then a tiny nine seater onto Quepos? No? Well for more details, see the links at the end of the report, but don't go anywhere for the moment, stay and read about my first experience on Virgin in Upper Class.
I'm writing this preamble the day before our trip to my second favourite city on the world. I'm sitting in First class as I type away on my iPad. Sadly this is first class on east coast trains on a journey from Leeds to London where they announced after the train had departed, that there was no chef onboard and so my 3 course meal voucher was useless unless I wanted a microwave meal. Had I known beforehand I would have armed myself with an equally terrible treat from one of the numerous outlets on the station.
It was time for our annual trip to NY and with a bulging bmi Diamond Club account, I went in search of a four day trip to NY in late November about six weeks beforehand. Immediately I could see that Swiss had become far more reluctant to hand out seats to their wonderful F cabin so J it had to be. Whilst I am happy to connect to fly Swiss F, if it had to be J then I really wanted to find direct flights. Continental had availability westbound but nothing eastbound. I was ready to give up when I remembered that I could use my bmi miles on Virgin. Less than five minutes later I had found flights in Upper Class and half an hour later they were booked.
Seats : 16A and 17A
After a quick journey around the M25 we arrived at Terminal 3 shortly before 10am. With a cold snap predicted whilst we were away, I had changed our pre-booked parking from valet to the short stay car park. My rationale was that the short stay car park would afford the car a little more protection from the elements than the valet parking lot which might be outside. We found a space near the lifts and loaded up a nearby trolley.
I hadn’t been to Terminal 3 since we last flew Virgin in 2007 and on that occasion we were dropped off in a taxi. As we began the long walk through arrivals and then outside towards zone A I felt the beginnings of the icy chill that was to sweep through the UK whilst we were away.
In 2007, zone A was still a building site. The finished article looked impressive. We walked in bearing right towards the Upper Class check in area. There were three UC
desks open and an UC
ticket desk which was unmanned. The single queue for the three operational desks was about seven couples deep. A good friend of mine flies Virgin through LHR
twice a month and suggested that if the UC
queue was long, it was worth approaching the queue monitor to see if it would be possible to check-in upstairs. For those unaware of the setup at LHR
, Virgin have a limo service for certain UC
customers who are then checked in whilst in their car and enter via separate hotel lobby style check-in area located above the regular check-in area. My friend had been directed upstairs in the past when downstairs was busy and suggested that there was no harm in asking. The queue monitor said “no” and so we continued to wait in line.
Around 15 minutes later, we were called forward to a desk. At the same time, the queue monitor directed the group of four behind us (the back of the queue) to “use the lovely check-in area upstairs”. Our check-in agent was happy and enthusiastic as she apologised for the delay, printed our boarding passes, tagged our bags and then told us how to get to “our wonderful clubhouse!” We went up in the lift and scanned our boarding passes to enter the private security channel. The queue at security was long and it took almost 15 minutes to get through to the large retail emporium with gates that is, any terminal at Heathrow. I appreciate that airlines, like many other service providers, advertise their service as being some sort of wonderful utopia where lines are short and service swift, but the experience so far was somewhat at odds with the Virgin Terminal 3 microsite which suggested breezing through security and then entering the Clubhouse. The reality was that the security line was no better than the bravely named ‘FastTrack’ at Terminal 5 and the Clubhouse was as far a walk as the BA
Galleries South lounge complex at T5
, not just by security.
After a brief walk through the T3
shopping area we arrived at the Clubhouse. Both of the lounge agents were busy with a couple at each desk. One couple were having a really good go of trying to blag their way into the lounge. “But we booked with Virgin Holidays and they told us that everyone who does gets free access to the lounge”. When the lounge agent explained that wasn’t correct but that Virgin Holidays do offer a limit number of passengers entry to the Clubhouse for a fee and that she was willing to extend that offer this morning for £60 per person she was told to “F**k off”. The other couple were waved in and after showing our boarding passes, so were we. The agents each had a podium with a built in touch screen. The agent selected the appropriate flight and it showed all those who VS
had on their system as eligible to enter the Clubhouse. I assume this means gold card holders who haven’t physically got their card on them are allowed to enter by simply confirming their identity.
Entering the lounge it was about 75-80% full but the dining area looked quite empty. I asked if we could have a table for two spying a number of empty tables but was told that they were full. When I asked how that could be, given that there were unoccupied clean tables, properly laid and waiting the question was ignored and we were invited to take a seat anywhere else in the lounge.
Mrs BiH and I took a seat at the bar where two barmen with a much friendlier attitude attended to us. Breakfast orders were taken and champagne offered and declined as we stuck to orange juice. As usual, I opted for a full English and Mrs BiH went for something more sensible, in this instance, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.
By the time breakfast arrived, I cracked and opted for an early glass of champagne. The breakfast itself was of variable quality. The bacon was limp, bland and forgettable, the egg was soft and a little runny but the star of the show was the sausage. It’s the same sausage that Virgin serve in First Class on their trains and is a real favourite of mine. I savoured every last bite.
I asked for another glass of orange juice and we decided to have a walk around the lounge. A delayed arrival at Heathrow meant that we had about 30 minutes before we would need to head over to our gate. After a little walk around, we settled in the quietest area near to the library and the pool table. I wasn’t very keen on the lounge and nor was Mrs BiH. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but Mrs BiH did. She remarked that if she was with the girls on their way to a girly holiday or if I was off on a stag do with my mates, the lounge would be perfect. I concur. Frommers recently released a poll where the Clubhouse was rated 2nd best in the world behind the Wing at HKG
and above the LH
First Class lounge at MUC
. If it’s horses for courses then I am the wrong horse, on the wrong course.
With little else to do we left the lounge when boarding was announced. Our gate was some distance away, a journey made a little longer by inbound passengers leaving an SAS aircraft. The design of some of the gates in T3
is such that inbound passengers have to cross an outbound corridor in order to reach their inbound corridor. In order to keep both parties sterile there are strategically placed doors that open and close to allow such crossings to take place. Everyone was content to wait a few minutes save for a woman with a massive rollaboard and three other pieces of handluggage. She barged her way past those waiting at the crossing until she was at the front of the queue (having heard her, I stepped aside knowing she wanted to be at the front) primed and ready. Despite the heft of her assorted baggage she managed to get to our gate first and then appeared perplexed by the tensbarrier; left for Premium Economy and Economy, right for Upper Class. As she dithered and eventually moved left, I veered right and stepped over her rollaboard which got me a ‘tut’! Our boarding cards were taken from us as I heard the same lady shouting “nobody told me I couldn’t bring all of this onboard’.
The jetbridge was relatively empty and we were soon onboard. Greeted at door 2L, we were directed ‘through to the nose’ where our seats were located. I had selected 16A and 17A as they were the only adjacent seats available in the nose when I booked our tickets. Were we approached by a member of the crew who asked if we were familiar with the seat and whether we would like a glass of champagne or orange juice before take-off. As the cabin filled, two men who were travelling together took 15A and 18A. After a few minutes of them walking to each other’s seats to talk to each other I offered to swop 16A for 18A so that they were sitting next to each other and I was still next to Mrs BiH. I was happy to make the offer because they hadn’t kicked up a fuss about sitting apart nor had they made any not so subtle hints.
The steward serving us came round and introduced himself. He was very friendly and asked if we needed a demonstration of the Upper Class suite. Both Mrs BiH and I had travelled on Air New Zealand and so were familiar with how it works. We were offered a choice of champagne, orange juice or water. I received my champagne promptly but Mrs BiH’s water never materialised despite a reminder. It was sadly a sign of things to come; throughout the flight requests were forgotten even when asked for a second time.
We pushed back on schedule and found ourselves on the active runway “rather more quickly than expected” to quote the First Officer. Once the seatbelt sign had been extinguished drinks orders were taken and then randomly dispatched around the cabin. Once again Mrs BiH had a request for water forgotten. Thanks to another useful website I had seen an advance copy of the menu on our flight. Mrs BiH hadn’t particularly warmed to any of the main courses and so opted for an Asian vegetarian meal. Mrs BiH is English, I am of Indian origin. The steward stood between us with a printed manifest in hand and I could see the pained look on his face as he wondered which of us had ordered the vegetarian meal; heart and head in clear turmoil. As he knelt down to speak to me, I asked him how the beef was and casually dropped in that my wife had ordered a special meal. He looked rather relieved.
and WINE LIST (Missing I’m afraid)
I ordered the seafood starter and the braised beef wellington for the main course. On another forum, the starter had been described as ‘taking longer to say, than to eat’ and that proved to be apt. The few tasteless pieces of seafood were heavily dressed in order to remind the tastebuds that this was food.
I moved on to the main course. I really do deprecate the mis-description of food. A beef wellington is fillet steak wrapped in mushrooms (with pate and/or parma ham depending on taste) and puff pastry, baked in an oven. This was pieces of beef; adequately braised and encased in pastry, or as generations have known it, a pie. Like a hot gazpacho, the moniker was meaningless and an attempt to ‘posh up’ the humble pie. A good pie should be celebrated not hidden.
The ‘wellington’ was again very bland. The meat had no flavour whatsoever and was far too dry. The dauphinoise tasted mainly of salty cheese which left the vegetables as the most appetising items on the plate. I had a glass of red wine with my main course. It was all fruit and instantly forgettable (so much so, that I forgot to note down what it was!)
The unctuous sticky toffee pudding would however, redeem all. A visit to the village of Cartmel in the summer enabled me to sample several versions of what many now consider to be the gold standard of the much copied pudding. Rick Stein observed that when he added it to the menu in his many outlets in Padstow, it accounted for almost 50% of their pudding sales. Done well, the combination of moist sponge and just the right amount of toffee is perfection on a plate. With some trepidation I took a bite but was deeply satisfied with this specimen. The glass of port was superfluous as the sugary hit from the toffee altered its flavour. It was abandoned after a sip or two.
After lunch I decided to sit at the bar to see what the fuss was about. It was quickly apparent that the bar on this flight is where single people sat waiting to meet the archetypical bored businessman or woman. My suspicion confirmed when said business people appeared as if from thin air to make small talk. I took my drink back to my seat and watched some of the in-flight entertainment.
Soon after the crew came round to take orders for second service. The steward had clearly got the measure of me and simply said “sandwiches and scones” to which the answer was “yes please”. The sandwiches reminded me of those they served on Virgin trains in First Class when the catering was good; Decent brown bread, plenty of filling and just a little too much mayo.
I can never resist a scone with jam and clotted cream, nor did I on this occasion.
There was little I wanted to watch on the IFE so got out my iPad and enjoyed a little bit of the bald rounded head Manc genius that is, Karl Pilkington. I know that Ricky Gervais is like Marmite but I have always found him extremely funny. I kept the moving map on so that I could see where we were and before long we were closing in on JFK
Seats : 8A and 9A
Given that we were travelling light and that a cab back to JFK
would have been during the busy evening rush hour we decided to walk the two blocks north to the E train station and get the subway to the airport. The journey to the platform was not without difficulty. The lift from street level down to the concourse was easy enough but we then had to attract the attention of the man in the booth in order to get through the gate as the turnstiles were too narrow to get a bag though. This took some time and the balancing act of swiping my metro card, opening the heavy gate and getting m bag through was rather more comedic than I had expected. The escalator was out of service so rather than try and carry our bags down the stairs we walked over to the lift: cue much pushing and shoving from other committed to get into the tiny lift. Mrs BiH was less than amused at this point and I got the "you are an idiot" look for suggesting that we take the subway. Eventually we made it down to the platform and a few minutes later we were on an E train to Jamaica Centre. The journey was quick and we got a seat at Queens Plaza. The interchange onto the AirTrain at Jamaica Centre is a long walk with a few lifts but you eventually arrive at the AirTrain platform well exercised. The view from the monorail was initially one of gridlocked traffic ("I wouldn't want to sit in that remarked Mrs BiH), the cargo area and finally the terminal buildings that comprise JFK
. We passed through terminals 1 and 2 where the stations have been built just outside the terminal before reaching terminal 4 where the station has been integrated into the rebuilt terminal. The journey had been quicker than I suspect it would have taken in a taxi but nowhere near as comfortable.
We arrived at the Virgin check-in area. There was a long queue for the bank of Economy desks, a few people waiting for the Premium Economy desks but the Upper Class desks were empty. Our bags were tagged and boarding passes printed with little fuss by a friendly agent. One of the porters took our bags over to the TSA
screening area as T4
still doesn't have an integrated baggage system; those in PE
and E had to join another queue to drop off their bags.
We walked across to the Virgin Clubhouse which is located on the same level as check-in and before security. We had visited before when we flew Singapore Airlines First from NY to Frankfurt. We were warmly welcomed and an offer a tour which we declined having visited before. As you enter the Clubhouse there is a bar immediately as you walk in with seating behind and on both sides. The right hand side as you enter has a magnificent view of the apron but all of the seats were occupied. We found a seat on the other side and were approached by a waitress who brought over our drinks (they had run out of diet coke so I tried a coke zero but didn't like it and was offered an immediate replacement) and asked which flight we were on so that she could tell us the latest we could order something to eat. A nice and useful touch. Mrs BiH wanted to sleep on board so she had soup and a salad; it was too early for me to eat so I politely declined. There was free wifi in the lounge but it was sluggish and I eventually gave up without managing to do much more than see a few email headers but not the body of the message.
Our flight was called and we left the lounge to make our way through security. I'm not a fan of pre-security lounges. By the time I reach the lounge I want the stressful bits of traversing an airport to be over. The queue at security was mercifully short and despite having to remove items of clothing and separate parts of my hand luggage as if it was laundry day with whites, coloured items and electronic goods being segregated and never the twain shall mix, I made it through to the other side. Neither of us were selected for the nude-o-scope. In fact it appeared not to be in operation. We arrived at the gate to find that boarding appeared to be nearly complete aside from those of us in the lounge. The queue to get onto the jet bridge was separated in to two, one for those in Economy and the other for Premium Economy and Upper Class; they meet immediately so there's no real advantage unless the economy queue is massive.
We boarded through 2L and turned left into the Upper Class cabin. On overnight flights from the east coast, Virgin divide the UC
cabin in two. Several rows at the front are a dedicated snooze zone where the lights are dimmed once the seat belt signs are turned off. No meals are served (if you are seated here and want to eat, you can be served dinner at the bar) and noise is kept to a minimum. Unsure of whether we wanted to sleep all the way home we opted to sit in the normal area. Snooze packs were on every seat and pyjamas handed out to those who wanted them. Water, champagne and juice were offered; though ordered, mine juice never actually turned up so I walked to the bar to get it.
It was a good 20 minutes before we pushed back and made our way towards the JFK
queue to depart. In that time I watched a number of men avail themselves of the opportunity to have a stewardess show them how their seat works. There were either a lot of ‘Virgin virgins’ on the flight or men who quite enjoy a stewardess leaning over them, pushing their buttons; I'll let you decide.
The lights were dimmed as we joined the snaking queue of aircraft waiting to depart JFK
that evening. We twisted and turned through the various taxiways, through and joining what seemed to be a never ending queue of aircraft. At night, JFK
always seems particularly dark and a little sinister, or perhaps I’m always sad to leave. Before long we reach the threshold of the runway and the familiar whoosh of four A340 engines on full power told me that we were about to take off and indeed we did, soaring in to the dark night’s sky. At an angle, I tried capturing the bright lights of Long Island.
Once the fasten signs were extinguished the crew sprang into action and quickly had those in the snooze zone tucked up for the night. To the obvious relief of many of the crew all but four of the remaining (full) cabin decided to turn in for the night rather than take dinner.
The menu had two different options, both presented on a single tray. I opted for the hot tray which was a very competent beef bordelaise served with broad beans and carrots, both of which had a reasonable bite to them. The beef was soft and the sauce remarkably good for airline food. The side salad had a overly sharp, gloopy dressing on it but the vegetables were crunchy and fresh. I had a glass of shiraz with it which was dreadful and abandoned after two sips.
I had been asked for my choice of pudding or cheese when I ordered the hot plate but by the time it arrived, I was full and tired; the rest of the dim cabin and the noise of gentle sleep osmosing towards my seat. I picked at the cheddar but quickly gave up and my plate was taken. I was asked if I wanted to be woken for breakfast to which I said no. I was reminded that I could always pick from the selection set out on the bar in the morning. I went to the bathroom and changed into the supplied pajamas which felt quite thin, so thin in fact that I opted to keep my trousers on and just use the top.
I fancied watching an episode of something before turning in for the night and here the limitation of the UCS once again showed. You can lounge up to a certain point but then your choice is either to accept that’s the limit or get up and flip it into a flat bed. The elongated soft Z shape that is akin to a lazy boy just doesn’t exist and so I gave up and made my bed. It was quite dark and I fumbled about with the bed linen for some time. Three crew members watched me at various stages as they walked through the cabin with none offering to help. Finally as the fourth walked past I decided to ask for some help and begrudgingly, it was offered. I wasn’t quite tired so I watched TV
for another 15 minutes in an uncomfortable position leaning against the window before giving up and trying to sleep.
As a bed, the UCS is great. Its real limitation is that it feels narrow and if you are an active sleeper you might find yourself bashing against the sides at times. I must have slept well because I woke up as the breakfast service had finished. After I changed out my pajama top I grabbed a glass of orange juice and a bacon roll from the bar. The crew member at the bar said quite tersely, that I would have to drink the juice quickly as they wanted to collect all glasses in a few minutes. We were 45 minutes out of London so this seemed a little excessive. Sure enough, within a few minutes of getting back to my seat he was hovering over me to collect my glass.
Fourty-five minutes later we were on the ground taxiing our way over to Terminal 3 where after a short wait whilst the jetbridge was properly attached we exited the aircraft via 1L. Mrs BiH and I made our way through Passport Control quickly and our bags followed shortly thereafter. Neither of us had eaten breakfast so we made our way over to the Revivals (arrival) lounge which is located near the T3
After a greasy (bacon), tasteless (eggs), burnt (sausage) and okay (mushroom) breakfast we walked to our car and drove home.
In short, Virgin Upper Class isn’t my sort of product. The Clubhouse is too busy, the crew lacked focus, the seat doesn’t have my favoured lounging position and the food ranged from okay to awful.
By the same token I can see why some people love Upper Class and prefer it to BA
. What I can’t abide are those who are still taken in by Branson’s original marketing puff that UC
is the equivalent of First Class; that certainly isn’t the case. This is in no way a First Class product.
For our next trip to New York I think it’s time to try BA
’s London City service.
My previous trip report:
BA First Class to Miami and a 9 seater internal flight in Costa Rica
India 2009 - Lufthansa, Thai and Swiss First Class & Jet Airways Domestic J
New York - Swiss and Singapore First Class