Over 20 years ago, Virgin Atlantic introduced something found nowhere else in the sky, a Premium Economy cabin, somewhere between the increasingly rich perks of business class (Upperclass, in Virgin lingo) and steerage. In hindsight, the concept seems obvious. If passengers pay extra for wider recliners on domestic flights, wouldn’t they be more inclined to do so on a 10-hour haul?
Richard Branson and company were right. The new cabin was a hit. Premium economy is now a staple on many long-haul routes around the world, and now three U.S. airlines are in the process of rolling out this middle cabin on widebody jets.
I’ve flown in eight different premium economy seats on long-haul flights, but never on the original. On a recent return from Europe to the U.S., I decided to give it a try. Over 20 years after Virgin introduced its premium economy, the product has a solid lead over competitors in at least one respect: the seat. It was the most comfortable airline recliner I’ve sat in. The meal service and amenities on the flight were a mixed bag, while the Virgin Atlantic staff in London were truly outstanding.
Booking Premium Economy.
As a benefactor of frequent flier status, I am a Delta Air Lines slave. Domestically, this works out great. No other coast-to-coast carrier has performance figures that even come close. Internationally this endenturement leaves me constrained, though. Many of the best airlines with service to Europe and Asia are in other alliances. Virgin Atlantic was one Delta partner I had been dying to try out.
I was needing a return home from Berlin to New York. I had arrived in Europe 9 days earlier in SWISS’ solid business class throne seat.
After some searching, I found a sub-$1000 round-trip Virgin Atlantic premium economy fare from London Heathrow to Newark. At just over $900, it’s not the absolute cheapest premium economy fare I’ve seen, but it was a good value. Whenever possible I try to book SkyTeam and other Delta partner flights directly through Delta.com, as it means I earn full elite qualifying dollars (MQDs), rather than a partial percentage if I’d have booked through Virgin or through a third-party.
I paid for the flight using my American Express Delta Platinum SkyMiles card, which netted me an additional two SkyMiles per dollar, on top of the nine miles per dollar I would earn as a Platinum Medallion.
Part of what made this itinerary doable was the availability of low-cost flights ($68 to be precise) from Berlin to Heathrow on Eurowings.
I could have transited Heathrow without ever passing through security or U.K. immigration, but I’d heard great things about Virgin’s Upper Class and Elite ground services, and I decided to wait an extra 30 minutes in the immigration line to check out the situation.
There are separate check-in desks for economy passengers, premium economy passengers, Delta SkyPriority customers and Upper Class passengers.
Virgin Upperclass, Delta One passengers and Virgin Gold Card and Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallion elites are also able to use an entirely separate airport entrance, known as the Upperclass Wing. I stopped by both areas to check them out, and while the private entrance was gorgeous, it seemed that even economy passengers flying Virgin out of Heathrow can expect prompt service at check-in.
The Virgin Atlantic staff I encountered in London were all absolutely extraordinary. After noticing a discrepancy on my printed boarding pass (the card said I was a ‘Gold Elite’, when my status was recently upped to platinum) one of the check-in agents at the Premium Economy desk went absolutely all out to get it resolved.
She phoned headquarters. She waved over a supervisor. In an instant, she had read up on my entire Delta frequent flier history — all while making the sincerest apologies, repeatedly. “I am so sorry about this. This is quite strange and embarrassing. We will get this straightened out in no time.”
After two minutes of being unable to get the boarding pass to read ‘Platinum’, a nearby supervisor escalated things to another level. She phoned the Clubhouse lounge to advise my impending arrival.
“Mr. Harper is a very pleasant gentleman whose boarding pass incorrectly says he’s a Delta gold member. Be advised, he’s actually a platinum member and should be admitted accordingly. He is wearing a blue coat, black jeans and boots and should arrive in about 5 to 10 minutes. Brown hair and a brown laptop bag.”
She then called over a red coat to escort me through the Upperclass wing.
Wow. Just, wow. There was no way Virgin would allow this small clerical imperfection to compromise my experience, even one iota.
The Upperclass wing actually features an entirely private check-in area, which I did not visit, as its accessed from a private driveway outside.
The Upperclass Wing really shined during the security screening process. The wing has a dedicated security checkpoint and I was literally the only passenger in line. It took me about 45 seconds to get through, past actually friendly security screeners (there were smiles and one friendly agent assisted me lifting my bag into a bin). I was effortlessly on my way to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse.
There are many great reviews of Virgin’s home base Clubhouse lounge, so I’ll be brief. This is one of the very best airport lounges in the world.
In recent years, transpacific carriers have come to match many of the services Virgin pioneered here. Still, the whole place elicited a peculiar sense of British refinement and hospitality that I haven’t encountered elsewhere. There is are multiple dining areas with separate menus and separate chefs. There are nooks and crannies. There is a cinema, something called a water wall, a pool table and game room, a hair salon (with complimentary treatments), a spa (with complimentary treatments), hot tub, sauna, and a roof garden with panoramic tarmac views and outdoor lounge seating.
Virgin Upperclass passengers, Delta One passengers, Virgin Gold Card elites and Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallion elites can visit. That’s all. An American Express Platinum card won’t get you in here, nor will a wad of cash. Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse is exclusive to the airline’s most prized clients.
I was warmly greeted by a lone vested doorman, who took the time to check my departure time and provide a spot-on estimate of how long I should spend in the lounge. He asked if it was my first time “visiting us,” and then offered to take me on a full tour of the facility.
Every passenger transiting the Heathrow Clubhouse has several dining options to choose from, including a full, sit-down a-la-carte service and an absolutely posh walk up charcuterie butcher and deli.
Some amenities I barely had time to experience. There are delightful work spaces and a cool loft area with games for kids and a pool table. There’s also a roof deck, which was closed given the January gloom outside.
I only had about a half-hour to spend here, given some of the delays at immigration and during check-in. It went by way, way too fast.
I did appreciate the exceedingly clear preliminary and final boarding announcements made in the clubhouse, which are timed to account for the precise walking distance to various gates.
I have no idea what premium economy or Upper Class boarding is normally like, since I was given the dreaded SSSS on my boarding pass.
This meant that I was siphoned off into a pen with very rude security staff who seemed hellbent on proving to passengers that they cared very little for their job and were really part of a government money-wasting scheme that had nothing to do with securing aircraft.
We were seated on metal benches common not in airports but institutional waiting rooms. The security staff chatted among themselves while occasionally wafting a wand through the air somewhere near some luggage and shoving it into a machine. Whatever they were after, I’m sure they would not have found.
I was one of the last passengers onto the aircraft. Still, once at my seat, I was offered a glass of really bad sparkling wine (the flight attendant called it Champagne, which it was not), water and/or orange juice. Impressively, every beverage I was offered was served in glassware, consider that across the tarmac, passengers in United’s Polaris business class were drinking from plastic cups.
Passengers were offered the London Times, Financial Times and The Guardian. I love this, as the excruciatingly long taxi times at Heathrow are perfect for catching up on the news. Newspaper service is a business class feature on many global airlines.
The one and only area where Virgin’s premium economy cabin stood out was seat comfort. The A340-600 that I was flying on looked to have been updated about one decade ago.
The in-flight entertainment systems were old and dim. There was no mood lighting in the economy cabins. The bathrooms were basic, boring and offered no amenities beyond foaming soap. Virgin’s famous “wander wall” of snacks and drinks was woefully absent from this flight.
The seat, however, was lovely.
Virgin’s premium economy seats, at 21 inches wide, are as wide as any domestic first or business class recliner on the market and set the international standard in premium economy. The width isn’t all that is extraordinary about the seat, however. The sheer thickness of the passing on these seats was something I hadn’t experienced before. The seats reminded me of an actual recliner, a-la lazy boy. Every time I returned to the seat I was delighted by the sensation of sinking into thick, lush padding.
Each seat was adorned with a blanket, slightly thicker than what one would expect in economy on a flight this length, and a standard neck pillow.
The legroom was adequate. The seats are pitched 38-inches apart, which is the standard for first class cabins on domestic U.S. airliners.
Each seat also had an adjustable, inflatable lumbar support and a rather large footrest.
Each seat also came equipped with Virgin’s seatback entertainment system, though the screens on this A340 were a bit worn down and dim. The screens didn’t respond to touch, and had to be controlled by the remote below.
There were free headphones distributed. They weren’t great, and I used my iPhone headphones instead. The headphone jack was worn out and the plug had to be situated just right for stereo sound. Virgin really needs to do something with these dingy old A340s.
Disappointingly, there were no amenity kits or amenities otherwise distributed to passengers. While I think the packaged amenity kits in business class are often overkill and waste resources, I expected at least a few things to make the eight-hour journey more pleasant. Even Delta Comfort+ economy passengers are given ear plugs, toothbrush kits, lotions and eye masks on transatlantic flights.
Most annoying was the power port situation. Virgin must be the last airline in the world still sporting the bizarre custom DC power ports, which require adapters to use. The premium Economy cabin crew had plenty of adapters on hand, but they only supported U.S.-style plugs (ahem, isn’t this is a British Airline???). As I’d checked my U.S. adaptor in my luggage, I was out of luck and ran out of laptop power just a couple of hours into this flight. Bummer.
WiFi was provided by Gogo, also known as NoGo and SlowSlow. Prices were comparable to Delta’s Gogo inflight service, though I was unable to use my monthly Delta Gogo pass (seriously, is this a joint venture or not). The internet service was, well, there. It was good enough to occasionally load a web page and email. Virgin’s newer aircraft are equipped with newer Gogo equipment, also known as Soso, which is much better than the old Gogo installations, but not as fast as satellite internet service I’ve experienced on carriers like jetBlue and United.
The seat stood out. The meal service wasn’t by any means exceptional for a long-haul premium economy flight.
I’m not going to say that my meal in Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy was bad. It wasn’t. But it was so un-memorable that, as of sitting down to begin this post, three days after the flight, I can’t remember what I ate.
Fortunately, I have a printed menu and photographs to fall back on. The menu itself was printed on a large format placard, similar to what I’ve been given in many business class cabins.
The menu beckoned passengers with a “Hello you…” and talked about how delicious the food we’d be served is. Unfortunately, delicious only appeared in the menu on this flight.
There was a good diversity of options, though. Passengers in premium economy could choose between three dinners, something called cottage pie, which I presume is British, chicken tikka masala and mozzarella and tomato tortellini. After feasting on cured meats and smoked salmon in The Clubhouse, I was feeling a bit heavy, and accordingly ordered the vegetarian tortellini.
Virgin Atlantic also offered an afternoon tea service shortly before landing. This turned out to be my favorite part of the meal service.
The bar and wine selection was quite adequate. None of these wines were top flight, but they weren’t bad either. This is an appreciably better selection of wine than I’ve experience on any premium economy flight before this.
The meal was served plated, as one might expect on a domestic first class flight in the U.S. It was a nice presentation, and there were really cute airplane-themed salt shakers, similar to those I’ve seen in Virgin Upperclass reviews.
The food, on the other hand, was just okay. The pasta was bland, and the salad greens, while fresh, were under-ripe and bitter. The roll was pre-packaged, rather than heated and fresh in baskets, as one might expect in business class. From a food standpoint, I actually would have preferred my economy meal on Air France to this premium economy meal. The bread served in Air France economy was fresher, the salad more inventive and flavourful, and the pasta was cooked with cheese that I could actually taste.
After dinner I ordered a class of the Otard Cognac. It was a great way to wash down dinner, and a very nice liqueur to be served in conjunction with something ending in “economy” (at least $70 a bottle on the ground).
My favorite part of the onboard food service was the afternoon tea. About 90 minutes before arrival flight attendants served scones, cakes and sandwiches with a variety of spreads and
creme fresh clotted cream. It was past midnight in London at this point, and after dozing off I decided I needed a coffee (though I could have ordered another cognac, if my mood was a bit different).
The tea biscuit was actually somehow moister than I was after six hours in the air, and the sandwich was far more flavorful than the pasta I’d had for dinner. The jam was from a local British supplier. This is one of the better mid-flight snacks I’ve had.
After a comfy snooze in my supremely padded seat, I enjoyed a skyline view of Manhattan on descent into Newark, which was then gobbled up by two of the A340’s four big engines. There’s something about a four-engine jet that just feels mighty. I like it.
Immigration in Newark is immigration in Newark. Get Global Entry or suffer.
With Global Entry I was able to pass immigration in just a few minutes, but proceeded to wait an hour for my premium economy tagged bags to arrive at the carousel. Well after all the passengers had gathered (an A340-600 is nearly as large as a 747), Premium Economy and Upperclass bags were still getting sandwiched in between economy bags. Delta has a 20-minute guarantee on checked luggage at arrival. If Virgin Atlantic has any such guarantee they weren’t anywhere close to meeting it this evening. I requested compensation SkyMiles through both Delta and Virgin Atlantic, but haven’t yet received a response.
After my first flight, I sense that Virgin Atlantic is a great airline with a unique culture of service and style. With a relatively small network, Virgin manages to make money on some of the most competitive routes in the world, between the United Kingdom and the United States. To pull that off requires a pretty special formula, which Richard Branson and co have perfected going on four decades.
I was disappointed with the condition of the A340 I was on, though. London to Newark was Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural route (the flight numbers on this route are still VS1 and VS2), and I was hoping for an experience that looked more like what I had seen in Virgin Atlantic promotions and experienced on Virgin America flights. Instead, I entered a cabin with great seats, but dingy interior appointments otherwise. There was no mood lighting, no wander wall and no power outlets.
London ground services were spectacular, as fine as any I’ve experienced. On the other hand, someone really needs to do something about the baggage situation at Newark.
I’ve seen and heard great things about Virgin’s new 787s, though, which look to become the flagship of the fleet. Hopefully more modern aircraft will be introduced on this and other routes soon. Otherwise, the airline’s A340s are in dire need of a retrofit.
I’m a great fan of premium economy seating, which Virgin pioneered so long ago. I’ve enjoyed premium economy flights on other airlines to and from Europe and even across the Pacific, and I always come away feeling fine and ready to hit the town.
Sometimes a flat bed is not necessary for comfort. This afternoon transatlantic crossing is just such an occasion. Having upgraded service and an adequate seat is enough to make a trip like this extremely pleasant. In that respect, Virgin Atlantic came though beautifully. Count me as a repeat customer.