The Low-Down on Virgin's Upper Class

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (MainStreet) -- The travel industry loves Virgin, and trans-Atlantic travelers especially. Virgin has been awarded "Favourite Airline" by London's The Mail on Sunday and "Best Long Haul Leisure Airline" by Conde Nast Traveler, and Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class, which makes celebrities and CEOs airborne seatmates, has an almost cult following.

The trademark premium-class product manages to be both luxurious and cool while offering some of the best first-class fares and frequent-flier promotions in the business. To see what makes Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class just so special, we decided to check in for a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to London's Heathrow.
Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class bar is one of the most famous parts of the airline's premium service.

Avid frequent fliers, we transferred 100,000 American Express ( AXP) Membership Rewards points to our Virgin Atlantic Flying Club account and booked round-trip through the airline. Booking was straightforward online; Upper Class award seats can be booked up to 11 months in advance. Fees on the Upper Class ticket are pricier than other award bookings, though, adding up to $655.80 -- hefty, considering comparable United Airlines ( UAL) Mileage-Plus and American ( AMR) AAdvantage award ticket fees and taxes add up to about half the amount on comparable First Class award travel ($254 on American with an extra $75 award fee if booked within 21 days of travel).

Flying with reward points doesn't include a chauffeur-driven limo, but at least airport check-in in Los Angeles is still a little faster. There's a security bypass for the passport line that saves a few minutes. Unlike clubhouses in New York and San Francisco, which are micro-versions of the London flagship, Virgin Atlantic's Terminal 2 L.A. lounge is shared with Air New Zealand. It's a bit of a disappointment in terms of luxury, and seating was tight before our late evening takeoff.

Virgin Atlantic flies one of the youngest fleet in aviation -- a mix of Boeing 747-400s and Airbus a340-600s for many of its trans-Atlantic routes. The airline has an order in for 2015 delivery of six Airbus A380s, the double-decker passenger plane, and 15 of the new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, which are to be integrated into the Virgin Atlantic fleet in 2014. In the meantime, passengers don't have it so bad, which becomes clear as efficient and casually cheery British flight attendants point Upper Class passengers to futuristic seats accented in the cabin's moody ambient lights and angled in a continuous arrangement of 1-1-1 or 1-2-1 that means never having to crawl over a neighboring passenger. The unique configuration of Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class cabin debuted in 2003 at an estimated cost of 100 million pounds and has garnered awards by magazine such as Wallpaper.

All is not perfect here. Seated in the center row of the Upper Class cabin, the leather seats are ideal for more slender silhouettes, contouring to the body like a cockpit recliner. There's a 10.4-inch LCD screen display to the right but a clear view of no fewer than five fellow passengers to the left, and they see you too. The positioning makes for little privacy and sometimes awkward eye contact. "It's like cows in a stall," remarked a neighboring passenger, "but a really luxurious one." With a walkway to the bathroom directly behind the middle row toward the front of the plane, it also becomes clear that the area will be a thoroughfare for the next 10 hours to London -- although with the tall privacy partition behind the seat, passers-by are heard more than seen.

Seats convert into lie-flat beds, but you have to stand and flip the mattress. The mattress is one of the most comfortable around, complete with quilted pad and fluffy duvet, and passenger are allowed to sleep until the pilot's announcement for landing, whereupon it's a free-for-all to the bathrooms as people who changed into their airline-provided black pajamas scramble to get dressed again in toilets that aren't as fresh as they were at the beginning of the flight.

Before sleep, though, comes an industry-standard meal service -- three or four entree selections, less than the liberal and lengthy menu used before 2003 -- and access to a bar that's one of the most famous parts of the airline's premium service and available only to Upper Class passengers. (That means almost half of the Virgin Atlantic plane.)

Upon landing at Heathrow, Upper Class passengers are given passes to use the fast-track lane, saving a lengthy wait in the passport queue. Those traveling eastbound on Virgin Atlantic likely won't enjoy the best perk of their Upper Class voyage until on return, where check-in is preceded by entry to the Upper Class Clubhouse, a Jetson-inspired sanctuary of free spa treatments, salon services, full-service restaurant and a deli counter -- the ultimate premium-class lounge in the business, making a lengthy layover or flight delay a downright indulgence.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.

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