Flying (a biofuel-free) virgin atlantic 787-9 in upper class cranky flier

Virgin was one of the pioneers of a premium cabin product better than traditional business class, but priced lower than first class. Their “Upper Class” is also meant to be fun, in a Sir Richard Branson, British jet-set way. While they no longer have an onboard masseuse, they differentiate by providing chauffeur service to and from the airport; upscale Clubhouse lounges with spa facilities and copious food and drink; an onboard bar; and, at London/Heathrow, a private check-in and security area called the Wing.

In my time at Heathrow and in the air on a two year-old Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, Virgin definitely lived up to its reputation of fun and different. Although I had some qualms with the seat itself (more on that below), my overall experience was great.

Of course it had better be great when the retail price tag can be $5,000 each way or more. There will be some who may prefer a more conventional onboard product, such as couples flying together or business travelers trying to sleep who find themselves seated near the bar. But I’ve never had an easier or more pleasant time getting to and through Heathrow, and was thoroughly impressed with the friendliness and attentiveness of the flight attendants, the condition of the airplane and the quality of the onboard food.

A few days before departure I called to arrange the car service. I chose a 6:30am pickup for my 9:25am flight to maximize time at the Clubhouse before boarding. My driver was outside the hotel in a Mercedes sedan at 6:20, and with only moderate traffic we arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 just after 7.

Instead of dropping me off at the normal entrance, the driver made a left turn and went up a ramp to the Upper Class Wing. At a barrier he rang a call button and announced me by name and flight number. After verification, the arm went up and we proceeded to the ornate driveway where a staff member was waiting for us.

She led me inside to a check-in desk and I had my boarding pass in two minutes. It was just a few steps to the dedicated security channel, where there was only one person in front of me. I was through security seven minutes after stepping out of the car. The only other airport arrival I’ve had as effortless was at the Lufthansa First Class terminal in Frankfurt. And this was better, because Lufthansa doesn’t provide car service to get you there.

Off to a solid start, I took a walk around the sprawling facility and found several areas that I wished I had more time to enjoy, including the game room with a beautiful pool table, and the roof deck, with good airport views even on a drizzly London morning. I also wished it was later in the day because the bar had an extensive craft cocktail and beer menu that I didn’t get to sample.

The elegant decor impressed in both form and function, and it lived up to the promise of being a “clubhouse” – someplace you’d actually want to hang out. There was a small army of staff circulating constantly, and it had all the features and amenities you’d expect: a work area, a play area for children, magazines and papers, clean restrooms, etc.

My brief experience at the spa was the only aspect that was underwhelming. They offer a few basic complimentary services but charge for most, including massages, facials and haircuts. I wouldn’t spend 16 GBP again after an uninspired 15 minute chair massage. Nevertheless, I headed off to my gate feeling that Virgin has a clear leg up on BA across the end-to-end airport experience for departing premium cabin passengers.

As I settled in, a flight attendant came by to welcome me, hang my jacket and offer a pre-departure beverage. It felt a little awkward at first with my feet extending out almost into the forward galley, but it was nice to not be staring at another passenger. With the lavatories at mid-cabin, the only foot traffic coming past was the flight attendants. (It is likely less serene for passengers at the back of the cabin.)

We pushed back a few minutes early and being merely fourth in line for takeoff, the quiet and powerful Rolls Royce engines soon had us in the air. The flight time was announced as nine hours flat, and the seatbelt sign was off 15 minutes after wheels-up.

The flight attendants sprang into action to prepare service for the entirely full 31-seat cabin, with three attendants each working one side of an aisle, and a fourth in the galley. I interacted with all four at different times during the flight, and one or two from other cabins, and all were friendly, attentive and eager to help. It certainly made my flight more enjoyable, and if it holds true day in and day out, it gives Virgin a big advantage over a lot of other legacy carriers.

Service began with drinks and a small bowl of crisps (no hot towel offered). While waiting for lunch to begin, I asked for the sleep suit (which they automatically provide on night flights, but can be requested on day flights too). I changed in the refreshingly spacious and clean lavatory, which gets bonus points for the hand sensors on the toilet flush and sink. The one other thing missing that every airplane bathroom should have is a foot pedal so that you don’t have to touch the waste-bin lid to open it.

Drink refills were offered and our lunch orders taken. The menu listed a choice of two appetizers or soup to start, followed by a choice of four entrees. For both white and red wines there were three options categorized as “Classic”, “Familiar” and “Discover”, which I thought was a nice touch.

A couple of people were hanging out at the bar, some talking and one guy just working on his laptop. I wandered over and ended up staying for over an hour. It’s not as fancy as the bar on Emirates A380s, as it spills into the adjoining space and does not have a full-time bartender (flight attendants walk by every once in a while and serve on request). But I had great impromptu conversations that wouldn’t have happened without the social space and were more interesting to me than watching movies in my cocoon. Passengers nearby seemed to be sleeping fine, but I would suggest avoiding the last row or two, particularly on overnight flights.

I asked the guy on his laptop how the WiFi was, since I had decided not to shell out $5.95 for 40 megabytes of data or $21.99 for 150 MB. He said it was average by international standards; it worked ok at some times, and then was slow or unavailable other times.

About three hours before arrival, I started to feel hungry again and ordered the burger from the Extra Bites section of the menu. The flight attendant said it would take 20 minutes to cook and she would bring it out to me. I also asked for an espresso, and she apologized saying that only their A340s have espresso machines. Disappointingly, the only coffee option was the same flavorless instant brew I had struggled to finish on the eastbound flight.

The burger arrived and it hit the spot. The pickle and red cabbage slaw were appreciated touches. The one thing that would have made it even better would have been fries instead of the potato chips… but I realize that could be hard to do well on a plane.

I did some work and tried to enjoy the last two hours of the flight, before it was time to go back to reality. I had a cup of tea and a finger sandwich when they came around with the formal second meal service. Hot towels were offered after tea, and then it was time to change clothes and prepare for landing.

We got put into a holding pattern just past Vancouver thanks to runway construction limiting arrival capacity, but we still docked six minutes early at the South satellite building. Global Entry worked like a charm, and after a quick subway ride back to the main terminal, I met my driver who was holding a sign with my name at arrivals. Not having to deal with the mess of trying to get a Lyft or Uber out of SEA-TAC was a welcome change, and the SUV ride home was a fitting end to a great Upper Class experience.