On a recent trip to Europe, my girlfriend and I had the opportunity to fly in two different premium cabins to compare different products. The first story covered the British Airways First Class experience on a 747-400 from Seattle to London. This second part reviews the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class (business class) product on a 787-9 from London back to Seattle.
The flight in BA First Class set an extremely high bar for any future flight to exceed. Simply put, it was the best flight I’ve ever experienced, both from a hard and soft product perspective. I was interested in comparing the premium cabin experiences on aircraft that are generations apart in technology. While the 747 will always be the Queen of the Skies and helped to open many international travel routes, the 787 is very much the future of air travel.
On the night prior to our flight, we discovered that Virgin Atlantic offers Upper Class passengers a premium car service from central London to Heathrow. Unfortunately, we were evidently not eligible for this perk, as we were traveling on an award ticket. We also discovered that when you are arriving by a car service (we took an Uber), there is a special airport entrance, the Upper Class Wing, for which you can register. Once I requested the Uber on the morning of our flight, I had our hotel call Virgin Atlantic to register the car’s license plate, which allowed us access to the private check-in area for Upper Class passengers. Now that’s classy.
Upon arrival, this truly felt like one of the more elite experiences that I’ve ever seen. This small portion of Terminal 3 is reserved only for those traveling in Upper Class, and there were only a handful of other passengers. Once we checked in, we proceeded to the dedicated security lane, which took us less than five minutes to clear. From start to finish, this was easily the smoothest and most pain-free check in experience.
Once through security, we perused duty free briefly, before heading to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. This was another incredible stop along the way, offering a very premium experience. Many lounges in the U.S. only offer pre-made snacks, salads, and the occasional soup or sandwich. This was a very different experience. The lounge offered made-to-order food, with a wide variety of options. My girlfriend Molly ordered an eggs Benedict, while I went with a cheeseburger, both of which were delicious. The lounge also offers other fantastic amenities such as massages, haircuts, and has nice views of the airfield. I would highly recommend visiting if you have the opportunity.
When we begrudgingly left the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, we made our way over to the 787 taking us to Seattle. Upon boarding, I was again able to make the coveted left turn toward the premium cabin, like I did on the BA 747. The cabin was busy, but the flight attendants were available to help passengers with their bags and offered champagne or orange juice. Amenity kits were also distributed, which were basic, but provided the necessities. The cabin is in a desirable 1-1-1 layout, providing all passengers with direct aisle access.
One aspect of the cabin layout that I did not love was that the seats are angled towards the aisle, meaning you don’t have a great view out the window. I love the idea of having both window and aisle access, but the seat angle was less than desirable. In addition, while business class pods are great and the current trend, it makes it slightly difficult if you are travelling with a companion. Virgin recommended that we sit one in front of the other, meaning both of us had a window. As a result, while we could talk to each other, it required us both to twist our heads.
As far as the seat itself, I found it to be fairly comfortable, if a bit narrow. As with the British Airways experience, I was also surprised at the lack of storage room. On a plus, the footrest allows for another passenger to visit with you, and even has a seat belt. I found the mood lighting in the cabin, including the famous Virgin purple lights, to be very welcoming and chic.
When the meal service began, the crew came around to set our tables and take orders. I was a little disappointed that they did not have enough of the appetizers on board, as I tried to order the Parma ham and asparagus, which was no longer available. As a result, I was offered any of the other ’œExtra Bites’ and went with the Paella with chicken and prawns, which was still pretty good.
For the main course, I went with the filet of beef, which was good but also a bit dry. I have yet to find an extremely well-prepared steak at 35,000 feet, but I’ll keep searching. The sauce and vegetables served with the meal were light and delicious. Following the main meal service, the cabin crew came through with fruit, cheese, and an offering of port. I found the port to be incredibly delicious, and it accompanied the cheese and fruit nicely.
While generally comfortable in seat mode, my seat did not recline terribly far for a premium class seat. To convert the seat to bed mode, it requires cabin crew assistance, and is not terribly comfortable in the bed mode anyhow. The seat folds up inside itself, so you are actually lying on the back side of the seat cushion. The back side of the seat just isn’t all that comfortable, so I think there is room for improvement.
During the flight, Molly and I ended up spending much of the time in the famous Virgin Atlantic on-board bar, located just inside the main boarding door. While a tad small, the bar is a nice area for Upper Class passengers to congregate and chat with one another. There were four bar stool seats and room for a few additional people to stand. The cabin crew remained available to offer snacks and drinks, so this was a nice area to spend some of the flight.
As we got closer to Seattle, the crew came through offering to return our seats from bed-mode back to the upright position. They also offered another snack and refreshments. I went with some coffee and a cheeseburger slider. The slider was delicious; I wouldn’t be hungry upon arrival.
I personally had only flown on one Dreamliner flight previously, which was just a four-hour flight, so I was excited to see how the lower-pressurized cabin would impact me. Both my girlfriend and I found that we arrived well rested, and I think the Dreamliner accounted for much of that. In addition, I enjoyed playing with the windows to compare how they looked with the various electronic dim settings. While the darkest setting was not completely dark, it definitely gets dark enough to sleep.
Overall, the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class experience was definitely an enjoyable one, and I hope to fly it again in the future. The crew was fabulous and very attentive to our requests, and the 787 is a great plane, which certainly helped me arrive well rested. There were a few blemishes along the way, but not every flight will be perfect, and this was a wonderful flight.
While I realize they are different cabins, my goal was to compare the British Airways First Class product to Virgin Atlantic Upper Class (Business Class), as they are widely considered some of the best premium cabins in the sky. I was fortunate to find great award availability for both flights, as I spent 70k Alaska Airlines miles for BA First Class, and 50k Virgin Atlantic miles for Upper Class. In retrospect, I think it was worth the 20k additional miles required for First Class, as it provided a slightly better overall experience. I may not always be able to fly in such a luxurious product like this, but it is definitely one that I hope to fly again. We are looking at taking another trip across the pond this year, and I’m hoping for another opportunity to experience BA First Class.
I was impressed with both experiences, but BA really stood out as the winner for me. The seat was considerably more comfortable, the food and beverage selection was superior (BA didn’t run out of any the options), and it felt like a more exclusive experience. While the Dreamliner offers a pleasant experience, and is undoubtedly the future of air travel, there’s something nostalgic about flying on a 747. If you have the opportunity to indulge in first class on a 747 before they fly off into the sunset, I highly recommend it. So in the battle of the premium cabin products, British Airways wins this time. Score one (perhaps final) victory for the Queen of the Skies.