This trip is a brilliant example of the strategy I like to use when buying airline tickets. At the time of purchase, there were no Upper Class reward seats available. So, I bought a Premium Economy ticket with the view of snagging an upgrade if reward seats became available. I wasn’t too hopeful because LAX is one of the hardest routes to find reward seats for Virgin Atlantic.
About a week prior to departure, a reward seat opened up for the outbound flight. So I rang the Gold line and did the upgrade. The cost was 33,700 points + £230 which was the difference in YQ*. A bargain for a 10-hour flight in my opinion. And I also got to experience the new Upper Class Suite!
*What is YQ I hear you ask? See here.
- Carrier – Virgin Atlantic
- Aircraft – A350-1000 (Non-leisure config)
- Route – London Heathrow Los Angeles
- Seat – 4A
- Flight Number – VS23
- Departure time – 17.30 local time
- Arrival time – 20.30 local time
- Ticket type – Premium Economy (K) upgraded to Upper Class reward (G)
Getting to London Heathrow
If you live in the north of England, long-haul travel options aren’t great. There are some point-to-point direct flights from the likes of Manchester. However, most of the good long-haul options remain ex-London. So, as with most of my flights, it was a case of getting the train down to London on the morning of my flight and then getting from Euston to Heathrow Terminal 3.
The upside I had on this trip was I had secured an Upper Class upgrade prior to the check-in window opening. In the past, a lot of my upgrades – especially on the LAX route – have been after check-in. So, securing a reward seat in advance was a nice win. The only real benefit, other than peace of mind, to doing this is that you get to use the Upper Class wing at Heathrow. I wrote about this in my previous trip report to Austin too. The Upper Class Wing is one of the slickest check-in experiences at any UK airport.
Upper Class Wing
The Upper Class wing is located inside the façade of Terminal 3. Unless you’ve been there, you probably wouldn’t know it’s there. As you approach the normal Terminal 3 drop-off point, there is a barrier on the left-hand side that leads to the wing. Upon approaching the ramp, your driver will use the intercom to tell the check-in staff your name and flight details. Only if you are qualified to use the wing (i.e. flying Upper Class), will they allow you through.
The wing itself is up a ramp on the 1st floor of the terminal building. Your car will drive up inside the building to a lovely looking roundabout where a member of check-in staff will greet you and take your bags. You do the usual formalities and receive your boarding pass. On this trip the wing was entirely empty. I was the only person there, except for the staff. Once checked in, you walk a few steps to the private security lane which was also empty, and you’re quickly on your way to the Clubhouse.
One downside to the Wing vs the BA First Wing at T5 is that you still have to walk through Duty Free and the terminal to reach the lounge. Whereas the BA Wing has direct access to the lounge. It’s a minor difference overall, but relevant for the end to end experience.
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Wing
Sidebar, you can access the wing from within the terminal itself. From the Upper Class check-in at zone A, use the lift directly to your right. Exit the lift and to your left is a plain looking frosted glass door. Sometime’s it’s manned and sometimes not. Scan your boarding pass, the door opens and you’re into the wing where the private security lane is.
The Virgin Clubhouse is one of the best lounges at Heathrow. You can access it if you’re flying Upper Class or Flying Club Gold. It’s also used by some Virgin partners like Delta and Air New Zealand. If you don’t qualify for entry, you can also be guested in by someone in Upper Class or Gold as long as you’re on the same flight. Occasionally they offer paid access (usually when it’s quiet) and that’s good value if you’re going to eat/drink a lot and use facilities such as the showers.
Today the Clubhouse was very quiet. In fact, the whole vibe at Heathrow was quiet, even including the airfield. If that’s even possible.
Virgin Atlantic Heathrow Clubhouse Menu March 2023
I opted for some chicken wings and a burger prior to the flight. It was a lot of food and I probably should have saved myself for the flight. But wheres the fun in that?
Heathrow Clubhouse Wings and Burger March 2023
I usually eat in the Bistro and then retire to one of the sofas behind the bar. The Clubhouse has so many nice places to sit. Behind the bar is a favourite of mine. There’s a loft upstairs which has a pool table and is usually very quiet. Further up from the loft is an outdoor terrace where you can get some fresh air and watch aircraft moving around.
Heathrow Clubhouse Loft
After wasting a few hours, drinking some cocktails, and enjoying the smell of Jet A1 in the outside garden, it was time to board.
The boarding experience
Boarding was at gate 35, so it was a bit of a walk from the Clubhouse compared to some of the gates Virgin usually use. On the upside, it wasn’t the dreaded bus gate though!
Boarding was completed very quickly and we pushed back from the stand in record time.
This flight was special because it was the first time I’d flown on the Virgin A350-1000. It’s still sort of new to the fleet. It has a totally new cabin interior to the rest of the fleet and the Upper Class Suite has been hyped a lot, so I was looking forward to trying it out. Following on with the quiet theme, the flight was very quiet. There were about 135 passengers onboard this flight, which for an A350 is VERY quiet given the total seat count is 335 split across three cabins. Upper Class was full but Premium was only about 30% occupied and Economy was very light on passengers.
Waiting at my seat was the menu and amenity kit, pictured below. I also asked for a sleep suit (pyjamas). I had no intention of wearing them on this day flight (although some people did). I tend to collect them because I use them a lot at home.
Virgin Atlantic Amenity Kit, Menu & Pyjamas
The A350 Upper Class Suite
I was giddy to try the new Upper Class suite. The old seat on the 787 has become quite long in the tooth. Airlines have made huge steps in the last 10 years with new Business Class products, so the bar was set high! My initial impression was a little bit underwhelming if I’m honest. The suite is fantastic, and certainly a HUGE improvement over the old product but there were some areas I did not like. It lacks storage areas and the tray table is quite tight fitting in front of you.
So if you’re on the larger side, you won’t like this seat. I got the feeling that whoever designed it didn’t fly a lot. The buttons that control the seat were easy to accidentally press with your legs. In addition, when the seat was reclined it was hard to swing your legs out to get out into the aisle.
Virgin Atlantic A350 Upper Class Suite
There are plenty of good things about it though. It is definitely longer than the 787 seat, so if you’re taller this will appeal to you. It also faces towards the window rather than away so you get a nice view during the flight. On the 787 and A330-300, you essentially faced away from the window and into the cabin. The legroom in this seat is also very good.
The in flight entertainment touchscreen is large and responsive. Functionality of these screens is good too, you can order food and drink from it as well as all the usual other things. The A350-1000 also has a tail camera installed unlike the other aircraft in the fleet so you get some really cool views from that.
Departure from Heathrow was extremely swift, probably the fastest taxi and takeoff I’ve ever had. We backed out from gate 35, taxied towards runway 27R and immediately crossed the threshold and begun the roll. It was so quick I hadn’t realised what was going on until I felt the engines spool up because I am so used to having to dither around at Heathrow.
Virgin Atlantic A350 Upper Class Suite
Upper Class on the 350 has 44 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. So each column of 11 seats is serviced by one member of cabin crew. My assigned crew member was a fellow northerner and a dream to deal with. She was quick to show me around the new seat when I boarded and offered welcome prosecco or orange juice.
It’s customary for the Flight Service Manager to introduce themselves too and give the “Gold welcome” but that never happened on this flight. In fact she was rarely seen at all which was a little unusual.
I already knew what the menu options were for the flight having checked the pre-order service the day before. It was an easy choice – chicken and mushroom pie. A classic! Then bread & butter pudding to finish. The crew were fairly good with keeping the glass filled up during the flight too but it wasn’t the sharpest crew I’ve ever had. Normally the inflight service is where Virgin excels, but this flight fell short a little.
Chicken & Mushroom Pie
Later inflight service
In the second half of a flight of this length, Virgin generally offer some light snack options. There was a club sandwich, a fish finger goujon sandwich. There was also a cheese toastie offered but I was already full by that point.
WiFi was broken on this aircraft so I didn’t use that. But I am not a big user of wifi on aircraft anyway, I prefer to detox during the flight.
The A350 is noticeably quieter than other aircraft, but you are still in a pressurised metal tube travelling at 500mph, so it’s not THAT quiet.
I found some time after the meal service to check out “The Loft” which is a new area for the A350. On the A340, A330-300 and 787-9 there was a bar at the rear of the Upper Class cabin. That’s now gone and been replaced with a social area of sofas. Unlike the bar, the loft can be used during turbulence thanks to the seatbelts in the sofas. You can sit as a group to socialise or watch a movie from the inflight entertainment using headphones provided by the crew.
I must say, I prefer the bar. It was a gimmick, but it was a cool gimmick and one I personally enjoyed. The Loft just doesn’t have the same feel. It’s a bit bland. In my view, get rid of the loft and put the bar back!
Virgin Atlantic A350 – “The Loft”
Arriving into Los Angeles
We arrived on runway 24L and after a short taxi ended the flight at the Tom Bradley International terminal. Virgin used to be at another terminal but has now moved (temporarily I believe) so the inbound flight will be interesting given LAX now has no Clubhouse.
There was no waiting for baggage as I was flying Hand Baggage only. So I proceeded straight to the Global Entry machines and was clear & gone within seconds. I would highly recommend Global Entry to anyone who flies to the US even once per year. It lasts for 5 years, comes with TSA Pre-Check and only costs about $100. Trust me, it is the best $100 you will ever spend.
It was an OK flight. The crew were not as on the ball as usual. But the one crew member looking after me, was very good. It was just a shame that this didn’t seem to match up with the rest of the team, especially the FSM.
I have probably been tainted by many hundreds of hours on the 787-9 aircraft, but my initial feeling with the new A350 Upper Class product, was that I didn’t like it. I think there are some issues with the seat. The entire cabin feels a bit more clinical than the 787. And I really miss having the bar too. The Loft, which serves as a replacement for the bar, just isn’t as good and should be removed.
I’ll do another flight, ideally in the D/K seats before passing full judgement. Read my return trip report here.