Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A340 called Bubbles - Photo: Lewis Smith | FlickrCC

Virgin Atlantic’s Airbus A340 called Bubbles – Photo: Lewis Smith | FlickrCC

Recently, I used my Delta Skymiles for a trip to London. However, rather than flying the genteel Southern airline (aka Delta), I used my miles to book an Upper Class ticket with their joint venture partner, Virgin Atlantic (recently named the fifth-best international airline by Travel + Leisure). I was excited to put them to the test!

I had no trouble booking the trip through Delta’s website. I simply logged into my account, searched for DFW to London. 125,000 miles later, I was booked to go to London on an overnight flight across the pond. My husband, who booked separately, also had no problems making his reservation, even though he paid with actual dollars.

The morning of our flight arrived and we took a taxi from our apartment in downtown Dallas to DFW International Airport, arriving at terminal E where Delta has its outpost inside the American Airlines fortress hub. We arrived three hours early as recommended for international flights, but being that it was just before 6:00 A.M. on a Saturday morning, it took less than 10 minutes to check our bags, get through security, and get in to the Delta Sky Club, where I drank all the Starbucks coffee anyone could ever want and grazed on bagels, English muffins, and other breakfast foods.

A Delta MD-88 - Photo: David Montiverdi | FlickrCC

A Delta MD-88 – Photo: David Montiverdi | FlickrCC

Around 9:00AM, it was time to board an MD-88 bound for Atlanta. Since we were first class, we were able to board first and get a pre-flight beverage. I ordered a Bloody Mary, and the Atlanta based southern belle who also doubled as a flight attendant said, “You look so young and beautiful, you are over the age of 21, right?”

“Yes,” I replied. At the age of 30, getting carded is definitely a compliment.

A couple hours later, we were in Atlanta, arriving at Terminal B. Since we had about seven hours to kill (we wanted to make sure we made our connection when we booked the flight), we decided to walk to the international concourse, F, rather than take the plane train. Walking between terminals in Atlanta exposes you to a variety of art and gives you a brief overview of the history of the city, with highlights including the Civil War and Reconstruction, Atlanta pastor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work on desegregation and civil rights, as well as the 1996 Summer Olympics. It is also good exercise.

Concourse F at ATL

When we finally made it to Terminal F, the difference between this one and all the others was immediately apparent and astounding. That is not to say the other terminals are horrible, and renovations to many of them are ongoing, but Terminal F is in a league of its own. It was like stepping into a fancy new two-story mall that just happened to have airline gates attached to it.

Looking out from the deck of Delta's Sky Club in Terminal F at ATL.

Looking out from the deck of Delta’s Sky Club in Terminal F at ATL – Photo: Jonathan Trent-Carlson

Since we were going to be spending two weeks in Europe, we elected to not do any shopping and proceeded to the Delta Sky Club. Unlike the Sky Clubs in other terminals, this one was open, spacious, and had tons of natural light (NOTE: this was before the new Sky Club opened in Terminal B). Other features that set this one apart are showers and a rooftop deck where we could enjoy watching planes take off and land while sipping New Zealand’s signature wine varietal, Sauvignon Blanc. We also helped ourselves to soup (he had Italian wedding and I had an Indian curry), snacks, salads, and other eats that were available during our time there.

Bubbles the A340

Bubbles the A340 (reg G-VFIZ) – Photo: Jonathan Trent-Carlson

Finally the time came to board the plane to London Heathrow. We made our way down to the departure gate where an A340 named “Bubbles” was waiting for us (Virgin Atlantic likes to name their planes). We made our way down the jet bridge, got on the plane and turned left towards the front.

The cabin with no lights – Photo: John Walton

The first thing that stuck out was the purple lighting and 90’s pop music being pumped through the speakers. When Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Atlantic a couple decades ago, he wanted to make flying a fun experience. Mission accomplished, even if the on-boarding playlist could use an update.

The Upper Class A340 seat – Photo: John Walton

We made our way past the on-board bar to our seats, and each seat also came with its own footrest. The footrest has the ability to double as a seat (with a seatbelt) if someone wanted to sit across from you. Underneath the footrest it was like a little cubbyhole where you could put your smaller personal items while your larger ones went into the overhead bin.

On the seat was an amenity kit. In addition to toothpaste, toothbrush, blindfold, ear plugs, face moisturizer, etc… it also came with a lemon-chamomile spray for the pillow, supposedly to help you sleep better.

Inside the Virgin Atlantic amenities kit.

Inside the Virgin Atlantic amenities kit – Photo: Jonathan Trent-Carlson

As we were settling in, the flight attendants came by to offer a pre-flight glass of champagne and a newspaper. I had my choice between various publications, including the Sun and Financial Times. I opted for Financial Times, or FT as they called it, and began reading while sipping the Gardet Brut Premier Cru, which I can only describe as drinking the tears from an angel.

My husband taking his pre-flight drink from the lovely flight attendant.

My husband taking his pre-flight drink from the lovely flight attendant – Photo: Jonathan Trent-Carlson

The flight attendants, dressed in very fun outfits with the ladies wearing red skirts, white blouses, and red lipstick; and the men in purple vests and black pants, were extremely professional. If you fly Delta frequently, an Atlanta-based crew is most likely going to call you honey, sweetheart, etc. This crew, while friendly and you could joke around with them, was definitely all business. This is not a bad thing, just one a difference I noticed.

Shortly afterwards they came by and asked what I would like for dinner once we were up in the air. I ordered a vodka cranberry for my pre-dinner cocktail, and for dinner I ordered a beef filet and paired it with a 2012 Bordeaux. The flight attendant also gave us cards so we could place our breakfast orders. For dessert (or pudding – as they called it) I chose a slice of the chocolate chip cheesecake. The front of the card read “Wakey wakey,” and on the back were the breakfast options. I selected the chocolate hazelnut croissant, paired with coffee.

After everyone had taken their seats and gotten buckled up, it was time to take off. The captain came over the speakers and stated “Here at Virgin Atlantic, we don’t sing, we don’t dance, but we will show you a short video. So if you would, please give your undivided attention to the video monitors and flight attendants. Thank you.”

At that point, the screens that normally showed movies began playing the animated safety video, featuring you, the passenger, in a variety of scenarios including playing a cowboy in the wild west, a superhero, and a spy like James Bond.

When the video got to the part about flight attendants pointing out the exits and lights illuminating the aisles, the flight attendants were perfectly synchronized. If synchronized safety demonstrations were an Olympic sport, Virgin Atlantic’s crew would win the gold.

After the pre-flight safety briefing was complete, it wasn’t long before we were taxiing into position to get ready for takeoff. Atlanta is the world’s busiest airport in terms of aircraft movements (as of this writing – Chicago O’Hare has been known to have more from time to time) and passengers. So for anyone who has ever flown in to or out of ATL, it comes as no surprise that the runways were busy.

Most narrow body aircraft have their seats perpendicular to the fuselage, so in order to look out the window one only has to turn their head to the left or right. However, Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class suites on their wide-bodies are angled at roughly 45 degrees to the fuselage, so I had to twist and turn to check out the action occurring outside the window.

As we lined up and got in to position, I could feel the power of four engines revving up and it wasn’t long before we were racing down the runway and taking off into the clouds. Soon, we reached our cruising altitude, and the captain turned off the “fasten seat belts” sign and the flight attendants began serving the pre-dinner cocktails.

While enjoying my drink, I kept turning around and looking out the window to see if I could see any of the great cities of the east coast, but alas, it was a cloudy evening. So, I began reading my book, An Imperceptible Spark by my friend Steven Rice, until they began serving dinner. The beef filet I ordered was cooked medium well, tender, juicy and marinated in a mildly sweet brown sauce. The meal was delicious, and the wine I chose paired perfectly with it. Soon they brought out the pudding, and the chocolate chip cheesecake was divine. It was moist and tasted like it could have been made right there on the plane.

After dinner, the flight attendants were also making their way around the first class cabin, changing the seats into lie-flat beds as us passengers began queuing at the lavs to change into the pajamas we were provided with. The long-sleeved shirt was very cozy, but the bottoms would not stay around my waist even if I pulled the draw strings as tight as possible.

I returned to my seat, now a bed, but I wasn’t tired, so I decided to try Virgin Atlantic’s in-flight entertainment system that so many rave about. I put on the noise-cancelling headphones they provided me with and tried to start browsing the music selection.

Virgin America provides noise cancelling headphones in its upper class cabin.

Virgin America provides noise cancelling headphones in its Upper Class cabin. Also pictured is the newspaper I selected from the flight attendant before takeoff, and the pajamas the airline provides – Photo: Jonathan Trent-Carlson

After about the fifth or sixth time I poked the screen, I realized it wasn’t a touch screen (Virgin Atlantic’s newer A330s do have touch screens) so I began navigating using the control panel at the bottom of the screen.

Virgin Atlantic does have a humongous selection of music, but for whatever reason I wasn’t in the mood to listen to a lot of the offerings. After creating a small playlist of music, I decided to check out the movies. I was impressed by the options, and since I hadn’t seen Deadpool, I began watching. Unfortunately, it was around this time I started drifting off to sleep.

I am a light sleeper; however, if something is constant – like say, sound from a TV – I can adjust and fall asleep. This happened a couple times while Deadpool played in a continuous loop, so eventually I gave up and went back to music where I picked a long playlist entitled “Country Divas.”  It wasn’t long before Dolly Parton was begging Jolene “please don’t take my man,” and at that point I finally drifted off to sleep. I remember waking up one time and looking out the window and seeing lights below and wondered if we were over Iceland (a later review of the flight path reveals we weren’t anywhere close to Iceland), but those thoughts didn’t last long as I drifted back to dreamland.

The next time I awoke, we were just beginning to go over Ireland and our flight attendants were starting to serve breakfast. The chocolate hazelnut croissant was flaky, buttery, and chocolatey, but the British need some lessons in choosing which coffee to serve. After breakfast it was time to change back into regular clothes. Some of the passengers dug into their amenity kits and got out toothbrushes, lotions, creams, etc… but I was just content chewing gum until we could get to our hotel, where we could shower and freshen up.

I returned to my seat and put my belongings in my carry-on and stowed it under the foot rest for landing. The skies over London are some of the busiest in the world, and Heathrow airport only has two runways, so we were in a holding pattern for a bit. However, the wait for the final approach was well worth it.

View of London and the River Thames on final approach into Heathrow.

View of London and the River Thames on final approach into Heathrow – Photo: Jonathan Trent-Carlson

I began craning my neck to look out the window as we passed over Wembley Stadium (I tried to power up my phone to take a picture, but alas, I was not fast enough), central London with the River Thames, Tower Bridge, Parliament, Big Ben and the Eye below, and several row houses (see the video below of the final approach and landing) before touching down.

We got to our gate, and here our plane was attached to two jet bridges, compared to just one in Atlanta. After disembarking, we proceeded to the UK’s immigration and customs, where we unfortunately waited about an hour until we were seen by an immigration officer; we got our passports stamped and went to baggage claim where our luggage was already waiting for us. We then headed to the Underground/Tube station (every terminal at Heathrow has its own station) to go to our hotel in Piccadilly Circus and begin our European adventure.

Overall, my first flight in a wide-body plane could not have gone any better (ok – maybe if they served better coffee it would’ve been better, but that’s beside the point). Virgin Atlantic is as known for their service and in-flight entertainment options as they are for their founder, Sir Richard Branson, and the airline definitely lived up to the hype. Delta has picked an excellent partner across the pond.

To Sir Richard Branson, well done.

A big thanks to our friend John Walton for allowing us to share some of his photos!

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CONTRIBUTOR - BOSTON, MA. Professional public servant by day, AvGeek by night and an elite frequent flier, this Boston based writer also enjoys watching college football and playing tennis when not working or keeping up with the latest news.

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18 Comments
Jonathan in France

Virgin Upper Class is usually pretty good even if the A340 is a bit long in the tooth and the oldest ones subject to bird strikes from the rear. The Virgin A330 from DTW to LHR is a nice service, too, with the advantage of fab DTW, where you can buy a Lafayette Coney Island hotdog with onion & mustard (heaven), international arrivals is polite and well-managed, and even the TSA agents smile.

Jonathan Trent-Carlson

Hey Jonathan,
You have an awesome name. I did get to experience Virgin Atlantic’s A330 service from LHR to ATL on the return trip (the details of that trip may be a future article) and I love the hot dogs at DTW that you’re talking about. Glad your experience with TSA there was a good one.
Jonathan | AirlineReporter

JL Johnson

Congrats on your first AR piece, Jonathan!

Jonathan Trent-Carlson

Thank you.

Ann Webster

But, the Upper Class seats are not accessible for disabled people – despite the American Air Carrier Access Act stating that access should be provided in every class of cabin. It’s the ottoman that causes the problem as you cannot get the on-board wheelchair close enough to the seat to transfer. Come on Mr Branson, let’s see some equality with a redesign of some of your upper class seats

Jonathan Trent-Carlson

Hi Ann,

It does appear that Virgin Atlantic is working to increase accessibility, based on this article:https://wheelchairtravel.org/first-class-for-the-wheelchair-traveler-luxury-or-necessity/

Looking at the pictures, it does seem like he flew in an updated cabin and/or a newer plane. Thanks for replying and highlighting a very important issue with flying/traveling today.

Jonathan | AirlineReporter

Ann Webster

Thanks Jon, but John and I have regular dialogue with each other and I read his articles regularly including the one you sent. He agrees with me about this airline. I have contacted their accessibility manager and raised concerns so watch this space. It is just so frustrating when Virgin get great reviews yet they haven’t tackled equality and disabled people in first class – yet – if only I could spend five minutes with Richard Branson Kind regards Ann

Ann, some other considerations about airplane seats for disabled persons are: many persons need to travel with an assistant or caregiver. Being seated in a cocoon is not helpful to a person who is not independent. Plus, as Business/First class seats skyrocket in price (due to the airline drive toward super-luxury), disabled persons who need to buy extra seats are often financially squeezed out of flying when economy seating is not a physical option. And then there’s the lavatory issue! Last year DOT workgroups made recommendations for having a disabled access lavatory available on all single-aisle aircraft (you know, the kind of planes that serve 99% of the U.S. domestic market). However, they recommend that airlines have TWENTY (20) YEARS!!! before they have to comply with a revised ACAA. Wanna bet that 20 years from now, airlines ask for an extension to the new rule?

Ann Webster

Tell me about those awful cocoon type seats! When I first started flying first class and business class it was great – lots of space between seats and easy transfer to the seat from the wheelchair, but now the new designs have completely forgotten us disabled people who want a bit of luxury too. Just because we are disabled people does not mean some of us we can’t afford first class, just like non disabled people, but sadly we face a second class service when using it – yes toilets are a nightmare. I flew first class with BA last year and struggled big time in the seats and the loo – only to find out later that they did have a wheelchair accessible toilet on board and the seat had a button to lower the armrest, but none of the crew knew about it. I complained to the DOT and BA were found to have violated the American Air Carrier Access Act – but despite the huge cost of tickets they refuse to compensate me for the poor service – yet passenger on the flight had a broken seat and they got £100 Duty Free there and then – so not quite equality for me. At least Virgin gave us free flights in premium economy to say sorry which is accessible, when I struggled in upper class.

Ann Webster

Oops Malcolm forgot to say I have to travel with an attendant too and so have to sit in the centre rows so we can sit side by side and that does work well on AA and BA, but not with Virgin as I couldn’t get my husband’s attention when I needed him to help me.

Many crew are not aware that aisle armrests of seats in economy now flip up. There’s either a button under and toward the rear of the armrest (usually recessed and hard to find) or a “trigger” lever which you pull. The button (or trigger) unlocks a catch that then allows the armrest to be lifted out of the way. Many non-disabled travellers now know about this and flip them up when getting out of their seats. It makes it much easier getting out of the incredibly cramped HD seating circumstances. If you’re last off the plane, you’ll notice that a lot of aisle-seats have the armrest in the up position. This is a new problem for wheelchair people when being taken off an airplane on one of those miniature “aisle chairs”. The passenger now has to avoid being wacked in the head and shoulders by head-level armrests while being transported up the narrow 19″ aisle.

As for accessible lavatories on BA, in an inquiry to their disability desk last year, I was informed that BA’s 777 service between SEA and LHR DID NOT HAVE ANY ACCESSIBLE lavatories. This would not be a violation of the ACAA if the equipment was pre-2010 when the double-aisle accessible lavatory rule became effective to foreign carriers. On BA’s A380 service between YVR and LHR, they have two large lavatories (not necessarily designed to be accessible) located forward of Club Class (i.e. cocoon seats) on the upper deck. The A380 has no other accessible lavatories and none available to economy (i.e. 10-across steerage) passengers on the lower deck.

Ann Webster

Hello Malcolm – I travelled from U.K to Miami on the 380 and the accessible toilet is in the economy section on the lower level – it is two toilets, as you say, with a partition that is removable – however the crew didn’t know about it and that’s why the DOT ruled they had violated the Act and gave them a warning, as they are supposed to let disabled people know about the accessibility features of the plane. I was aware there should be one and that the upper class cocoon I was in should have had a button to lower the armrest, but when I was told no to the toilet and no to the button by the crew, you believe them. They even made out a report stating there should be an accessible loo and button, which just goes to show they did not know their aircraft. The toilet and the button would have made such a vast difference to me, even though I was in first class, my husband would have pushed me in the aisle chair to the accessible loo in economy.

I have been flying as a wheelchair user for over 35 years now, mostly long haul, so have lots of experience – but it’s only the last ten years that we have been able to afford first or business class. For me, American Airlines is the most accessible – I can get all the way in their toilet with the onboard wheelchair and also transfer on to their first class seats too – so I will be flying with them again to Miami in the summer. I think sometimes people think that all wheelchair users can walk a bit, and this is not the case and I certainly cannot walk or stand so rely on my husband and my arm strength to transfer.

Hi Ann,
This has been a great dialog on accessibility issues. Apparently, the accessibility manager I corresponded with conerning the A380 service between YVR and LHR was also unaware of a double-lavatory with the fold-a-way interior panel possibly located in economy. I was only informed that, should I want to take my disabled wife on that flight, we would have to fly Club Class. Pictures I found on the Internet were ambiguous about whether the Club Class loos would actually work for us. As for the Seattle/London 777 service, I cannot say whether they have accessibility. The woman I talked to said simply, NO, those planes do not have accessible lavatories. An advocate who works at the NW chapter of the MS Society flew on that SEA/LHR route and did not see anything that resembled an acccessible lavatory.

Ann Webster

It’s disgusting Malcolm isn’t it? I just wish I could get to advise on access issues on aircraft – there are disabled people on various airline committees, but things do not seem to change much do they? My husband looked in economy to see if the loo was accessible, but couldn’t see it and then the crew said there wasn’t one. It was BA Chairman’s Office that eventually told me it was further up economy than my husband had looked. Are you American? I am from the UK, but because the flights start or end in the U.K the American Air Carrier Access Act applies – BA also got into trouble with the DOT for the Captain and his first Officer carrying me up the stairs in my wheelchair, when the lower bridge broke. The stairs were very narrow and steep and we had to go upstairs to Business Class to use the upper bridge to get off the aircraft – when I’ve time I think I’m going to write a book about all this.

Plane-Crazy Joe

Your VS 346 was an equipment substitution; a one-off! Their 333 is the normal equipment on their ATL route. However, the 346 occasionally is substituted – but VERY rarely! So rare that I’ve never seen their 346 at ATL; over the approximately 18 months since they started ATL flights. However, I HAVE seen this as detailed on FR24.

Presently, DL has resumed flying one of the two ATL flights previously operated by VS; under their JV arrangement.

Flying upper with Virgin, you should have received a skip the line pass as I call it for customs. Allows you to go to the far end of the security area where the lines are almost non existent. I think the cabin crew messed that one up!

Jason, they must have messed up! I have never waited either when coming off an Upper Class flight. Last time I barely even slowed down.

This blog post was featured on AirllinePilotGuy.com Episode 260 (video link = https://youtu.be/Jdz4mn7hdrg?t=2h43m57s)

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