by Ron Bernthal
Virgin Atlantic’s complimentary ground transfer to the airline’s Upper Class check-in area at Heathrow, known as the Upper Wing, is purely James Bond and highly ego-boosting. Your VA-arranged car pulls up to a private gate at the terminal where a security guard asks the driver for your name. After checking his computer to confirm your reservation the guard releases a concrete road block, which lowers itself into the roadway to allow the car to pass and approach the Upper Wing entrance. After a no-line, two-minute check-in procedure, I fast-forwarded through an Upper Wing security lane, and walked to VA’s Clubhouse lounge, a very large, busy room, with dozens of windows letting in the afternoon light. Many Upper Class passengers in the Clubhouse were in constant motion, walking between the complimentary massage station, the waitress-serviced restaurant areas (where complimentary meals are ordered from an extensive menu), the complimentary Cowshed revitalization treatment, the free hair stylist, and an extensive Champaign, wine and cocktail bar. Just about any type of edible item a human could ingest, from a selection of Jing teas to organic muesli to grilled sardines on toast, was offered at a self-service area or brought to your seat by a waitress. Complimentary laptops for passengers use were placed around the room, and free Wi-Fi was available for personal laptops. My senses were totally overwhelmed by the VA Clubhouse, and I was thankful to have arrived at the lounge three hours before my 4:00 pm flight. If I am fortunate to have access to this room again, I will try to arrive for my flight even earlier.
I was hesitant to leave the Clubhouse when boarding was called at 3:30, but entry into the aircraft was fast and efficient using the separate Upper Class boarding lane and cabin door. Virgin Atlantic’s interior décor, like its sister airline, Virgin America, is offers a subdued pink and purple glow, which may have pretensions, but I find the aura relaxing. This A340-600 aircraft had 45 lie-flat Upper Class “suites” in the front cabin, arranged in an angled 1-1-1 configuration, which meant that no seat was next to another, two-thirds were window seats, and one-third ran down the middle of the cabin, with an aisle on each side. Champaign and refreshments were served prior to liftoff which occurred at 4:50 pm, about 50 minutes late due to Heathrow air traffic.
My Upper Class “suite,” a comfortable beige and brown seat surrounded by a thick, plastic shell was somewhat of a technological wonder, efficiently folding down in an unconventional way to form a lie-flat bed. When in the seating position a separate seat cushion was provided keep your legs raised. Even the seat tray and entertainment monitor was ingeniously designed. VA’s Freedom Menu allows Upper Class passengers to eat their meals whenever they want but as takeoff was delayed somewhat, I was ready to eat shortly after the cabin crew came around to take dinner orders. Appetizers were oak-smoked Scottish salmon and watercress and potato soup, served with warm bread rolls. For the entrée I chose pan-seared cod fillet with buttered new potatoes, carrots and asparagus, but the other two choices, pork loin with glazed apple and Somerset cider sauce, or fresh macaroni, sautéed wild mushrooms and baby spinach, sounded equally as delicious. A selection of English cheeses, sponge cake and chocolate marble cheesecake were brought for dessert. Prior to landing, various sandwiches were prepared, as well as scones and additional dessert choices. My flight, VS001, landed at Newark at 7:40 pm, about 25 minutes late, due to the delayed departure from LHR.
Flying Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic is a real treat, not only because of the in-flight amenities, but Virgin’s idea of a pre-boarding VIP experience is even better than what you would design for yourself if you were Richard Branson for a day, except perhaps having other passengers come up to you for autographs and photos. The celebrity treatment that begins with a chauffeured car to the private Upper Wing terminal, and continues within the luxurious Upper Class Clubhouse also extends into the aircraft itself. This is not your cookie-cutter trans-Atlantic airline, and VA’s savvy, high-tech, customer friendly attitude is evident from airport arrival to wheels-down on the other side of the big, salty pond.
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