Virgin Atlantic Airways entered a new era earlier this month when it launched service on its newest aircraft, the Airbus A350-1000 XWB. Only the fifth carrier worldwide to operate the type, the addition of the aircraft is the second step in a fleet renewal that will see Virgin Atlantic adopting next-generation models and retiring its aging workhorses.
Debuting the aircraft on the London-New York route, the airline’s flagship route, the aircraft was inaugurated straight into long-haul service on a route in desperate need of a new aircraft. Just one month following its delivery to the airline, Virgin’s A350 operated its first commercial service from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Celebrating its launch and the beginning of a new era for the airline, Virgin hosted a special celebration flight to thank its employees and those involved in the airline’s A350 program. The arrival of the aircraft not only another aircraft in the Virgin fleet, but a marker for an exciting expansion that will see Britain’s second-largest long-haul airline challenge its long-time rival using a combination of new products, routes, aircraft and passenger experiences.
The Onboard Product
Taking full advantage of the opportunity that bringing on a new aircraft brings, Virgin Atlantic completely overhauled the aircraft offering new products and services in every cabin. From Upper Class to economy, the cabins feature new seats, in-flight entertainment systems and enhanced services.
With 335 seats and three cabins in total, the aircraft takes send place for capacity behind the Boeing 747-400 and offers business class, premium economy and economy products, as well as a social area.
Perhaps the greatest upgrade to the aircraft can be seen in the Upper Class business class cabin, where Virgin has completely overhauled the cabin in a shift from its traditional product. Offering nearly as many business class seats as the high-density A340-600, Virgin has introduced an entirely new seat type and configuration with the Dash 1000 focusing on style, luxury and privacy.
Enhancing the purple seats that Virgin’s Upper Class is known for, rose gold finishes and layered light red fabric now adorn the cabin, elegantly complementing the ergonomically designed purple lie-flat seat. The white walls of the seats also make their comeback and line the aisles and surfaces, creating a lighter atmosphere in the cabin.
The cabin design is partially the brainchild of Daniel Kerzner, vice president of customer experience at the airline, who turned towards the hospitality industry, specifically to hotels, for innovation instead of looking to other airlines. That outside inspiration from Kerzner, a Starwood Hotels and Marriott veteran, enabled Virgin to create a more unique and luxurious product than its competitors by drawing on the contemporary styles of the world’s leading hotels.
Arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, 44 seats comprise the forward cabin spanning 11 rows between the two main boarding doors. Reorienting the seats, reverse herringbone seats line the cabin, a major shift from the herringbone seats that Virgin’s Upper Cabin was known for.
While the herringbone seats offered greater ease of access to the aisle and space when in the lie-flat position, the downsides included facing away from the window in seats along the cabin and having feet line the aisle. Now, all seats face a window and seats along the cabin wall allow for true window views, perfect for gazing upon London when on a westerly approach to Heathrow Airport.
Though not fully enclosed, Virgin attempted to increase privacy in the new suites by offering privacy sliders. Offered at every seat in the cabin, the sliders offer a modicum of privacy from the aisle and in the case of the center aisle seats, act as a partition between seat neighbors.
The capacity in Upper Class will prove to be of value of the initial routes Virgin has announced. New York and Los Angeles, the first two announced destinations for the aircraft, both yield high premium demand. The aircraft offers nearly the same number of business class suites as the A340-600 but at a lower overall operating cost for the aircraft, greatly maximizing the revenue per business class seat.
Premium Economy and Economy Class
Virgin is known for offering some of the largest premium economy classes in the sky and the A350 is no different. While some airlines only give their aircraft a handful of rows in the intermediate section between economy and business, Virgin gave its A350 seven rows of the product.
56 leather recliner seats make up the cabin, arranged in a standard 2-4-2 configuration. The airline took advantage of the extra five inches on the A350 versus the Boeing 787 to offer an additional center aisle seat, maximizing the cabin’s potential revenue and the overall capacity of the aircraft. Despite offering a generous 38 inches of pitch, the seats, however, are only 18.5 inches wide, 1.1 greater than those in economy.
The stylish leather seats don’t lie flat but do recline to 7 inches and feature some improvements include larger armrests, marble-esque bi-fold tray tables and larger in-flight entertainment screens. Footrests also extend from the seats in front.
Moving back to the largest cabin in the aircraft, economy, the remaining seats are arranged in a standard 3-3-3. Second only to the carrier’s Boeing 747-400 aircraft, the A350 boasts Virgin’s largest economy class with 235 seats in total stretching back to row 70.
The design for the economy seats includes woven wool blend fabrics inspired by London fashion houses, continuing Virgin’s reputation of being the trendy airline even in the back. Among the features of the economy class seat is the larger in-flight entertainment screen, six-way adjustable headrest, redesigned literature pocket and two USB charging ports at every seat.
The cabin features two sections, Economy Classic and the extra legroom Economy Delight. Though the only difference on the aircraft between the Economy Delight and Economy Classic products is merely the position in the cabin and 3 inches of additional legroom in Economy Delight, the benefits for choosing the latter also include priority check-in and boarding.
In addition to the hard products in all cabins, Virgin is implementing numerous product enhancements on the A350. Instead of the classic Virgin Atlantic Upper Class bars, which James Bond famously visited in the movie Quantum of Solace, a social area called The Loft features couch seating and additional space for Upper Class passengers to interact.
The aircraft features the Zodiac Rave System for entertainment and larger in-flight entertainment screens with economy offering 11.6-inch screens, premium economy offering 13.3-inch and 18.5-inch screens in Upper Class. The benefits of the new system include touchscreens, moving maps, Bluetooth device pairs to control the system and second screen capabilities. An a la carte ordering system in Upper Class via the screen, similar to Virgin America’s ordering system when it operated in the United States, has also been implemented to expedite food and drink orders.
Connectivity is also a key upgrade on the aircraft with Inmarsat high-speed KA-band WiFi being offered on the aircraft. In addition to Bluetooth pairing at the individual seats, the Loft also features Bluetooth connectivity for up to eight devices to share content on The Loft’s main screen, ideal for meetings or family/friend groups traveling together.
Up in the Cockpit
One the largest benefits of operating the aircraft is that it shares a common type rating with the Airbus A330, another staple of the Virgin Atlantic fleet with the airline both the A330-300 and A330-200 variants. By sharing the type rating, pilots already rated on the Airbus A330 and the A340, which have near-identical cockpits, can easily add on the A350 with just a simple differences course.
The common type rating offers the airline more flexibility as pilots can jump from the A330 to the A350 and vice versa with relative ease which is essential when it comes to crew scheduling. With Virgin operating 21 Airbus aircraft across three types, the Airbus pilot group is not limited to just a single aircraft type and can fly any one of the 21. The Boeing pilot group at Virgin, on the other hand, does not have that flexibility.
While the cockpit differences between the A330/340 and A350, as well as the fuselages of the aircraft themselves, are vast, pilots flying the celebration flight told AirlineGeeks that the differences in the aircraft’s handling once the engines get started are negligible. They also noted that the A350 takes so much less fuel than the A340-600 on the same route, despite having more seats than the A340.
Only three pilots sit up front in the spacious cockpit during the 3,000 nautical mile flights between New York and London. While passengers in the back use the tail and belly cameras for entertainment and a unique point of view, the pilots view them on the main flight displays for taxing and aligning with the runway.
London to New York and Beyond
Though launching on the London-New York route, the airline already has extensive plans for the aircraft, mainly focused on the Western Hemisphere. Once more of the type arrive at Virgin, the A350 will be deployed to Los Angeles. At present, Virgin is scheduled to be the only operator of the Dash 1000 to Los Angeles.
Similar to New York, both routes yield high premium cabin loads and warrant Virgin’s latest business class product. Los Angeles is currently served by the airline’s second newest aircraft, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, with the current 31-seat 1-1-1 reverse herringbone configuration business class seats and 36-seat 2-3-2 premium economy cabin.
The introduction of the Airbus A350-1000 XWB on the London-New York route not only marks a milestone for the airline, but also the route itself. One of the most profitable in the world and served by countless airlines, the route has not yet seen an aircraft of this type operated by a full-service carrier such as Virgin.
When utilizing its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft on the route, although having to revert back to the Airbus A330/A340 series of aircraft due to the aircraft’s engine issues, Virgin was the first full-service carrier to operate a next-generation aircraft on the route. Now, the carrier is the first to operate an Airbus A350 of any variant between London’s Heathrow Airport and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, bringing one of the newest business class products to the well-deserving route.
Despite the route yielding a high number of premium passengers thanks to the number of business travelers transiting between the two economic hubs, the current carriers serving the route have not always delivered. British Airways, Virgin’s main rival, has long been criticized for its substandard business class product on the Boeing 747 and 777s operating the route that does not offer as much privacy nor direct aisle access at every seat.
Offering not only an ultra-modern aircraft but a superior business class product than its competitors, Virgin is set to be a major disruptor in the London-New York market, in which it already does supremely well with its multiple daily frequencies. When faced with the choice of flying an aging Boeing 747 product with a lackluster business class product or a brand new Airbus A350-1000 XWB with brand-new, semi-private business class suites, the choice becomes increasingly clear for all travelers.
Should the offer be apples to apples, Virgin would win every time thanks to the new aircraft; however, such is the not case on the London-New York route. Currently, the A350 only operates one daily service, with the number soon increasing to two with the new delivery of Mamma Mia, out of an average of 6 daily Virgin services on the route. British Airways, on the other hand, offers upwards of ten daily services, despite the inferior product, providing a necessity for business travelers, flexibility.
Heathrow Slots, A Third Runway and a Cross Airport Rivalry
The airline has long battled for space at the ever-crowded Heathrow Airport, the main international gateway for London, against the International Airline Group (IAG) and its flagship airline British Airways. While currently petitioning the government for additional slots and pushing for an additional runway at Heathrow, Virgin announced the over 80 routes and destinations it seeks to serve should slot reform be approved by the government, many of which currently served by IAG and British Airways.
The airline is ready to spring into action as soon as the government releases the shackles it has placed on the airline through the slot assignments, according to Virgin’s Executive Vice President of Operations Phil Maher. With the goal of becoming Britain’s second flag carrier, which is virtually non-existent around the world, Virgin hopes that operating on new routes traditionally only served by British Airways will advance its aspirations by showing consumers the difference.
The past few years have seen British Airways seemingly fall down on the job, according to Maher, in multiple aspects. Such examples include customer experience improvements being few and far between, industrial action adversely affecting the airline and Virgin continuously beating British Airways in on-time performance, though Virgin does have the smaller fleet advantage.
Currently, the airline is limited in its expansion endeavors, opening up a handful of routes per year. This year will see Virgin serve Tel Aviv beginning in September, returning to Mumbai in October while next year will see the airline in Sao Paulo and Heathrow assuming Havana operations from Gatwick Airport. A new Asia route to Beijing is also rumored to be in the works, complementing its existing Asian destinations of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Each of the upcoming routes will see Virgin face stiff competition from British Airways but Virgin believes the product and services offered to its passengers will draw passengers away from Terminal 5 and into Terminal 3. British Airways also launched a new business class product on its Airbus A350-1000 XWBs, but its plans for the aircraft currently don’t overlap with Virgin’s.
Having recently formed a consortium to acquire Flybe, Virgin is also going back into domestic operations, using the regional carrier as its feeder to Heathrow and Gatwick, among others, for long-haul services. British Airways, historically, has had the advantage in feeder service with a sizeable narrowbody short-haul fleet; whereas, Virgin tried with Little Red and ended up discontinuing the service.
Though Flybe only utilizes turboprop Bombardier Q400s, a far cry from the Airbus A350-1000, a closer Virgin partnership will allow more customers to book single-ticket itineraries from secondary cities in England that include Virgin Atlantic long-haul services.
Is The Dream(liner) Dead?
Having operated the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner for five years, the airline is now forced with the decision of whether or not it wants to keep going with it, double down on its Airbus aircraft or invest in a new plane entirely. The Dreamliner, which has given the airline great hassle due to the Rolls Royce engine issues, will quickly become the odd one out in the soon-to-be Airbus-dominated Virgin fleet once the Boeing 747s are retired and the remaining A350s are delivered.
The Dreamliner does not have the same interchangeability as the Airbus fleet since Virgin only has a single model, the Dash 9, and pilots must go through additional training and acquire a new type rating to fly the Dreamliner if transitioning from an Airbus product. If the airline was to double down on its current next-generation Airbus fleet to take advantage of its common type ratings, the airline would gain a great deal of flexibility that may make not expanding the Dreamliner fleet worth it.
In terms of passenger experience, the Dreamliners have the same premium product as Virgin’s Airbus A330/340 fleet and will not receive any upgrades, per Maher, until a decision is made on whether or not to invest in the aircraft for the long-term. The already five-year-old product, when compared to the A350, will soon start to show its age.
Conversely, the fate of the Dreamliners will also tie into the fate of the airline’s Airbus A340-600s. The quad-engine jets have long been slated for retirement but have found second life thanks to Dreamliner aircraft shortages, with some even returning from retirement. The new recently-announced date for the A340’s retirement is December 2019 and while executives are confident that is a hard date, it is subject to change depending on the Dreamliner engines being fixed.
A Cargo Game Changer
While travelers in the passenger cabin of Virgin’s newest aircraft will undoubtedly enjoy the new products, the extra cargo space in the belly below is just as important to Virgin’s cargo division. With London as a prime cargo hub, the aircraft gives Virgin the ability to grow its successful cargo division.
Having just opened a new cargo facility on the outskirts of Heathrow Airport, the closest to the airport per Maher, and incorporating new technology to handle cargo sorting and loading, the airline is positioning itself along with joint venture partner Delta to expand its cargo carrying capabilities through London. At present, cargo accounts for 10 percent of the airline’s revenue.
Capable of carrying 44 LD3 cargo containers, the A350-1000 XWB outmatches the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, which typically can only carry less than 40 of the same containers. As Virgin seeks to expand its cargo division, the A350 is the aircraft to lead the way.
Fortunately for passengers, the airline will not solely base new routes for the A350 on cargo demand and customer feedback will always be a priority according to the airline.
AirlineGeeks flew on Virgin Atlantic’s A350 celebration flight as a guest of the airline
Update: Virgin Atlantic is scheduled to operate the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner to Sao Paulo once services being in March 2020, not the Airbus A350-1000 XWB.
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