When stepping on a Virgin Atlantic flight, you are instantly reminded why it is known for being one of the sassiest airlines currently flying to the USA. From the mood lighting and friendly crew to the detail-dripping design interiors, there’s a sense of occasion that some other carriers forget to deliver.
When Virgin Atlantic launched the Airbus A330-900neo, all eyes turned to the aircraft’s new Retreat Suite—the airline’s response to the award-winning Qatar Airways Qsuite.
The signature product features a front-row-center pair of business-class seats that could be turned into a social space for four people traveling together. And while there’s a small additional cost for booking them, the standard Upper Class suites aren’t to be sniffed at.
During a recent trip to Tampa, I tried out the updated Upper Class product to see how it differs from the classic experience. I started at Virgin’s home, London Heathrow Terminal 3, where the secret sauce of Upper Class Wing and Clubhouse made for the perfect start to the trip. Like Delta One, this VIP check-in experience takes much of the pain away from the usual airport journey, getting from curbside to the lounge in less than 15 minutes.
Heathrow’s Clubhouse might not have all the lavish bells and whistles from years gone by, but it still has the elements that are important, including à la carte ordering to table, outdoor terrace area, showers, and relaxation cabanas. There are even Peloton bikes for those who are feeling a little more adventurous.
Boarding and Cabin
As soon as one boards, the aircraft instantly sells itself. You enter the brand-new A330neo in The Loft area, a social space with a dedicated TV wall and Bluetooth headphone pairing. The Loft has high chairs and a chilled mini fridge to help yourself with soft drinks during the flight. (Virgin Atlantic is the only airline in the world to offer a bar or social space on every single aircraft.)
When you turn left, you are greeted by a sea of Upper Class suites. Unlike on the older Boeing 787-9 and A330s, there’s a sense of privacy, as each seat features high walls and sliding doors, which even the flagship A350 doesn’t offer. Purple mood lighting floods the cabin, offsetting the golden touches throughout the seat design, making the atmosphere more akin to a Miami rooftop bar than an aircraft interior.
As you take a seat, the delightful experience begins with a selection of predeparture beverages, such as champagne and raspberry cocktails, champagne, water, and orange juice. It’s worth noting that, unlike on many U.S. airlines, these drinks are served in sophisticated glassware, even while still on the ground.
Just before takeoff, I was offered a “sleep suit” (read pj’s) and sustainable amenity kit, and my order was taken from a surprisingly elevated menu. I was assured by the cabin crew that the catering had recently been upgraded and that I was in for a treat.
After takeoff, I started to explore my surroundings. I was in a forward-facing staggered seat, which felt quite spacious. I found the TV and privacy wall in front of me a little close, but as I reclined into my seat, it did feel a little farther away.
Because each seat is staggered, there’s a large side table with plenty of space for a laptop, snack, and drink and a dedicated closable storage unit beside the seat.
What’s instantly noticeable is the quality of the finish. Although the seats are identical to those found on Delta’s A330neos, the materials and textures Virgin has opted for adds a residential opulence to the cabin. There’s also a leather wireless charging pad for your phone under the storage unit and USB-C charging points, so these seats do mean business if you need them.
There’s also a sizeable bifold table, big enough to accommodate the largest of MacBooks. For entertainment, there’s a 17.3-inch TV screen to which you can pair both your phone and headphones. Fifteen minutes of free Wi-Fi can be had for watching a short video, but it’s enough to fire a volley of emails on your laptop or check your phone halfway through the flight. Paid packages are available for additional data.
Above and beyond the swank new suites, this is where Virgin Atlantic shone on this flight. The new elevated menus bring the airline’s core offering a bit higher (although it still doesn’t match JetBlue’s Charlie Bird transatlantic experience).
The dishes looked and tasted great, whether it was gravlax or orange and goat-cheese salads to start or the flavor-packed baked North Atlantic cod. Even the cheese plate was substantial.
I was also offered a sorbet mid-flight to enjoy with an afternoon movie. Before landing, instead of just one standard afternoon tea option as found on British Airways, there was a selection of different hot and cold dishes, including a rather delicious Indian snack selection of samosas, bhajis, and tomato relish.
When it comes to drinks, Virgin knows how to pour. I never needed to ask for a refill, as someone always came down the aisle to ensure everyone was fine. Mirroring the new wave of rosés crossing the Atlantic, fan-favorite Whispering Angel was served on the flight.
This is often overlooked but is part of Virgin Atlantic’s signature winning formula. Virgin prides itself on doing things a little differently, and it shows. Personalities are allowed to shine, and most are big. (The crew’s signature threads were designed by the great Vivienne Westwood.)
Onboarding, you feel surrounded by friends and colleagues, and somehow Virgin manages to find the perfect balance between familiarity and professionalism. Even with delays due to a massive storm passing through, the flight deck and cabin crew managed to keep everyone at ease.
Virgin Atlantic’s A330-900neo Upper Class suites certainly do raise the bar and create significant synergies with their sister carrier’s Delta One suites. The seats provide everything that a passenger could need, but the star of the show is the cabin’s overall design, which feels fun and elevated.