After over 2 years banished from the skies, we finally got back aboard a plane heading for the States. So much has changed since we last boarded a long-haul flight all the way back in October 2019 (it feels so wrong even writing that!), and we couldn’t wait to get back aboard and let you all know what the New Normal is like and how Flying has altered since the beginning of the pandemic in our Virgin Atlantic Economy Review – A350-1000.
While we have been somewhat grounded the last few months, that statement isn’t entirely accurate, we have actually been on 6 flights during the Pandemic, it’s just these have all been short-haul hops to more local destinations. This is the first time we are back on a Trans-Atlantic. This meant we are really excited to bring you our first Airline Review in quite a while, and it’s much needed as flying is very different post covid!
While a lot has changed, much is still the same so we take you through the whole process, the changes, what to expect, what is new, what is the same, what has been lost, and what has been gained! We try and keep the same honest and comprehensive view as ever, which is hard as in all honesty we are just delighted to be flying again.
Flying used to be a treat for us, it was all part of the trip and a time to relax, grab a few drinks, and catch up on a bit of cinema. We love being in the air and are keen to see if some of that magic has been lost?
- Flight Taken – 21st December 2021
- Route – London Heathrow – New York JFK
- Class – Economy Classic
- Price – £350-400*
- Aircraft – Airbus A350-1000 – Red Velvet
- Score – ⭐⭐⭐ 3.7 / 5 Stars
Ok, we normally start with the booking process, but this is a bit of a complicated mess for this flight, we can’t even remember how we booked it, how much it cost or really anything about the process at all! We put a guide price up in our details section above, but that was no what we paid, the issue? We booked this flight 2 years ago, along with a few others, for trips that did not take place.
For this actual flight, we spent 3+ hours on hold to re-arrange an open ticket that we had been holding onto for two years (by choice Virgin was willing to refund us but we knew we would use it eventually). This was the day after the border opening was announced so really it’s not indicative of what a regular customer would have to endure when booking.
In the past, the Virgin booking system is very good. The Site offers plenty of options and is very slick offering upgrades and being very clear about pricing.
You can read more about the run-up to this trip here
For our flight the travel requirements were quite lenient, we just had to show proof of a negative test within 3 days of departure and show fully vaccinated status to enter the states. This was all handled by the FlyReady App. To return we just needed a lateral flow test booked for 2 days after arriving home and to fill in a passenger locator form. However, rules change super fast at times and the entire situation is completely fluid so stay alert and be ready to make changes.
As if to illustrate this perfectly the rules change on us WHILE we were away. Days before the flight the return to the UK rules changed to require a day 2 PCR and to quarantine until we received the result. And then while we were there we were also required to take a pre-departure test before boarding. The US entry requirements also changed to mean you needed your test within 1 day of arriving, but we were already in the states when this occurred.
It is all a real pain in the behind but it’s just something you need to deal with IF you want to travel during these times!
We had a bit of a nightmare with the check-in. Virgin offers a FlyReady service where you can upload your Documentation beforehand and have it pre-approved so you do not need to show anything at the airport.
When we arrived at Virgin’s Terminal 3 we noticed a fairly large Check-In Queue, a really large Premium Check-in Queue, and a short and fast bag-drop for FlyReady passengers. Excellent, but we had not checked in online so thought we could not use the Bag Drop, however, there were some Self Serve Check-in machines free we used these to check-in first before joining the Fly Ready Bag Drop.
This was a mistake as these Machines were near impossible to use. It took a good 15 mins each and the machine wanted all kinds of pointless info such as an address for our stay, contact numbers for our stay, and emergency contacts, and many other little details that were really fiddly to get in via the poor interface.
What was worse, when we finally got to the front of the Bag Drop Queue we were told we hadn’t needed to do that and could have checked in at the desk… Oh Well.
The Fly Ready is really great, it takes a few minutes before the flight and flags up on your booking so you just do not have to show anything at the airport. So the hassle was all self-made and if we had just joined the FlyReady queue we would have been through in a few minutes.
After getting through Security pretty quickly, we did a bit of Duty-Free Shopping and then headed for our lounge. This really helped make the airport experience glide by but we had booked it separately so is not really anything to do with Virgin.
Read here for our No1 Lounge Heathrow Review
After relaxing in our lounge we finally got the boarding call and headed to the gate. It was a good 10min walk out to the gate and we were running a little late as we were just enjoying the lounge. As we had already completed the FlyReady process there was nothing to check and we just scanned the boarding card and onto the aircraft. Virgin really has the process down at Heathrow and it really reminded us of the poor service we received last time we flew out of Manchester with Virgin.
We then proceeded to our seats. The A350 is a 3-4-3 configuration ins Economy and this is our least favorite layout. It means more often than not you have an uninvited guest sitting in the row with you…we have always liked our own space and Covid has only amplified this. As we got to the seat, sure enough, there was someone sitting in the Isle Seat.
However, due to the flight only being part full the Cabin Crew allowed him to move to a vacant seat. This is really about the only advantage we can find for Post Covid travel. The fact the planes are not really ever full, but we are not sure the airlines feel this is a good thing and we are sure this will be reflected in fares going forward!
On a personal note, this was the first time in a few weeks we actually felt like we might make it. We had received so many setbacks and disappointments we really thought, with the Omicron Varient starting to surge, that our dreams would be dashed again, but as we were finally seated we began to tentatively believe!
We hear a lot of negativity around flying and travel in general. Our families are not huge travelers and to them, airplanes are dirty virus filled disasters waiting to happen. They think cramming hundreds of people into a sealed test tube with stale air is the fastest way to spread the virus they can think of. They think we are mad for getting on a plane, and they discuss this in poorly ventilated pubs while sending their children maskless to schools riddled with virus, before visiting concerts and the cinema and crowding in friends and families homes.
The Hysteria and hypocrisy around travel have been a real sore point for us. Throughout the Pandemic Travel has been demonized, considered reckless, and derided as menial and unimportant. To us, it’s part of our soul and a necessary component of our well-being, for millions it’s the only way to visit family, conduct business, and connect with the world. Travel is hugely important to the modern world and the afterthought it has been given is depressing and really quite unfair.
There are risks in Travel, the airport, and increased use if Public transport is a big pinch point, but the actual flights themselves are of really minimal risk. And there are many day-to-day activities that pose a MUCH higher risk. This concept of stale air and test tube incubators for disease is nonsense.
The most underplayed card throughout the whole pandemic is ventilation. Indoor environments offer a high risk of virus infection, outdoor spaces offer minimal risk. The BIG way to get indoor spaces down to outdoor levels is Ventilation. Poorly ventilated spaces offer maximum chance for the Viral particles to linger and spread. Good ventilation vastly reduces this, Excellent ventilation and you are as good as being outdoors.
The two BEST ventilated places on earth? Hospital Surgeries and Modern Airliners. Modern Airliners refresher the entire cabin air every 2-3 minutes, replacing it with ultra-clean and fresh 30,000ft air, that is passed through medical-grade filters removing 9.9999% of particulates, This air comes in above your head and goes out again at your feet, it’s doesn’t mix around anyone else in the cabin.
Cleaning has been really stepped up between flights. We have been on many flights where you get that slightly grubby feeling. This flight was box-fresh clean. Virgin do a deep clean every flight and then use a disinfectant fogging spray. Masks are required throughout the flight and are vigorously enforced.
Honestly, it’s about a sage and clean as you could possibly expect. It’s can be annoying to have a stranger in the seat next to you but most flights are quite quiet now and we did not have anyone on our row for both flights. The upside is we felt far safer in the air than just about any indoor location we have been to in the last few years.
We know some people will not care a lot about these safety precautions, which is fine move on to the more important elements of this review for you, but we know others are still fairly nervous and we want to try and help relieve some of the worries.
The bigger risk for travel is the endless changing of rules and the risk of being stuck somewhere with a positive test and not being allowed home!
Once aboard the crew got us quickly settled and started the briefing. We were so pleased that virgin have not changed their briefing Video and it really was like having an old friend back! We really thought the video horribly corny when we first saw it, but have since grown to love it, probably as it is just associated with so many amazing memories, it heralds in each of our trips and lets us know things are going to be awesome. We are sure they will change it one day, but we are so glad they left until at least after our return to the skies.
Cabin and Seats
The Economy Cabin on the A350-1000 is a really nice place to be. Our last Virgin Economy Review was on the now-defunct 747 and while we love that old bird, and were really sad to see her go, it was really showing its age. The A330’s are also pretty ragged now so it’s good to see virgin expanding its fleet of bread new aircraft. We actually have not flown economy on the 787, we were up in Premium, but we will be remedying that very soon.
The A350 Cabin feels pretty spacious, the seats felt larger although they are actually the narrowest seats of any Virgin’s fleet at 17.4 (admittedly the 787 is on 17.5 wide so it’s a close thing). The seat pitch is the industry long0haul standard of 31 and feels fairly generous.
The bad news here is the seats have a really severe recline! this means if the passenger in front is not too considerate (we are being polite) then the screen will be literally 1-2″ in front of your face!
Apart from this, the seats were really comfortable. The headrest is a real revelation. We have used adjustable headrests on many flights now but the A350 is by far and away the best. It really is supportive and almost does away with the need for a head pillow.
Arriving in New York, our bums were reasonably un-numb and found no real comfort issues at all. Admittedly this was a fairly short flight for a long haul, around 7.5 hours, but we normally notice comfort issues well before that sort of time frame.
The Mood lighting is a nice touch but we found it a bit too purplely, for day flights this is fine but we flew almost completely in darkness on both flights and the purple lighting got a bit much, especially at mealtimes when everything was just a bit washed out in purple hues, it’s just nice to have a bit more natural lighting at times! You will get an idea of this from our very purple photos!
We are not sure if this is a direct result of Virgin’s enhanced cleaning or just the fact these planes are practically brand new, but they were box fresh clean. We have flown plenty of nearly new planes and they can still feel grubby, it does not take long for sticky fingers and spilled drinks to make their mark, but the planes on both our journeys were totally sparkling.
Aircraft – A350-1000
As an aviation geek, I am always excited to be trying out a new plane. There are not that many new planes that come onto the market so it’s quite a rarity to fly in a place you have not been on before.
And to be perfectly honest it was not that impressive. Most av-geeks fall into one of two categories, Boeing or Airbus and really I am more of an Airbus fan, but the A350 just seemed a bit pedestrian when compared to the 787.
As you will see we were really taken with the Cabin and the fit-out Virgin have ordered but the actual plane just felt a little industrial. There were some really audible clunks, bangs, and whirs, and the engines themselves were really noisy, and the plane seemed to be working really hard for most of the flight.
The 787 just feels a bit more modern to ride it, quiet and effortless as it cruises through the skies. The A350 felt pretty much identical to the A330 which is now getting on quite a bit.
Like the 787 the windows on the A350 are larger than older planes and the view out of your Portal is better than past airliners. The A350 forgoes the electronic blinds of the 787 for the traditional shutter. Realy after the initial coolness of the electronic shutters, there are very few advantages and it is a bit of a case of re-inventing the wheel.
The one thing the 787 is really good at, and it’s something most people do not notice is the CAbin Pressure. Lile the 787 the A350 pressurizes its cabin at 8,000ft rather than the traditional 10,000ft. This really makes a huge difference to fatigue and limits the dryness of the air, a really important feature nowadays, what with the required mask wearing on flights.
Masks are most definitely compulsory and the rule is enforced, and compliance is backed up by the captain. This can come as a surprise to some as in many places mask became optional for while and they wonder why on Airlines they have remained compulsory. Well, mainly this is due to the unfair scaremongering around air travel we mentioned above.
Airlines have been devastated by the travel restrictions and have to be seen to be doing everything they can to keep the airways safe. So they have come together to just say yes masks are required. We are also more used to pretty draconian measures being deployed on airlines, no fluids, full-body scanners, intrusive searches. It’s part of flying and when a Member of Cabin Crew tells you something, you tend to listen as you know they are backed by the Captain and the LAW!
Basically, if masks are the thing that keeps us flying we will happily comply. No one wants to wear a mask and no one wants to have to tell you you have to wear one, trust us the Cabin Crew will take no joy in making everyone mask up. But we need to keep everyone safe until some more normality resumes.
Dining and Service
The service was a bit of a letdown really. Mainly due to the lack of drinks services. Let’s run through what we got and then explain the issues.
Once aloft the crew came through with a drinks service. There were no menu’s so it was pretty hard to know what was available but we just guessed based on previous experience and good drinks knowledge. We received a Gin and Tonic and a White wine…in a can.
Ok, the good news is the Gin was Aviation Gin, and it came with a fever tree tonic, Excellent! However, canned wine…not good. For us, this is a bit of a downer, but this will literally blow the minds of some wine drinkers. However, we think it’s just something we will need to get used to. The wine itself was actually ok, but we have heard the most horrific reviews.
The truth is pretty complicated and not really best placed in a Flight review, but the basics are putting wine in a can does NOTHING to the detriment of the wine, it is simply a convenient container. So try and judge the wine on its contents, not its container. As we said it was not bad at all and certainly not the battery acid we had heard it described. And let’s not pretend the quality of the wine served by Airlines in Economy has ever been high.
Following the Drinks service, it was straight into dinner. This was not a highlight of the service. Again no menus and we were offered, Chicken Pasta or Vegetable Pasta. Not exactly descriptive. This came with a small packet of cheese, two crakers, and a packet of biscuits. Washed down with water and another can of wine. At dinner, only wine is offered.
The pasta was incredibly overcooked. We know it’s airline food but the pasta really did resemble jelly! There was a reasonable about of meat but its relation to the animal it purported to come from was vague. There was a reasonable amount of flavor but the best part was the seeds and the few cubes of butternut squash.
White wine in a can is a bit odd, but I am a Red drinker and Red wine in a can is just a stretch too far. The slight fizz when you open it is just too much. The wine itself was nice enough actually, drinkable at least, but wine is a whole sensory experience and something gets lost when coming from a can.
Dessert came separately oddly enough, and it was ok. The plant-based Ganache had an odd flavor to it owing to the Almond or oat-based milk it was made from, but once you got past that it was pretty tasty, and like ALL airline dessert the big issue was the tiny portion.
After Dinner was a Tea and Coffee service, for which we had saved our biscuits and that was it until Mile High Tea near the end of the flight. One drinks service just feels a little mean, even on a 7-hour flight. We decided to check the willingness of the cabin crew to provide extra drinks on demand and they did provide us with a drink but seemed a little begrudging and made it clear this would be the last and stock was very low.
Virgin has made out this is due to the Pandemic and the disruption in service but we did start noticing a trend on our last Virgin flight of rationing drinks a lot more than in the past. But as things stand do not expect much in the way of complimentary drinks!
With around an hour to go, Mile High Tea was served. This used to be a real highlight, a nice little snack just as we were getting close to our destination. The big issue we had with the Tea was the lack of Cream! It’s just not tea without cream! A small thing maybe but we hope this is a supply issue, not a trend! Even the little note on the package mentions we should be served cream.
Apart from this, it was ok, the roll was a little rustic compared to the trimmed sandwiches we used to receive, but there were more biscuits to go with the Tea and overall it was a nice treat just before the descent into JFK
Overall the Service just felt a bit light, like corners have been cut, and the things we loved and took for granted had been whittled down. It was still superior to many in-flight services and of course, the Cabin Crew were exemplary. But it definitely felt a little diminished compared to pre-covid.
We look forward to flying again and comparing if these corners have been permanently cut or if this is just supply issues and getting things restarted in the new post covid world.
In-Flight Entertainment – IFE
This is a mixed review, with both good and bad parts as far as the In-Flight entertainment System goes.
First, we have the Technical Side, and this is all good news. The IFE on the Virgin A350 is the best one we have ever used. The Touch screen is massive, and it’s wonderfully sensitive. In the world of smartphones, the clunky and unresponsive touch screens on airlines were becoming a little jarring, this one is as good as any phone and just worked exactly as you would expect.
The screen was High-Res, Really Bright, and the headphone jack offered loud and clear audio. This was probably the best Movie Watching experience we have had aboard a plane (outside of Business class). Headphones were included but we always use our own as we prefer earbuds. There were multiple USB Chargin points t keep everything topped up.
Overall it’s a great system let down by one thing, content!
We have always loved Vera, and it is usually filled with more content than we can ever watch. We come away a bit disappointed we missed things and have a hard time choosing what to watch. This was not the case here and there were very few movies to excite us.
This is partially down to the really slow movie release schedule that Covid has unleashed on the world, most New Releases were available, there were just not that many about. But the back catalog was also really light. We were flying to New York in December and there were no Christmas Movies, not even Home Alone 2.
There were not many classic movies at all. There used to be huge swathes of content to trawl through but it really was light. Hopefully, this improves, and as the release schedule of the Moveis Companies ramps back up, we hope the selection within Vera Grows.
Finally, the Inflight data is also the best we have seen. Being a self-confessed Aviation geek and ex- Private Pilot I like to keep up to date with what going on in the flight. The Tail and Wheel cams are amazing, and the map and flight info are really detailed. Also, it can be brought up without exiting the movie which is a REALLY good feature as you can just flip to the data and keep the movie ging picture in picture. Rather than the old system where you had to exit the movie!
Really Vera on the A350 has a lot going for it, they just need to ramp that content up.
The Arrival into JFK Went smoothly and we descended down over long Island and straight into JFK. It was a short taxi to the terminal and a fast disembarkment. This is about where Virgin’s involvement ends, but JFK was quite quiet and we got through in a fairly prompt fashion.
We arrived at the Luggage Carousel just in time for the first case to appear, but we had a long and nervous wait for our second. But it arrived and we headed off into the New York night.
Coming home was a very similar experience, at least it should have been but the flight was rather more exciting for us, but most passengers received pretty much exactly the same service. It is worth noting the Wine had reverted back to Bottles so maybe the canned wine is temporary or possibly they can only get bottled wines during the New York Replenishment! As we noted earlier, it’s not magically fantastic wine just as it’s in a bottle.
The notable exception was the Breakfast service replacing the Tea. There was also no evening Tea/coffee service as the cabin was dimmed for sleep.
Breakfast was pretty unwelcome for us, minimal sleep and such a short flight, 5:15mins meant we really were not ready for food yet and of the selection of Croisaunt, Porridge, and Cereal Bar nothing really appealed and only the accompanying Tea was welcome. Really we could have done with a couple more hours flying and sleeping, but guess we can’t complain about that really!
Despite our utter delight and happiness at being back in the air and flying with our favorite airline, there were some letdowns about our post covid experience. The Magic of flying virgin see,s to have been a little diluted and there are certain corners being cut.
We know the Airline, like so many has been through the absolute ringer the last couple of years, and we will forgive them anything as they get back on their feet, but the erosion of little extra’s needs to be reversed and they should strive to delight and impress again with the little touches that make a Virgin Flight special.
We do hope these little touches return soon.
Have Your Say
Have you flown Virgin Recently? did you notice anything missing from their usual service? Did you find anything better than the old days and what are your thoughts on post-pandemic flying (well nearly post) and what are your hopes for future flights? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.