This must be one of the world’s cruellest as well as most trafficked routes: an overnight flight, taking off in the early evening, truncated by a time difference that only gives you three hours or so between dinner and landing. To pop an Ambien is to be a zombie at passport control in Heathrow; to stay awake for the whole journey is to invite hallucinations from weariness the following afternoon. Your best bet, if you have a full schedule the day you get back, is to bed down right after take-off – which I purposefully didn’t do on this trip. I could have had an early dinner in the lounge to maximise shut-eye, but I’d blocked the following day out in my diary so I could enjoy all the bells and whistles of Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Class Suite. And very lovely it is too.
First impressions on turning left are… impressive. This is the most photogenic luxury airline product in the sky today. It knows its good side and the importance of flattering lighting. Decades after the demise of Braniff, Virgin remains one of the few carriers intent on injecting fun and glamour into the travel experience. From the staff’s patent red shoes to the Swarovski crystals that are arranged in strings within the folds of the panelling at each end of the new cabin, there’s nothing understated about the Virgin aesthetic. The first thing everyone sees when stepping on board is the artfully lit and supremely glossy new bar, now separated from the rest of the cabin and placed on an angle with three stools. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the bar in The Shining, rocketed into space. Only those in the nose of the jet will be using it of course, but it serves as a potent and hugely expensive symbol of the Virgin ethos: “Thank you for flying with us, we’ve lost several rows of seats just to make cocktails and yes – look! – we use Champagne saucers now, not flutes. Oh so au courant!”
It’s somewhat reminiscent of the bar in The Shining, rocketed into space.
The seating in the new Upper product replicates the same herringbone layout as before, and I couldn’t, I have to say, initially discern much difference in the seat itself. Apparently it’s an inch wider and reclines by 50% more than it used to. You can also be in any position you choose, even full recline, for takeoff, which is splendid. But you still have to get up to flip the back down to create the (truly) flat bed, which remains the faff it always was. Yes, you get a more comfortable surface to sleep on, but wouldn’t it be so nice to be able to slide back into a reclining position to watch 30 Rock if you can’t drop off or if you just change your mind? Also, while they tell us the seat is the longest of its kind in the sky, at six feet tall I found I had to curl slightly when in the lying position. But space will always be – literally – at a premium in the sky. And transitional faff aside, as flying armchairs (with a retractable arm on the left), these are marvellous. As beds they’re fantastic.
The most obvious difference with the new Upper Class cabin is in the styling: Wing shaped, frosted panels in the side of each seat pod make the cabin less claustrophobic. The design suggests they should retract at the flick of a switch, which they don’t. There is a slight issue with the ambient bleed of TV glare from passengers sitting opposite you, but it’s not a deal breaker. The surfaces of the seat panels look, at first, like retro fake wood, but are actually more like a digital speed blur emblazoned on copper. It’s strong and graphic. The use of those aforementioned crystals is much nicer in the new cabin – the block of them on the front wall of the previous cabin looked less like an abundance of Swarovoski and more like a giant swatch of sequin fabric from Borovick’s in Berwick Street Market. The lighting – which changes intensity almost imperceptibly at certain points of the flight according to how close you are to arrival, never strays far from the Virgin gamut of red and mauve and is sexy, glam and generally very pleasing indeed.
Niggles: During boarding I seemed to miss out on the offer of pyjamas, and I had to seat hop for the dinner service as there was an issue with my table working. Dinner was good: corn chowder, pretzel rolls (I could have consume my own body-weight in these) and a veggie lasagna. The TV system is excellent and pin-sharp, with a nifty iTunes style carousel menu system. I had a glass of Champagne at the bar and then caught a couple of hours’ sleep. I managed to stay snoozing with my bed flipped back into seat mode, but at full recline, for landing – a godsend when you’re stuck over Heathrow in a holding pattern, or down on the runway waiting for a gate to open up. Until they invent teleportation, or bring back Concorde, JFK to LHR is always going to be a pain, but if you have to suffer it, I whole heartedly recommend the new Virgin product and suffering in style.