- Virgin Atlantic Airways is the crown jewel of Sir Richard Branson’s aviation portfolio.
- I recently flew Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK International Airport.
- Virgin Atlantic’s service, style, and entertainment options lived up to expectations, but its economy-seat comfort left much to be desired.
Virgin Atlantic Airways is a survivor. For most of its 34-year history, the plucky British airline has been taking the fight to larger and more established rivals.
Through it all, Virgin Atlantic has survived everything from the economic recession to an underhanded smear campaign by British Airways during the early 1990s.
Even though several airlines around the world have worn Virgin Group livery, including Virgin Australia and the soon-to-disappear Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic has always been Sir Richard Branson’s baby. After all, the billionaire sold his once prized Virgin Records in 1992 to keep the airline afloat.
In late 2012, Willie Walsh, the CEO of British Airways’ parent company, International Airlines Group, bet Branson, Virgin Group’s founder, that his airline would be out of business within five years – loser gets kneed in the crotch.
Now, with Delta and Air France-KLM holding 80% of its shares, Virgin Atlantic is not only still flying, but in a stronger position as ever. And to my knowledge, Branson has yet to collect on the bet.
With roughly 45 planes in its fleet, Virgin Atlantic isn’t a very big airline. British Airways, for example, has more than 270 planes, while a major US legacy carrier like Delta has nearly 900 mainline jets in its inventory.
However, the crown jewel of Branson’s aviation portfolio is certainly influential. From its mood-light-drenched cabins to its stylish dressed staff, Virgin delivers service with a style and flair all its own.
On a recent business trip to the UK, I decided to fly Virgin Atlantic’s bread-and-butter service between New York and London. It’s arguably the most competitive route in a highly lucrative transatlantic-airline market. On the flight out from Newark Liberty International Airport, I took VS02, one of the airline’s original flights dating back to its days as a one-plane operation.
Since it was an evening flight that took off at 10:30, I decided to document my afternoon flight back from London.
Here’s a closer look at my most recent trip on Virgin Atlantic Airways.
My Virgin Atlantic experience started at Heathrow Airport Terminal 3. To be safe, I arrived two hours before my flight. Fortunately, baggage drop and security took a brisk 30 minutes, meaning I was left with a half hour to do nothing while I awaited the boarding announcement one hour before takeoff.
While waiting for my flight, I caught a glimpse of Qantas Boeing 787-9 “Great Southern Land” ahead of its return flight to Perth, Australia. I was actually on this plane’s delivery flight last October.
As I made my way through the labyrinth that is Terminal 3, I caught a glimpse of our plane.
An hour before departure, I found my way to the gate, where airline staff reexamined my passport and boarding pass.
I was then ushered into a gate-side waiting room, complete with vending machines …
… and complimentary reading material.
Waiting for me at the gate was our plane for this flight. Christened “Beauty Queen,” G-VSXY is a 7-year-old Airbus A330-300.
Time to board! Unlike most airlines, Virgin boards its economy cabin based on rows, beginning from the back of the aircraft.
At the plane, I was met by a cabin crew member who pointed me to my seat.
I filed past the airline’s “Upper Class” premium cabin and premium-economy cabins to economy class.
I’d be sitting in the outside aisle seat in a 2-4-2 layout.
At every seat, there was a blanket, a pillow, and a pair of headphones. My past transatlantic trips with Virgin Atlantic also featured small economy-class amenity kits. However, I did not receive one on either of these flights.
Each economy seat is 17.5 inches wide with 31 inches of seat pitch. It’s also equipped with a USB plug and a 9-inch touchscreen. WiFi is available, but for a fee.
The seat had adequate legroom, but just barely. Anyone taller than 5-foot-10 will find it to be a bit of a snug fit.
Soon we were aloft. Since this was an afternoon flight, the mood lighting wasn’t as apparent.
Shortly after takeoff, drink service commenced. As Forrest Gump famously said, “I wasn’t hungry, but thirsty,” then promptly drank 15 Dr. Peppers. I wasn’t <em>that</em> thirsty, but I did order a gin and tonic, as well as a Coke. The flight attendant gladly obliged.
While most airlines provide soda from 12-ounce cans, Virgin Atlantic uses 5-ounce ones. I understand complaints about America’s lack of portion control, but 5 ounces is a bit lacking.
Next, I explored Virgin Atlantic’s Vera in-flight entertainment system.
Vera is loaded with a massive collection of Western and international films, TV shows, music …
… and games.
There’s also an interactive flight map with several viewing options.
Overall, I really liked Vera. It had a broad selection of entertainment options from around the world. Picture quality was decent, but its scrolling interface can be finicky at times.
Lunch is served! We were presented with the option of a chicken curry, Toulouse sausages, or a rigatoni bake. Because your senses tend to be duller at higher altitudes, I went with the dish with the strongest flavour: the chicken curry.
It was delicious. The chicken was flavorful and tender, while the coconut cream and saag smoothed out the curry’s spice. The creamy pesto pasta salad also hit the spot. The dessert was a little cup of fruity cheesecake. It was decent enough, but not nearly as good as the airline’s tiramisu, which is one of my favourites.
After lunch, I settled in for a movie.
About four hours into the seven-hour flight, the seat started to feel uncomfortable. Even reclined, it was not comfortable enough to sleep for more than an hour at a time.
Shortly before landing, we were served afternoon tea, complete with a cheddar-and-tomato-chutney sandwich — which wasn’t bad, but only if you’re into cheese-and-marinara-sauce sandwiches. The potato chips were particularly memorable, as they were flavored with sea salt, honey, and butter. Sweet, salty, and buttery chips were new to me. Oddly enough, I kind of like them.
Our flight ended with an on-time landing at JFK International Airport in New York.
Here’s my verdict:
This was not my first flight with Virgin Atlantic, and it certainly won’t be my last. But my experience with it wasn’t perfect. I could certainly use a little more room in economy, and some version of Delta’s free messaging program would also be nice.
But I’m nitpicking. At the end of the day, Branson’s airline is known for offering friendly service and stylish presentation at reasonable prices. And that’s exactly what Virgin Atlantic delivered here.
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