The New Upper Class

The new-look cabin features flashes of Virgin Atlantic’s famous red branding and has over 1,000 Swarovski crystal accents to add a touch of what the airline calls ‘Virgin Atlantic sparkle’. (All images: Virgin Atlantic)

The transatlantic battle for business-class passengers just got hotter with Virgin launching its new £100 million Upper Class cabin. Tom Allett reports.

The new-look cabin features flashes of Virgin Atlantic’s famous red branding and has over 1,000 Swarovski crystal accents to add a touch of what the airline calls ‘Virgin Atlantic sparkle’. (All images: Virgin Atlantic)

The fight to sell premium class seats on North Atlantic routes – especially the one between London and New York – is often said to be the toughest, but most lucrative battle.  Well, the race to win the favours of business class passengers took another turn on April 21 as Virgin Atlantic introduced its all-new Upper Class cabin and airborne bar.
The process of creating this glamorous new layout started four years ago, when the airline’s plans to introduce Airbus A330s and Boeing 787s to its fleet presented the perfect opportunity for a re-design.
Virgin Atlantic’s in-house team, comprising Luke Miles, Head of Design; Nik Lusardi, Senior Designer for the seats/suites and Gareth Southall, Senior Designer for the bar area, were responsible for the overall concept.  External partners in the project were the British companies, Design Q (3D modelling), DHA Design (cabin lighting), PearsonLloyd (which also helped to create Lufthansa’s business class seat for its Boeing 747-8 fleet); Pengelly Design (seats/suites), Softroom Architects (Clubhouse Lounge) and VW+BS (bar and interior elements).
After receiving positive feedback from its own cabin crew and frequent flyers who were invited to preview the concept, the 1-2-1 herringbone configuration was approved by the airline’s board of directors.  The plans were then handed over to one of Virgin Atlantic’s subsidiary companies, Threesixty Aerospace, (formerly known as Reynard Aviation), which had the engineering task of converting the ideas into reality.
Luke Miles told Airports International: “We looked at many different arrangements including one that divided the cabin into separate seat and sleeping areas, but in the end we chose a suite with a seat/bed combination where all the seats are positioned at an angle of 45 degrees to the front of the aircraft and have direct access to the aisle without having to get past the person sitting next to you.”
According to the airline, the 87-inch (220cm) bed is the longest business class offering in the world and each suite is equipped with a Panasonic 12.1-inch (30.7cm) touch-screen monitor and touch-screen handset that drives Virgin’s JAM in-flight entertainment system.  As you would expect, the suites power supply supports most international plug types and a connection for smart phones, laptops and tablets.
 
Proof of the Pudding
On May 9, I was privileged to join the carrier’s press trip between London Heathrow and New York’s JFK on board the first aircraft to be fitted with the new cabin; an Airbus A330-300.  Joining flight number VS3 was the airline’s CEO, Steve Ridgeway; COO and overall Head of Product, Steve Griffiths; Martin Barnes, MD of Threesixty Aerospace; plus Luke Miles, Nik Lusardi and Gareth Southall from the airline’s design team and Russ Walton, one of the company’s ‘fly along’ engineers who could deal with any unexpected technical issues that might arise.
Prior to departure, while in the airline’s Heathrow Clubhouse lounge, Mr Ridgeway addressed the 30-strong press pack by saying: “Virgin Atlantic is famous for its pioneering products, and this investment will again establish our position as the leader in airline innovation and customer experience.  We know that two thirds of our transatlantic travellers already believe we offer a superior business class experience to our rivals but that is no reason to stop reaching for the skies.”
He then explained that the airline was launching its new product on its London/Heathrow to New York/JFK services because it “is our premier route and the city that we operated our inaugural schedule service to, on June 22, 1984.”
The airline says that its 87-inch bed is longer than any available in other airline’s business class.

As you enter the Upper Class cabin your attention is immediately drawn to its 9ft (2.7m) bar which, the airline says, “is the longest in the sky.”  Its Senior Designer, Gareth Southall, pointed out that the new Upper Class layout has the bar relocated to the rear of the cabin – a change from the earlier design concept – in order to reduce the level of background noise.
It has stool-type seating enabling passengers to relax and socialise if they wish and, while it struck me as looking a little more ‘night club’ than business lounge, it’s certainly an attractive feature.  The bartenders (usually two) are not employed by Virgin Atlantic and travel as passengers rather than members of the crew.
While airborne and heading east over the Atlantic Ocean, Martin Barnes, MD of Threesixty Aerospace told Airports International: “We really started our work on the Upper Class cabin in November 2008.  After the look and feel of the seat had been decided by the airline, we got involved in proving the chosen concept.”
Threesixty worked closely with the defence company QinetiQ.  Each business looked at the job from a different angle over an approximately six-month period; QinetiQ took care of the structural aspects of how you attach the seats to the aircraft, while Threesixty’s role was to look at it from a numbers point of view as the layout obviously had to be commercially viable.
Mr Barnes explained that, in collaboration with the airline, his company took over full development of the seats in May 2009.
He added: “By that stage we already knew that the new design would allow us to fit in three more seats [for a total of 33] than had been possible with the previous cabin fit, an obvious advantage for the airline, so we set about making the concept into reality.
“I’m proud to say that over a period of about three and a half years we were able to include about 98-99% of the airline’s concept design features into the seat you are experiencing today.
“We started out with what the designers want to achieve in terms of the look and appeal of their concept, but they left it up to us as to how we achieved that.  For example, I think that the cabin’s centre-section is unique, I don’t think anyone else has designed an interlocking centre-section before so we had to determine a way of attaching it to the cabin floor that that would allow it to absorb any theoretical g-forces that might be encountered.”
Mr Barnes said that his team had to work with Airbus and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to create a new set of safety guidelines to cover the cabin’s structure.  There was no existing rule book to follow, as this type of arrangement had never been tried before.  He added that the structure of the main suite had been designed to withstand a force of 16g, while the forward area containing items such as the tray table and storage space could take a shock force of 7g.  Both figures are well above what your average passenger could expect to survive unscathed…
Mr Barnes explained that the new Upper Class seat back effectively uses a large ‘elastic strap’ to define its shape, adding: “It’s a very flexible seat so when you decide it’s time to lie down you are not trying to sleep on a hard surface.  You actually have a flexible back surface incorporating a sprung-mattress bed which is a first for this type of [business class] seat.”
Asked if the new design was expensive in comparison with the previous product, Mr Barnes replied: “It’s a very complex suite and in some ways comparable to Formula One racing car technology, which comes at a premium price.  However, the rest of the seat [cost] is very competitive so, apart from the usual effect of inflation I would say that overall, it isn’t significantly more expensive than its predecessor.
“We have packed a lot into the space available.  The shields [dividing the suites from each other] are only a couple of inches thick and are structurally attached to the aircraft so there is no space for ‘bling’ as there was previously.
“Like everyone else in this business, in terms of materials, we are restricted to using those that have passed the various safety and toxicity tests, but I don’t feel that the end product suffered in any way.”
Asked if Threesixty, being a subsidiary of Virgin Atlantic, was in a position to help other airlines to develop their cabins, Mr Barnes replied: “Obviously we aspire to develop the business, but we have been making Virgin’s Premium Economy seat since 2005 and there is a programme to retrofit that into the Boeing 747-400 fleet now we have the new Upper Class suite to fit throughout the A330s.  After that we will have the evolution of this new product for the Boeing 787-900 fleet, which is to due to enter service in late 2014.
The new onboard bar is now located at the back of the Upper Class cabin to reduce background noise levels in the suite area.

“If the right customer came along and it didn’t cause any issues for Virgin then we would be quite happy to see if we could support them, but our core business is to support Virgin Atlantic.”
Mr Barnes said that he expected the new Upper Class cabin to have a minimum lifespan of around six years but acknowledged that the reality is that such products usually remain in service for the duration of the airframe’s lease contract.  He concluded by saying that the suite was more modular than its predecessors and that gave it some potential for a mid-life upgrade if required.
I felt that the seat was very comfortable – though I wondered if it was just my tray table that seemed a little reluctant to deploy – and I thought the cabin’s mood lighting was most impressive as it graduates through an array of colours.  The lunch menu comprised four courses, and there is an opportunity to ‘graze’ as and when you like.  And of course, being the premium cabin, Champagne, fine wines and a huge range of other drinks were always on offer.  As expected, the service was faultless.
 
Brief Encounter
After an overnight stop in Manhattan, and a morning’s work, I arrived at JFK in the late afternoon for the return sector.  Having sampled the fine dining experience and completed my interviews on the outbound leg, this would be the perfect opportunity to try out the suite’s new bed.  I would need the sleep as I had to be back in the office later that morning.  Upon arrival at JFK in the late afternoon there was no need to check-in or drop off my bags; they were collected from me by the airline’s Upper Class service representatives at the kerbside.  Despite the significant queues for security, I was soon in the carrier’s JFK Clubhouse lounge, which opened in March.  The Clubhouse deserves an article in its own right, and one will follow in the next edition of Airports International.
I took advantage of the pre-flight fine dining opportunity; so that I could forego the on-board service in favour of some extra sleep.
We were soon on our way and, after the seatbelt signs were switched off, I set about converting the seat into a bed.
A gentleman ahead of me in the cabin was even quicker off the mark than I was and, for a moment, I watched him trying – and apparently struggling – to work out how to fold down the seat.  For a second I thought I might need my long-forgotten childhood origami skills to lay my bed out but, in a flash, one of the cabin crew was there to help me and made it look embarrassingly easy to do.  So, kitted out with one of the airline’s sleep suits, earplugs, cushions and my ‘Zorro’-type sleep-mask, I settled down for the next six hours and can honest say that for at least five of them I was oblivious to what was going on around me.  Whilst the bed is certainly long enough, I must add that width-wise I found it a little tight across the shoulders, but maybe that says more about me than the bed!  I wasn’t aware of this when using it as a seat, so maybe having to keep the seatbelt around me while trying to sleep made the difference.
Taking all things into consideration the round-trip was a tiring but very positive experience and a realistic example of what is involved in long-haul business travel.  Looking ahead, Virgin will fit the new Upper Class cabin across the rest of its A330 and forthcoming Boeing 787 fleet.  It has already announced that it will be adding a fourth daily Heathrow-JFK rotation (it also has two serving Newark) from October 28, 2012, which will also mark the introduction of its new Upper Class cabin on re-launched services to Mumbai.
 
The author would like to thank Anna Catchpole and Jo Foster from Virgin Atlantic for their help in producing this article.