Inside travel: Suite dreams are made of this
Business travellers have never had it so good, says Tom Peck, as he lies back in Virgin Atlantic's new cabin
After a plink and a fizz, a decapitated Sir Richard Branson quietly drowned in a sea of gin and raspberry liquor. But the billionaire airline boss didn't seem to mind. His face was fixed in a grin just as content as that of any of the drinkers perched along his on-board bar, 35,000ft above the Atlantic, where a chap in a red bow-tie had only just finished shaking him about, dousing him in club soda and serving him up with a little pink flower on top.
Virgin Atlantic's new "Little Richards" – ice cubes moulded in the be-goateed-shaped head of the company's synecdochical president – are just one of the innovations of the airline's new Upper Class cabin, but the one Virgin seems keenest to boast about. Well, along with the 1,000 Swarovski crystals, the mood lighting that changes colour during the flight to help passengers "relax, unwind, fall asleep and adjust time zones", and an innovative new seat that flips forward to create "the longest flat bed in business class". It seems that when you spend enough on a seat, it becomes a "suite" – emulating the idea pioneered by Singapore Airlines on its A380 "super-jumbo".
After four years of development designed around upping Upper Class, the new cabin is now featured on VS3 from Heathrow to New York JFK and its return trip, VS4, along with a sixth daily London-New York service on what Virgin's CEO, Steve Ridgway, calls "the world's most competitive route". With BA just announcing a new Gatwick-Las Vegas route that goes head-to-head with Virgin Atlantic, Mr Ridgway has plenty on his Upper Class plate.
The 1,000 fortunate members of The Sunday Times Rich List (on which Sir Richard, with £3.4bn, appeared at No 16) are this year significantly richer than they have ever been before. Similarly, premium-class travel is back in rude health after the dramatic slump of 2008.
According to Mr Ridgway: "Firms are telling their staff, 'Get out there, get travelling, and start drumming up new business for us'. In the back of the plane, it's tough. Rising fuel prices have more of an effect back there, and people's take-home pay is down. But in the front, things are different." With the opening up of the skies, which has allowed Delta and other US carriers into Heathrow, the incumbent carriers have to offer more bang to secure the lucrative corporate buck – hence the ice cubes.
The Virgin suite is not as spacious as first- class. "Upper Class" remains, technically a business-class product, which is reflected in the fare. The top price is more than £6,000 for a return transatlantic journey, but this is still £3,000 cheaper than BA's First. "Banks are ruthless about costs," said Mr Ridgway. "Most of them won't buy first-class tickets. We think this is first class at a business-class fare."
The on-board bar is a big draw. It is angled to meet the eye as you board the plane. It's hard to imagine hoi polloi down the back even exist. It's all about "memory burn", according to the new cabin's designer Luke Miles – creating lasting images, burned on the back of people's retinas, along the "red thread" that takes you from check-in, to lounge, to plane, and eventually to new destination. It is, apparently, "important to be mesmerised".
The bar claims to have room for eight passengers, although there are only three seats. On my flight there were at least a dozen crowded around it at one point. The mid-flight turbulence that forced us all back to our seats probably spared a few hangovers. The cabin itself has 33 seats, angled in a herringbone formation. The large television screen that pulls out from the side of the seat is just as well, since the simple pleasure of looking out of the window is all but impossible as the seats are slanted inwards.
Couples might find it difficult to communicate, individually ensconced in their own "espresso coloured" worlds, but at meal times one half can relocate to the ottoman at the end of the other's suite and dine facing each other.
Having never flown anything other than economy before, I've often wondered quite where this secret champagne-soaked world of luxurious lounges and fully reclining seats manages to hide itself. And it's true: blink and you'll miss it. Next to the Upper Class check-in desk at Heathrow there is a private elevator, marked "By invitation only", a private security screening area (where, unlike at Stansted, the clear plastic bags for toiletries are complimentary), and then the vast Virgin clubhouse, where I availed myself of a glass of champagne and complimentary haircut.
"Bono was my favourite-ever customer," my stylist told me in gushing tones. "And The Hoff is always getting his done here."
The new cabin is being installed on all 10 of the A330 aircraft Virgin has ordered; three have been completed so far. There are no plans yet to include them in the airline's 33 other planes (a couple of which are 18-year-old Jumbos). It will, however, feature aboard the much-delayed Boeing 787 Dreamliners, when they arrive, supposedly at the end of 2014.
Since Virgin Atlantic was born in 1984, British Airways has had constantly to up its game. BA has given iPads to its all its business-class cabin staff, ramping up its "Know Me" project. "Cabin crew can approach Mr Smith in seat 5K and say, 'I see you travelled with us recently: how was that?,' said Amanda Allan, a spokesperson for BA. "They will know if it's the first time a customer has flown with us to a new destination, for example. In the future, we hope to be able to say: 'Mr Smith would you like your normal gin and tonic?'"
BA's onboard larder is proving particularly popular, says Ms Allan. Rather than wait for service times, passengers can simply help themselves to snacks.
US carriers, for years lagging behind BA and Virgin, are catching up, too. United (now including Continental) has renovated and rebranded its premium-class cabins. Among its many boasts are "higher quality hot towels", an "additional fourth entrée" on the menu, the addition of pasta salad to its light snack range and "ice cream sundaes offered with a choice of six toppings". If you've got the cash, it seems the world is still your oyster – although no one is serving those on board; at least, not yet.
Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) offers its new Upper Class Suite on flight VS003 from Heathrow to New York JFK and the VS004 back to Heathrow.
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