When Virgin Atlantic unveiled Upper Class in 1984, the concept was revolutionary: the “bubble” upstairs in the Boeing 747 was transformed into a luxury loft. Just eight seats were installed, offering unprecedented levels of comfort by Eighties standards.
Virgin Atlantic was also the first UK carrier to launch premium economy, which was originally known as “mid class”.
But over the decades Virgin’s lifelong rival British Airways and other airlines have caught up and in some cases outstripped Sir Richard Branson’s carrier.
Now Mark Anderson, executive vice-president customer at Virgin Atlantic, claims: “We’ve elevated our offering to provide our customers with something totally unique.”
The new Upper Class product features all-new flat-bed seats measuring 6ft 10in, a sliding privacy door and an area known as The Loft for socialising.
“As the largest social space in the airline’s fleet, it’s designed for customers to gather, chat, enjoy a drink or dine with friends,” says the airline.
Victoria Moores, European bureau chief for aviation trade magazine Air Transport World, said: “Whether or not there’s enough that’s different here to put them in the position of brand leader as opposed to being right up there with the competitors in terms of showcasing a product that’s very nice – I’m not sure I could take that call just now.”
The new cabin will be installed on Virgin Atlantic’s new Airbus A350-1000 aircraft, with the first flights from summer 2019 on the Heathrow-New York JFK route.
Virgin Atlantic has not yet said exactly when the new jet, to be known as Red Velvet, will enter service. Test bookings made by The Independent up to March 2020 show only Airbus A330 and Boeing 787 services on the world’s busiest intercontinental air route, between Heathrow and JFK. But the disparity in fares is as wide as the gulf between economy and Upper Class.
Business travellers bankroll the London-New York link, while economy class is ferociously competitive.
The cheapest “economy light” fare on Virgin Atlantic from London to New York is £298 return.
The lowest premium economy return ticket costs £822, nearly three times higher.
In Upper Class, the lowest fare is £2,757 – over nine times the economy price.
The three-year revamp has been strongly focused on the business product.
Passengers in the lower two classes will get bigger seatback video screens, and new seat fabric will be used for the economy seats. The economy seat pitch remains at 31 inches, except for some rows of “economy delight” which has 34 inches.
Virgin Atlantic has ordered a dozen Airbus A350s, which are scheduled to join the fleet by 2021.
At list price the order is worth £3.35bn, but in practice the airline is likely to have negotiated a deal at least half-a-billion pounds cheaper.
The airline is 49 per cent owned by the US carrier Delta, with Air France-KLM poised to take a 30 per cent stake.
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