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Tue 21 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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A 'Virgin' experience

Gemma Greenwood stepped on board a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Dubai to sample the airline’s Upper Class experience and to discover whether its much-publicised ‘limo to lounge in 10 minutes’ promise was achievable.

Gemma Greenwood stepped on board a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Dubai to sample the airline’s Upper Class experience and to discover whether its much-publicised ‘limo to lounge in 10 minutes’ promise was achievable.

Virgin Atlantic, the brainchild of British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, might not be as large an operator as UK flag carrier British Airways, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in spirit.

It has become known as ‘the cheeky airline', brandishing provocative slogans on its fuselage such as ‘No way BA', while innovation and quirkiness has always been top of its agenda - the airline launched the first biofuel demonstration flight using a combination of babassu oil and coconut, earlier this year.

The airline has also proved a pioneer in the realm of airport lounge concepts, with the £11 million (US $20.4 million) Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Heathrow's Terminal 3 offering a lounge experience like no other - think cocktail bars, the ‘Cowshed' spa, a deli and brasserie, hairdressers, pool and poolside lounge, an office and library, a sky lounge and garden and the den where passengers can play video games and watch movies.

In fact for the second year running, Virgin Atlantic has won the Best Business Class Lounge Award in the SkyTrax World Airline Awards 2008 for its flagship Clubhouse, beating off stiff competition from BA's new T5 lounge, Cathay Pacific's Hong Kong Business Class lounge and Qatar Airways' Business Class lounge.

The Clubhouse, which covers more than 2500m2 was also recently listed as one of the 12 Coolest Places to be on Earth in Arena magazine - and that's saying something given that no one really likes hanging out at Heathrow Airport.

Virgin's T3 facility is "more compact" and "more than competitive" with rival BA's much-criticised T5, the airline's chief operating office Lyell Strambi told ATN.

"When T5 was announced, we stood back to assess the situation," he said.

"And it was one of Virgin's finest hours; we realised we couldn't out-grand it so we thought, how do we out-small it?"

"We sat down with BAA (British Airports Authority and said, ‘how do we get our customers as close [to the main airport action] as possible?'"

The answer was a revamped Terminal 3 with a "modern check-in environment" with high-touch technology for economy customers" and a drive-through check-in area for Upper Class customers with a promise of ‘limo to lounge in 10 minutes'.

"In fact, the average time [from limousine to the clubhouse] is eight minutes; this is a typical Virgin reaction [to a challenge like T5]," said Strambi. "The real secret with T3 is the Upper Class wing. A massive bridge and ramp takes you up into the terminal. Only known vehicles are allowed through and that includes our limousine. When you arrive it looks like a trendy hotel foyer."

With so much hype, ATN couldn't resist putting this Virgin Atlantic to the test...

Virgin Atlantic has created an interactive website that guides passengers around Terminal 3 before they embark on their journey. To check it out and get a feel for the facilities on offer, visit www.virginatlantic-t3.com.

The limo

Virgin Atlantic's limousine service is available for passengers living within a 150-mile radius of London's Heathrow Airport.

My chauffeur arrived at my pick-up point in Brentwood, Essex - around 70 miles from Heathrow -15 minutes early.

He packed my luggage in the car and then tapped my passenger and flight details into his PDA to confirm to Virgin Atlantic's check-in staff at Heathrow's Terminal 3 that I was on my way.

Virgin Atlantic contracts its limousine service to a company called TriStar, which has a fleet of luxury cars.

The service was efficient and the chauffeur, Shaun, was polite, helpful and friendly.

Unfortunately, Virgin Atlantic's chauffeurs cannot avoid the M25 ring road around London, which is notorious for traffic jams.

However, luck was on our side and we reached the airport in around one hour.

On approach to Terminal 3 there is none of the normal hustle and bustle associated with arriving at one of the world's busiest airports.

We drove straight to a private entrance where my details were reconfirmed with staff before we made our way to the Upper Class wing. Limo to lounge

The limo-to-lounge service was a breath of fresh air as it avoided all the usual hassle associated with London Heathrow.

When entering the terminal, instead of driving to T3's drop-off point I was driven to a private area where the barrier system was operated according to car number plate recognition. When I arrived at the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Wing I was greeted by a member of staff and my luggage was taken by a bellboy, so no heavy lifting required on my part.

The Virgin Atlantic wing, which opened in November last year, is not unlike a five-star hotel lobby.

There is comfortable leather seating, concierge-style desks, washrooms and even a private ‘re-pack' area so passengers with over-packed bags or those who need to retrieve an item from their luggage can do so discreetly, rather than being forced to literally air their dirty linen in public!

I didn't have to re-pack so I was seated while my passport and tickets were checked and then escorted directly to security. Refreshingly, there was no queue although all passengers are still required to put their footwear through the shoe screening device before entering the Duty Free shopping area.

Unfortunately there is nothing Virgin can do about passengers with cheesy feet - this is a BAA issue that should be addressed.

Virgin promises its Upper Class passengers a ‘limo to lounge' experience in just 10 minutes and it fulfilled its promise.

In fact, the most time consuming element was the walk from security, through Duty Free to the Virgin Clubhouse (club lounge H at terminal 3). Along the way passengers will find top-end stores such as Chanel, Emporio Armani, Burberry and Harrods. The clubhouse

Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse is like no other club lounge I have experienced. For a start, it's mightily spacious and there's a surprise around every corner - it's basically a bar, restaurant, library, pub, cinema, business centre, leisure centre, resort, spa and hairdressers all rolled into one.

As you enter there is a secure locker room attended by a concierge where you can leave your hand luggage and here there is an opportunity to slip off your shoes and have them polished - great for those who have travelled from Dubai and are accustomed to their footwear being caked in sand and building site dust and dirt.

Look to your right and you'll find swinging Perspex chairs and a funky lounge area where you can hang out and relax.

Beyond that is the Cowshed Spa and the Bumble and bumble hairdressing salon - two very popular facilities.

Agents booking their clients on London-Dubai flights with Virgin should recommend that they book spa and hair appointments in advance to avoid disappointment, although there is a waiting list for passengers who arrive without an appointment.

Services on offer include a haircut, fringe trim, wash and blow dry or for men, a neck and sideburn tidy in Bumble and bumble, while the spa offers a long list of treats, ranging from facials, manicures and pedicures and shave treatments to a variety of massages and spray-on tans.

In the centre of the Clubhouse is a deli serving cold meats, fish, salads, cheeses and breads. There is also a restaurant and the range of food on offer is expansive from all-day breakfasts and soups and salads to ‘Bigger bites' such as curries, pasta or a burger and chips and ‘Naughty but nice' deserts. Table service is available no matter where you are sitting in the lounge.

Other highlights of the lounge include a cocktail bar, pool table, library, kids' play room and even a swimming pool.

There is also a cinema area featuring a giant screen and reclining chairs and nearby stands a snack station where guests can help themselves to sweets and soft drinks.

You could easily spend a day hanging out in the Virgin Clubhouse as it is a destination in itself. The flight

The seat: When you first take a seat in Upper Class you feel like you have sunk into a giant leather armchair. It's comfortable and the pillows are big and puffy.

However, I did have some trouble working out how to change seating positions and found there was no real mid-point between upright and lie-flat - and this is really my only criticism of the product as it's more comfortable when you can recline half-way and every other degree in between to suit your own posture.

There are some clever features though: the seat flips over and so the back side becomes the bottom of your bed. You then have a base sheet for cushioning, a pillow and a duvet.

The bed is certainly wide leaving enough room for maneuver, however, it's not the most comfortable airline bed I've sampled because the base is not soft enough. It would have been better to keep the comfy leather chair side as the base.

That aside, there is plenty of storage space and the seating area is incredibly private, thanks to the herringbone configuration, although I did miss being able to look out of the window. In-flight facilities

Every Suite is fitted with laptop power access and a large table making it easy to work if you need to. The in-flight entertainment is not on par with Emirates' ICE system but is one of the best I've experienced, offering a multi-directional 10.4-inch TV screen with a wide range of films, TV programmes and games from which to choose.

The quality of food is good and you do not have to dine at a set time. Upper class passengers are encouraged to order what they want when they want it from Virgin's ‘Freedom' menu. There is also a bar on board the Upper Class cabin where guests can sit and have a drink or snack.

On night flights passengers are handed out a snooze pack featuring essentials such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, eyeshades, socks and earplugs all delivered in a handy shoe bag, but my favourite ‘extra' was the funky black Virgin Atlantic pyjamas. They come in all sizes and make you feel snug as a bug in a rug. Service

Virgin Atlantic cabin crews are less stiff and more natural than those on many other competing airlines.

They are polite, but casual and never stuffy. I liked the way I could order food when I felt like it and that I could request that if I was asleep when breakfast was ready, I wouldn't be woken up if I didn't want to be.

Crew were keen to help and made you feel comfortable and didn't look put out when you asked for assistance, as they do on some airlines.

The sales pitch

Terminal 3 highlights:

• Upper Class passengers guaranteed a ‘limo to lounge' service in less than 10 minutes - and it works

• Upper Class Wing more like a five-star hotel than an airport terminal.

• No queues for immigration or security

• Good variety of retail outlets

• Quick and easy to walk through to the Virgin Clubhouse

Clubhouse highlights:

• Bumble and bumble hair salon

• Cowshed spa

• Pool and sauna

• Pool table in the 'Den'

• Cinema

• 14-metre long cocktail bar

• Delicatessen

• Brasserie

• Library

• Business centre

• Kids' play room

• Shoe shine on arrival

• Reclining chairs

• Snack bar with sweets and treats

Upper Class highlights:

• Large leather seats

• Spacious lie-flat bed

• Privacy

• Flexible dining

• On board bar

• Extensive in-flight entertainment

• Friendly service

• Snooze pack and PJs

For more information visit www.virgin-atlantic.com.

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