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REVIEW – Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class – B787 – London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

sfo lhr - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic (VS)

  • Flight: VS19
  • Class: Business Class
  • From: London (LHR)
  • To: San Francisco (SFO)
  • Duration: 10h50m
  • Aircraft: B787
  • Seat: 5A
  • Frequent Flyer status during flight: Virgin Atlantic Gold
  • Booking type: Cash fare (LHR-SFO r/t for £999)
  • Flight date: December 2021

 


Intro


My first ever luxury travel review was published on flyertalk back in 2013 and later re-published here.

It was a flight on Virgin Upper Class on the A340. Back then I was blown away by the experience, since I only really had economy and a handful of 90s Business Class experiences to compare it to.

Over 8 years later, Virgin are still flying an almost identical seat, when many airlines have private suites with closing doors in Business Class. When I booked these flights they were scheduled to be operated by an A350 with a competitive product but unfortunately there’s a huge chasm in seat quality on Virgin. The dreamliners and A330s offer one of the worst seats currently operating in Business Class on any airline.

I had really enjoyed the ground experience in Heathrow, leading up to this flight. The Upper Class Wing and Clubhouse still offer one of the greatest Business Class experiences in the world.

With this in mind, I wondered if the overall experience could still shine despite the old ‘coffin’ seats…

 


How I booked Virgin Upper Class


I booked this flight as part of a sale, offered during the depths of COVID, when people were hardly flying. At £999 per person, round trip, this matched the ludicrous London to Maldives deal on BA.

 


Virgin Dreamliner Upper Class


Boarding

Boarding was rather shambolic, with a huddle at the gate area and no distinction between classes of service.

Once we were on board the plane though, things improved. The crew were just as friendly and welcoming as their counterparts in the Clubhouse and the small onboard bar made a great first impression as we turned left into the Upper Class cabin.

VS upper c 787 1 450x649 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 1 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Seat selection

The Virgin Atlantic Dreamliner offers 3 rows of seats in a herringbone formation. The best seats, without question, are on the A side – where passengers face a wall, rather than facing other passengers.

We picked seats 5A and 6A, figuring that it would be a good idea to be neither too close to the galley nor too close to the bar.

A word of warning: Avoid seats in Row 7, as these have no window!

vs787 seatmap 450x687 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 3 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Despite the added privacy of facing a wall, it was jarring to have direct lines of sight to every other passenger in the cabin. Strangest of all was the proximity that we had to neighbouring passengers’ heads, that peered up over the very short walls of their seats.

In a seated, upright position it was hard to shift the impression that this was more of a Premium Economy product in terms of overall privacy.

Virgin 787 Upper Class Seat

In addition to the lack of privacy, the seat suffered from both a distinct lack of width and storage space. My shoulders felt quite squeezed in and the right hand armrest was the width of a candy bar.

VS upper 787 5 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 6 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

A bottle of water was waiting for me at my seat and this was placed on a small fold out cocktail table, with a push out lamp above it.  The image below serves to highlight another major issue with these ‘window’ seats: they face into the aisle rather than the window.

VS upper 787 11 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 20 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Other than the shoe cubby, the only dedicated storage space was integrated into the left hand armrest and this was barely large enough to fit a phone and a passport. There was also a magazine compartment, just beneath the IFE controller – which featured an empower charging socket.

The overall maintenance and cleanliness left a lot to be desired…

VS upper 787 13 880x587 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – seat storage.

…especially when it came to the rickety ventilation grate next to the armrest. There was enough room to slot a bottle of water between the grate and the armrest. However, you had to be very careful not to place a thinner item here, as it would invariably fall into the wretchedly filthy area below.

VS upper 787 17 880x587 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – seat storage.

Evidently numerous passengers before me had fallen foul of this trap, in a desperate bid to find viable storage space.

VS upper 787 18 880x587 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – seat storage.

The seat featured the smallest in-flight entertainment screen I’ve seen on any plane in Business Class, although the resolution was up to modern standards. There was also an integrated USB port built in to the screen, next to the headphone jack.

 

VS upper 787 10 450x525 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 9 450x293 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 8 768x530 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

The headphones were very plasticky and cheap feeling, a world away from the excellent noise cancelling headsets provided by American Airlines in Business Class.

 


The Flight


In flight service

The crew were very friendly and welcoming during the boarding process. In addition to the bottle of water, we found an amenity kit waiting for us at our seats. We were also offered pyjamas, which is still something of a rarity in Business Class.

VS upper 787 32 450x600 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 7 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

The amenity kit contained actual socks that you’d want to keep (as opposed to the usual tubes with no ankle, given away by most airlines).

Water, champagne and orange juice were also offered from a tray, prior to take off.

 

Virgin Upper Class Menu

Virgin is almost entirely back to pre-covid catering now and the menu included multiple options for each of the three lunch courses. As of May 2022 this is still not something that British Airways is able to offer.

Virgin made headlines some time ago, when they decided to remove beef from all flights due to the environmental impact. This isn’t something that particularly bothers me since airline beef is often cooked to the consistency of boot leather, unless you’re flying on ANA First Class.

Lunch

A drinks service was offered prior to lunch being served. Although I was tempted by both the Ayala and the Hambledon (made 5 miles away from my childhood home), I decided to stick with Coke Zero. It felt like I was very much at a tipping point, having enjoyed 3 glasses of champagne and an espresso martini before midday at the Virgin Clubhouse

I appreciated the fact that the Coke Zero was served in a proper tumbler with full sized ice cubes, rather than the thimble-like vessels used by some other carriers.

Alongside my drink I was served a packet of sour cream pretzels. This seemed like more of an Economy Class snack; many airlines will serve a ramekin of warm almonds or cashews in Business Class.

VS upper 787 22 e1652181429935 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – drinks service.

After the drinks service, trays were brought over with our starters. The trays had a tablecloth integrated into them, as opposed to the crew setting a tablecloth directly on our tables.

A small detail but one which really sets the top carriers like Qatar and Singapore apart from the competition.

VS upper 787 26 880x587 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – lunch starter.

The smoked duck breast was very basic in terms of presentation and execution. 5 slices of smoked duck breast from a packet, a few dry slivers of bread, a dollop of chutney and some fennel shavings.

I’m always happy to get a decent amount of protein when flying but overall this dish was very dry and felt unfinished.

I appreciated the fact that each course was served in succession, rather than getting an Economy style tray with all courses presented together (something that many airlines are still doing under the pretence of COVID safety).

The cutlery was full sized and of course the iconic Wilbur and Orville salt and pepper shakers were present too – with crew encouraging passengers to take them home.

VS upper 787 27 880x510 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – Wilbur and Orville.

I selected the braised pork cheek with cauliflower puree, kale and fondant potato as my main course. Despite the aggressively beige appearance, the food was delicious. I couldn’t help feeling that a redcurrant based sauce could have added a much needed dash of colour and acidity though.

VS upper 787 28 880x587 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – lunch main course.

I opted to skip dessert since neither the cheese nor the coconut dome appealed much to me.

Sleep

Since we were planning to see Metallica a couple of hours after landing, I figured it would be a good idea to try and get some sleep beforehand.

There are two dedicated Business Class bathrooms on the Virgin Dreamliner (for 30 seats), which meant that there was no wait at all to get changed into sleepwear.

The bathroom was also very generously proportioned, with a separate seat next to the toilet. The all grey colour scheme and factory standard sink didn’t exactly scream luxury though.

Toiletries were by Ren, a brand previously used in the suites and club rooms at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo.

VS upper 787 29 768x1024 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 31 450x363 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 30 450x600 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

The crew were very proactive in offering to help with my bed. Which flipped down completely revealing a special sleeping surface under the seat (much like the old Singapore A380 seats).

Despite the addition of a thin mattress pad, the surface was still very uncomfortable and I struggled to get any sleep at all. I tried watching TV for a while but the design meant that the monitor’s arm kept digging into my legs as I was lying down.

VS upper 787 33 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 34 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 35 450x388 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Despite multiple attempts to connect, the in flight wifi just wouldn’t work for me – on any of my devices. The crew were really great in trying to help but ultimately they were just as stumped as I was.

We tried every variation of ‘turn it off and turn it back on again’ before finally admitting defeat. The cabin manager very kindly offered me 20,000 points as compensation as she said she could see that I was a Virgin gold card holder.

This was fantastic service recovery and not something I was expecting at all.

The crew passed through the cabin every 15 minutes or so to check on passengers and around halfway through the flight they offered organic fruit ice lollies.

VS upper 787 39 880x518 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – ice lolly.

Second lunch

Around 90 minutes before landing I completely gave up on sleep and asked Kamara if she wanted to head to the bar with me to grab some food.

A small snack basket had been set up but there was no permanent bartender or indeed much uptake from other passengers wanting to use this space.

I figured that this would make for a much more spacious and sociable meal setting than sitting in my little coffin, watching a monitor the size of a gameboy.

VS upper 787 37 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 38 768x528 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 40 768x512 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

The crew were very happy to set up a meal for us here and commented that it was a great idea!

Kamara ordered the Mediterranean mezze, which much like my earlier main course, were awash in a sea of beige. Kamara picked at a few things but noted that overall the dish was quite dry and not a patch on the mezze served by the likes of Emirates, Qatar or Etihad.

VS upper 787 41 e1652265355930 880x629 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – afternoon tea.

It definitely felt like I made a far wiser choice with the chicken burger, served with a packet of crisps and a chocolate cake. Quite possibly the least healthy meal I’ve ever seen in my life, especially since I was back on the champagne at this point…but delicious nonetheless.

VS upper 787 42 880x587 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Virgin Atlantic 787 Upper Class – chicken burger.

After this meal it was time to get changed back into regular clothes but I kept the seat down in bed mode for as long as I could, so I could enjoy the views from the window, without the seat getting in the way.

During our final approach I had to carry out quite the act of contortion, to snap this quick picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.

VS upper 787 36 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
VS upper 787 43 768x952 - REVIEW - Virgin Atlantic : Upper Class - B787 - London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)

Conclusion


Virgin Atlantic have a bottom of the barrel seat on the majority of their aircraft. I can’t think of a modern Business Class product that I would be less inclined to fly in than this.

The seats are very narrow, lack storage, are devoid of privacy and are uncomfortable for sleeping in. The IFE screens are tiny and the pull out arm digs into your body when you’re lying down. You also can’t see out of the window unless you’re in bed mode, or willing to risk a minor neck injury.

The onboard bar and purple lighting are all well and good but ultimately do little to make up for the woeful seats.

The crew on our flight were fantastic and also helped to make up for some of the shortcomings of the hard product.

However, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if you were to fly in these seats with a crew that was having an off day.

The fact that Virgin won’t allow passengers to retain A350 bookings, when operational issues lead to an aircraft change, means that you’re always risking a bait and switch with this company.

You could have paid and booked for a market leading seat with window views, privacy, storage and a large IFE screen… and end up with this instead.

As such, Virgin Atlantic is not an airline that I would currently recommend flying, unless the cost is materially cheaper than the alternatives. 

12 Comments

  1. Two main positive points missed:
    1- When arriving LHR by taxi you check in at a private upper class area very far from the maddening crowd. You are greeted at your cab, your bags are whisked away and you might see another passenger at check in or may not. You go through a private security check and before you know it you’re passing through a duty free store on your way to the lounge. I find this process a significant plus.
    2 – My wife and I were traveling with our grandkids (ages 10 and 7). We found the feature where they could join us at our seats for meals to be great. Great interaction time

    You see things differently when you travel with children

    • JarvisMarcos says:

      100% agreed with you on the ground experience.
      I love the Upper Class wing and the Clubhouse – hence my very positive review of that portion of the trip!

      Interesting take on the children visiting your seats.
      You’re right, this certainly isn’t something I’d given any consideration to.

      Then again, in this situation, something like a quad suite in Qatar’s Q suites would be far preferable.

      • Mark Smith says:

        We had a very poor experience in the Upper Class wing last year, due to an issue with my wife’s ticket resulting from the flight being rebooked due to COVID disruption. Online check-in failed and we then spent 40 mins standing at the Upper Class wing check-in desk whilst agent tried to get hold of the ticketing desk downstairs to resolve it. Had we been downstairs we or they could have walked over to the ticketing desk, but that’s not possible from the Upper Class wing. Consequently we won’t use the Upper Class wing now unless we’ve successfully checked in online.

        • JarvisMarcos says:

          Honestly, I suspect that the ticketing desk would have taken just as long to resolve your issue had you been stood at the counter downstairs.
          At least in the UC wing you have some comfy sofas to sit on.

          Definitely not an ideal situation though!

  2. Brian Robinson says:

    Just returned from LHR on this plane. Absolutely hated the seat configuration. It was just weird to stare across at 6-8 people, not be able to look out the window, require help to covert seat into a bed, etc. would avoid VA on this plane for total lack of privacy. Not sure what idiot dreamed up this seating idea. Also took VA from JoBurg on A350 and was totally different experience.

    • JarvisMarcos says:

      Such a shame that you aren’t able to guarantee the A350 on longer routes.
      With such an enormous chasm between cabin types, it’s too big a risk to chance things with Virgin – when other airlines offer far more consistency and certainty.

  3. Sarah says:

    So frustrated. The bait and switch is a real issue and one that I had not considered prior to booking. I specifically booked this airline, time of departure and am connecting because I wanted to fly the A350. I am now stuck on the 787 and am not happy. Very unfortunate and had I known I would have flown direct on a different airline.

    • JarvisMarcos says:

      I feel your pain.

      It really is such bad business practice to pretend like all their business class seats are equally appealing.
      If they offered a complimentary flight change or even some kind of credit that would be a different matter.

      As it stands, moving you from an A350 to a 787 is an uncompensated downgrade, plain and simple.

  4. Erwin says:

    Suffered the same issue, booked with the promise of an upgraded A350, then got switched to inferior 787 with cramped coffin seats and almost no window view. This was the last time booking with Virgin Atlantic.

    • JarvisMarcos says:

      Seems like a recurring theme.

      Virgin do so much damage to their brand by not acknowledging that people book with the expectation of the product they paid for.

      • Mark Smith says:

        We also had the same. Schedule tweaks in the post-COVID recovery period have made this all too common, e.g. the 2nd daily San Francisco flight having been switched from an A350 to a B787.

        • JarvisMarcos says:

          That was exactly the switch that got me.

          The problem is that VS act like the old coffin seats and the new ‘suites’ are equivalent products.
          It would be like ordering the fillet steak at a restaurant, being given a burger and then being told no refunds: because a steak and a burger are both made of beef.

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