Tonight, about two hours south of London in Crawley, England (~15 minutes from Gatwick airport), the wait ended: Virgin Atlantic flung open its doors and unveiled the reimagined in-flight experience it’s installing on its shiny new A350-1000s. With 12 A350-1000s on the way, and the first set to enter service in August, Sir Richard Branson and co. have invested mightily in the plane as a core piece of the next, bold-red-as-ever chapter in the Virgin Atlantic story.
The reception so far? So far, so, so good. Amid clinking red cocktails and effusive notes from CEO Shai Weiss and EVP Mark Anderson, a spectacular Upper Class seat and a new social space called The Loft—plus refreshed Premium and Economy products—drew high marks from media and staffers eager to see the yields of three-plus years of feedback and design labor.
Here’s that yield, in detail, live from The Hoxton in Holborn:
New on the A350-1000:
1. The new Upper Class seat
There will be 44 Upper Class seats on the A350-1000, arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. The innovative herringbone layout seen in the existing Upper Class product remains, albeit with seats now angled toward the windows instead of toward the aisles. Seats are built of Claret leather with red stitching to a healthy width (20″) and healthier length when laid 180º flat (82″). To configure your lie-flat bed, you must now simply press a button and sit back, a marked improvement upon the existing model requiring that you stand up and flip the setup into night mode by hand.
Each unit has its own sliding half-door and privacy screen as levers of additional privacy, and Virgin’s signature LED lighting is additionally (lightly) customizable within each suite. Supposedly, the mood lighting menu consists of color schemes curated to combat jetlag. The in-flight entertainment system is highlighted by a massive 18.5″ screen, which can be configured by smartphone once you connect it via Bluetooth and open the Virgin Atlantic app.
Accents of white and gold gracefully complement the boughs of purple, lending the space a warm, insulating and unmistakably Virgin Atlantic aesthetic. All in all, it looks outstanding.
- Two USB ports
- One power outlet
- A shelf that opens and closes
- A cocktail table
- A tray table for personal items
- A forgiving mattress pad, fluffy duvet and pillow
- Included Wi-Fi
2. The Loft
Upon boarding a Virgin Atlantic A350-1000, passengers from all classes will be greeted first by The Loft, an entirely reinvented social space of purple seats and sparkling plated gold. The Loft can fit eight passengers, five of whom can be buckled in and hang around during turbulence. All eight have access to Bluetooth audio jacks to, should they like, tune into what was described tonight as “bespoke content”—i.e. content distinguished from what’s available via IFE at each seat—playing on a 32” HD screen.
Drinks and food from a curtailed menu will be on offer, and the bar anchoring Virgin’s existing Upper Class service will be no more.
3. The new Premium seat
The 56 Premium seats (2-4-2 configuration) aboard the new plane are sewn of leather in a style, as we heard it tonight, inspired by the build of a leather luxury handbag. Passengers will have 18.5″ side to side plus 38″ of pitch, 7″ of recline and a cushy headrest that bends for comfort in four directions. The IFE system, a clear focus of Virgin Atlantic investment, will be built around a 13.5″ screen—roughly double the size of what Premium passengers are flying with now. As in the Upper Class suites, phones can be configured as remotes via Bluetooth.
- USB port(s)
- A bi-fold table
- A side amenity pocket
4. The new Economy seat
Across the rest of the plane will be spread 235 Economy seats in a 3-3-3 formation. The design team was said to have collected inspiration and technique from unnamed multi-texture work in the fashion industry on the way to the finished product, which turned up in Crawley as a comfortable, sleek, fabricked seat that’s 17.4″ wide. Pitch is 31″ except in Economy Delight (see what the three Economy tiers mean here), which comes with 34″. Seatback screens, meanwhile, will be at 11.6″ bigger than ever in Economy and controllable via Bluetooth-enabled phone.
- USB port(s)
The inaugural route(s):
The first of the A350-1000 fleet, bestowed the name Red Velvet, will enter service in August hauling passengers between London Heathrow (LHR) and New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK). The second plane has been assigned to the route linking LHR with Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL), which is notably the home of Virgin Atlantic partner Delta. Two additional deliveries (for a total of four) are on the calendar in 2019, with all 12 A350-1000s projected to be slicing through skies by 2021. By 2022, Virgin Atlantic expects, per EVP Mark Anderson, to be operating the “youngest, cleanest, greenest fleet in the sky as the aircraft transforms [the brand’s] customer experience, reduces [its] environmental impact and improves [its] route economics.”
At the time of this writing, the airline operates 38 daily flights between the U.K. and U.S., with onward connections to over 200 cities. There’s no word yet on whether those numbers will change over the A350-unveiling timeline.
Mile High Tea lives on:
The A350-1000 in-cabin experience will carry forward Virgin Atlantic’s recently introduced Mile High Tea service, which is complimentary in all cabins on flights departing the U.K. From a menu devised by Cake Boy‘s Eric Lanlard, passengers can dig into:
- Economy: A specially branded Mile High Tea box, mozzarella with green pesto and slow-roasted tomato roll and a warm scone with jam and cream.
- Premium: A specially branded Mile High Tea box, choice of mozzarella with green pesto and slow-roasted tomato roll or roast beef with creamy horseradish and rocket roll, passionfruit éclair, blackberry macaron, a warm scone with jam and cream, and a glass of Prosecco.
- Upper Class: A specially branded Mile High Tea box; choice of mozzarella with green pesto and slow-roasted tomato roll or falafel, red pepper hummus, carrot, and yoghurt dressing in a beetroot wrap or roast beef with creamy horseradish and rocket and smoked salmon with rocket rolls; passionfruit éclair; blackberry macaron; chocolate-and-pistachio financier; and a warm scone with jam and cream.
The current Virgin Atlantic Upper Class product:
What will be left behind? On the well-trafficked JFK-LHR route, for example, Virgin Atlantic for now flies an A330-300, on which Upper Class seats area arranged in a 1-2-1 formation. All have direct aisle access and lie-flat functionality that requires you leave your seat and flip it by hand (if you ask, a flight attendant will set up and make your seat-bed). The seats are somewhat narrow if you’re over six feet, but in my experience the list of strengths is long: the tone struck in the copy (like in the menu), the quality of the provided headphones and linens, Rituals bath products, the LED lighting, etc. The food and beverage service, however, while good on my trip to LHR (I had, among other things, a Thai sweet potato stew), is in my opinion given better execution in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK.
More on the A350-1000:
The A350-1000 is the largest passenger aircraft coming off Airbus lines in 2019 after only the A380, which is beginning to see its own production trail off. The A350 XWB (extra-wide body) family, of which the A350-1000 is a part, is positioned to take over a larger swathe of sky in the coming years, in part because it carries forward much of what the A380 does right. Here are some of the highlights of the three-cabin A350-1000 Virgin Atlantic will soon be flying:
- The engines: Two Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97s, the most powerful ever developed for an Airbus aircraft. Each can provide 97,000lbs of thrust on takeoff.
- Efficiency: 30% more fuel-efficient than the plane it will replace in VA fleet (presumably the A330-300) due in part to a fuselage of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic and wings that can change their shape to adapt to flight conditions. All in all this means less gas and a smaller environmental footprint.
- Range: Up to 8,400 nautical miles. The A350 is already serving the world’s current longest flight (EWR-SIN on Singapore Airlines).
- A quiet cabin: The “quietest twin-aisle cabin in the skies,” per Airbus. A 50% reduction in “noise footprint” at airports is also expected.
- In-flight air and cabin pressure: Pumped to be less dry and closer to on-the-ground pressure than any plane before it. (In theory, better, more humid air can reduce the effects of jetlag.)
- LED lighting in the cabins: Nice.
What do you think of Virgin Atlantic’s plans for its A350-1000? Please share in the comments below.