I recently flew Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick (LGW) to St. Lucia (UVF). It was a first-time experience for me, both flying the airline and riding on an Airbus A330-300. The flight was part of a Virgin Holidays package that my wife and I bought at the last minute, although flights to the island from London at this time of the year are also available with British Airways. I’d read mixed reviews about the Virgin Atlantic product, but my wife is a big fan – so I kept an open mind and we opted for the red livery.
I was excited to experience Airbus’ smallish wide-body over the distance, even though I understand Virgin operates the route with a 747 from time-to-time. The closest Boeing equivalent I’d flown on was a British Airways 767 from Moscow a few years ago, and I’d also enjoyed Etihad’s A340 from Abu Dhabi a few months ago – both en-route to London Heathrow – so I relished the prospect of adding a new aircraft type to my repertoire.
Now, I’m a European LCC short-haul aficionado for both personal and (formerly) professional reasons (I used to be the Airports and Ground Ops lawyer for a UK airline). Minimalist seat width, pitch, a single aisle, and scratching around for euros or pound coins to pay for coffee and a muffin are my norms, so frankly any change from that is a win in my book. Actually, that’s rubbish. I love luxury, pampering, and upgrades as much as the next person. I was just full of AvGeek zeal and excitement on the day. Even the delay at LGW security whilst my Kindle Fire was tested for explosive substances was good-natured and efficient.
We flew economy as the upgrade options were limited. Besides, we were off to the Caribbean for a week’s holiday so I figured any discomfort from the sub-10-hour-flight could be set off against lying on the beach with a cocktail in due course.
The seat itself was slightly hard, but not uncomfortably so. I could live with it easily enough over the distance. The winged headrest that could be shaped into position and adjusted to your choice was nicely functional, but I didn’t need to use it in the end. And the leg space was also an unexpected boon.
Our seats, 61D and 61F, were the first in a set of three in the middle, as opposed to four, as the fuselage narrows towards the rear of the aircraft. I initially kicked myself for not checking in as early as possible (the customary 24-hours before departure) in order to select a berth of two with a window, but assumed that staring out at large stretches of the Atlantic would be nothing special. 61G was empty so we had even more space. However, the wider aisle space between 61D and 61C became a bit of a nuisance, with people perching there to chat to others within their traveling party. We eventually shifted ourselves across one seat to 61G, where the aisle space between it and 61H wasn’t wider, after more than one accidental elbow and/or behind in the face.
I enjoyed some IFE for most of the trip, especially the brilliant safety demonstration video, delivered as a cartoon using several different themes ranging from westerns to superheroes, police chases and, of course, a 007 moment. You can tell that these guys like to have fun and live in a world of bright colors and funky music.
The IFE system is not as smart as the one I’d experienced a few months ago on an Etihad A380 to Abu Dhabi, complete with noise-cancelling headphones, but the range of films was decent. There was a broad range of Bollywood choices, which I put down to VA’s popularity on Indian Ocean routes. Adjusting the volume on screen was the only real annoyance – it was too fiddly.
Having enjoyed some tonic water with lemon and ice (too early for a Bombay Sapphire, at least for me anyway) an hour into the flight, it wasn’t that long before I was tucking into the main meal. I chose a very pleasant beef burgundy, over Spanish-style chicken and veggie bolognese, and a hearty bottle of Spanish red wine to accompany it – I have my doubts about people’s ability to maintain a discerning palate for claret at FL39, but it was good enough for me to enjoy whilst wondering whether Bradley Cooper would take the shot in American Sniper, playing on my IFE.
Despite the longer flight time than scheduled, the headwinds didn’t generate more than light turbulence. Typically, it always seemed to arrive when we were delicately balancing different miniature foodstuffs and cups of liquid on the tray table. Fortunately, turbulence didn’t interfere with the delicious GU Chocolate & Orange Ganache. Something that is essentially a cake filler or icing can, in its own right, corner the market in airline desserts for chocolate-lovers. Virgin is inherently brand-conscious, so a dessert from GU is a pleasant addition to the meal.
A couple of hours later, cabin crew passed by with another mini treat. It was a mini Fab ice lolly from Nestle. I did a quick bit of research and found out that the Fab was originally launched by British firm J Lyons & Co Ltd. in 1967. I wonder if they could ever have imagined it being served on the “Golden Girl” en-route to the Caribbean. There’s something quaintly British about it all and, although not a big ice lolly fan, I enjoyed it and the affected sense of occasion, immensely.
Not long after we’d all been “fabbed”, I took a discreet cabin picture for the sake of posterity. I’d not flown on an A330 before and had expected to feel cramped at the back. A few rows behind us were empty though, so that must have added to my sense of peace, calm, and feeling distinctly un-cattle-like.
An hour-and-a-half before landing came what the menu said was that great British tradition of “Afternoon Tea.” A chili chicken wrap and crisps probably stretches that concept somewhat, but I willingly participated anyway. I chuckled to myself at the ‘plane’ flavored crisps; it’s a nice touch and even at the end of a nine-hour trek across the Atlantic, it’s oddly heart-warming.
We passed over the green, mountainous Lucian terrain and touched down gently at UVF at about 1pm local time. Well, I caught a few glimpses of it anyway. I didn’t get any photos on the descent into UVF because of both my central seat and the on-board reminder that all photography of the airport, ramp, and surrounding infrastructure was forbidden. I’m not sure how strict the handling staff would have been if I’d snapped a few cheeky ones once on stand, but we were on a week’s break, and the prospect of beginning it with a dressing down from some Lucian official didn’t appeal, so I bottled it and put the camera away.
Anyway, to sum up, I like Virgin Atlantic. At least I do for long-haul on what is mainly a holiday sector. They’re a nice airline and clearly have fun doing these routes. I can’t help but have Divine Comedy’s “National Express” playing in my head as I write this. The service is perhaps less refined or slick than BA and the other legacy carriers of this world, but the experience nevertheless gets the “thumbs up” from me.
This story was written by Alastair Long for AirlineReporter. Alastair is a Brit AvGeek and an aviation services lawyer, with a passion for all things aircraft, airport, and flight.