Forget In-flight Bars — Virgin Atlantic's New Plane Has an Onboard Lounge That's the 'Largest Social Space in the Sky'
Virgin Atlantic is the latest airline to receive the next-generation Airbus A350-1000, and the U.K.-based carrier has just put the jetliner into service on its flagship route between London Heathrow and New York JFK.
Aviation enthusiasts and frequent fliers alike have been salivating over the gorgeous interiors Virgin Atlantic revealed for the new aircraft back in April. Not only did the airline’s in-house design team create swanky new semi-private seats in Upper Class, but it also totally reconceived Virgin’s famous onboard bar into a more lounge-like space for socializing and working called The Loft. The airline refined its already popular premium economy and economy cabins to up passenger comfort and take advantage of the A350’s jetlag-fighting features, too.
“We are constantly thinking about how we can give our customers a better way to travel,” said Virgin Atlantic’s vice president of customer journey, Daniel Kerzner. “The A350, a brand-new, state-of-the-art aircraft, was our opportunity to push the envelope with customized interiors, taking inspiration from the hospitality, retail and automotive industries to create a great experience.”
We got a sneak peak inside the new airplane, named Red Velvet and sporting one of Virgin’s new inclusive icons, on a recent inaugural flight from London to New York. Here’s what travelers have to look forward to aboard the first Virgin Atlantic A350-1000.
What’s an A350-1000?
While the A350 has been around for a few years at this point, almost all the planes from this family of jets are the smaller A350-900 variant. For context, Airbus has over 900 orders total for A350s, but only 180 of them are for the larger A350-1000. Of those, under 30 have been delivered to customers so far.
Virgin Atlantic is one of only five airlines to have received the larger plane. The other four are British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, and Qatar Airways, which was the launch customer for both the A350-900 and A350-1000. Eventually, Virgin Atlantic will have 12 A350-1000s in service by 2021.
So what makes this larger version special? The A350-1000 has the same next-generation features as the smaller A350-900 – namely better cabin pressurization and humidity for passenger comfort, advanced LED lighting systems to help with travelers’ circadian rhythms, larger windows for more natural light than you’ll find on older jets, and quieter, more fuel-efficient engines than conventional aircraft.
The A350-1000 is around 23 feet longer than the A350-900, though the two planes have the same width and wingspan. The A350-1000 has a range of around 10,000 miles, while the A350-900’s is more like 9,300 miles. Whereas the A350-900 seats 300-350 passengers in a typical three-class configuration, the A350-1000 can pack in 350-410, depending on how tightly an airline wants to squeeze its passengers.
New Plane, New Spaces
With its A350-1000s, Virgin Atlantic actually opted for a roomier arrangement with just 335 seats total. That breaks down to 44 seats in Upper Class, 56 in premium economy, and 235 seats in economy. The airline also capitalized upon the addition of a new jet type to its fleet as an opportunity to overhaul its cabins and interiors completely.
The first difference passengers should notice is that, instead of Virgin’s somewhat notorious onboard bar, the A350 has a new lounge space called The Loft, which Kerzner declared “the largest social space in the sky.” Conceived of in collaboration with London-based studio Factorydesign, The Loft is meant to embody an in-flight extension of the airline’s tony airport Clubhouses. “This is the space that welcomes every passenger on board, no matter where they are sitting,” said Kerzner, “and we wanted to create a wow moment, right down to the gold-plated chandelier.”
The Loft is anchored by booth-style seating for five passengers plus another single seat and standing work stations for an additional two to three people. It also features a 32-inch HD screen on which visitors can watch content using Bluetooth headphones or just enjoy the outside view from the plane’s tail cam.
Fliers who want to can spend most of the flight here thanks to seatbelts, and enjoy meals together, including the airline’s bespoke cocktails, new dishes created for Virgin Atlantic by television personality and chef Donal Skehan, as well as Virgin’s signature Mile High afternoon tea service by Eric Lanlard.
The Loft felt much quieter and more tranquil with a focus on socializing and hanging out rather than the sometimes raucous merrymaking that typifies the bars on Virgin’s other planes.
Upper Class Update
Forward from The Loft, Upper Class is located in a single cabin with 11 rows of four seats each in a 1-2-1 configuration so each passenger has direct access to the aisle.
The most striking feature of these new seats is the fact that each has a closing partition that slides partway shut. Rather than a full-on door, it only goes about eight inches – just enough to cut down on some aisle intrusions.
The airline explained that, rather than offering fully enclosed fixtures, the decision was made to keep the seats more open in order to maintain an ambiance of sociability and a connection between passengers and crew.
The orientation is also a complete departure from the airline’s older herringbone-style seats. The new ones are all angled slightly out toward the exterior walls of the cabin so that passengers on the sides can take advantage of the views through the large windows and those in the center section are facing away from one another.
Each seat measures up at 20 inches across with 44 inches of pitch, and can recline to a bed up to 82 inches long. Rather than flipping over, as Virgin’s older seats do, these ones simply recline into a lie-flat position. The cushions are a purple-toned claret while the backsplashes are a textured pink hue. The seat shells, meanwhile, are a pearlescent cream color that lends the airy cabin a lighter look.
When it’s time to snooze, flight attendants will dress the beds with new, fitted mattress pads, fluffy duvets, and full-size pillows while passengers slip into preordered pajama sets with a choice of long- or short-sleeve shirts and trousers or shorts. Kerzner explained the new bedding was inspired by hotel linens with a view to letting passengers get the bed ready recline soon after takeoff to get as much rest as possible on short transatlantic flights from New York to London.
Before bedtime, though, fliers can watch content on 18.5-inch HD entertainment screens — the largest ever offered by the airline — which they can control using their own personal electronic device via Bluetooth. The system also has a screen to order snacks and meals on demand and as well as controlling the seat’s customizable LED lighting.
Tray tables pop down from the preceding seatback and swivel into a position fronting the entertainment screen, which makes for easier in-out access if you need to get up during meal service.
For folks who want to stay productive, the A350 features the latest high-speed Wi-Fi provided by Inmarsat and T-Mobile, and it’ll even be offered for free until Oct. 9. On our flight, we clocked speeds of just under 1 Mbps, though this might have been because the service was free and everyone was using it.
Upper Class seats also feature individual power and USB ports for staying charged during the flight.
Virgin Atlantic was one of the first airlines to introduce the concept of premium economy way back in 1992, and it continues to set the bar for this class of service nestled between business and coach.
The A350 has 56 of the airline’s latest seats aboard, upholstered in eye-catching purple leather. They comprise seven rows of eight seats each configured in a 2-4-2 pattern.
Each seat is 18.5 inches wide, reclines up to seven inches, and has 38 inches of pitch with ergonomic footrests for passengers to put their feet up. They also feature more storage space than previous versions, USB and power ports, and sport six-way adjustable headrests as well as foldable tabletops to maximize space. The entertainment systems, which can also be controlled by smartphone, are 13.3 inches wide.
The 235 seats in economy, meanwhile, have been spruced up with new breathable fabrics and adjustable headrests. They are spread out across two cabins in a 3-3-3 layout. Each is 17.4 inches wide with up to 31 inches of pitch and five inches of recline. Thirty-six Economy Delight seats are available for a surcharge and have 34 inches of pitch instead. The entertainment screens at all seats 11.6 inches wide, and passengers will find USB ports and foldable tray tables.
Flights and Fares
So far, Virgin Atlantic is operating just one of its daily frequencies in each direction from London to New York aboard an A350-1000. If you would like to experience it for yourself, you will need to book the following flight numbers:
Virgin Atlantic VS137 Departs London Heathrow 11:50 a.m., arrives New York JFK 2:50 p.m.
Virgin Atlantic VS138 departs New York JFK 7 p.m., arrives London Heathrow 7:20 a.m.
By the end of the year, Virgin Atlantic should be flying four of its daily frequencies in each direction using A350s, and intends to introduce service to Los Angeles sometime next spring.
At time of writing, airfares start at $349 round-trip in economy, $1,133 in premium economy, and $4,881 in Upper Class. There is also some award availability using Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club miles. For travel between London and New York, you’ll need 40,000 miles round-trip for economy, 70,000 miles for premium economy, or 95,000 miles for Upper Class round-trip. Flying Club is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards, which makes it easy to top up your account with miles. Just beware fuel surcharges that can range from $400-1,400 depending on your class of service.
The debut of Virgin Atlantic’s A350 along with its updated cabins represents an exciting new development in the busy leisure and business market between New York and London. Along with new business-class suites British Airways is launching on the same route in October, travelers can now count on more and better options for crossing the Atlantic.
Virgin Atlantic also recently announced plans to expand to 84 new destinations including 19 long-haul ones out of London Heathrow in the coming years, so even more travelers will hopefully be able to enjoy the airline’s new seats.