Charismatic British entrepreneur Richard Branson formed Virgin Atlantic in 1984. In 1992 he sold his iconic record company and ploughed the profits into the airline, which later the same year launched a ‘super-economy’ service. Since its maverick early days it has become one of the world’s largest airlines, often leading innovation in airport and in-flight services. From its home base at London Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic has three main African destinations. It offers flights to Accra in Ghana, Lagos in Nigeria, and Johannesburg in South Africa. It also offers daily flights to Cape Town from October to April.
I usually always check-in online, but as I had a complex routing all the way to San Francisco in the United States, I chose to go through the process at the airport, where Premium Economy passengers have a dedicated check-in lane. There was no queue for what turned out to be a fairly empty flight, and I had my boarding passes within minutes. Unlike other airlines, the Virgin Atlantic ground staff carefully weigh hand luggage to be taken onboard, and fortunately mine was within the 6kg limit that also applies to Economy Class passengers. However, Premium Economy passengers do receive an additional baggage allowance for the hold, with two 23kg bags allowed.
The airside restaurants at Cape Town International are dismal, so it was great to have boarding start right on time. Unlike many other airlines, Virgin Atlantic allows Premium Economy passengers to board with Upper Class (Virgin’s Business/First Class cabin), so you avoid the crowds of Economy. What a pleasure! Once seated, the ‘premium’ in Premium Economy was again evident with a bottle of water waiting on my seat, newspapers handed around, and the offer of a glass of champagne. From the outset, I got the feeling that this was a big step up from Economy Class.
Wide leather seats with lumbar control and a good recline made this one of the most comfortable Premium Economy cabins I’ve flown in. Although seats don’t recline in their own shell, even when the passenger ahead reclined his seat there was a fair amount of personal space. I also liked the spacious 2-3-2 layout of the seats on the A340-300. After the late-night departure, the crew did well to get dinner served quickly. It was an impressive affair, served in the style of Upper Class with a linen tablecloth, metal cutlery and a choice of three main courses. Respected London wine merchants Berry Bros. select the on-board wines and the cabin crew on this sector were outstanding – friendly and efficient at all times. The only disappointing element of the seat was the archaic in-seat entertainment, with no audio-video on demand available. Tablet computers with pre-loaded TV and movies are available (not in Economy Class though), but they are cumbersome when you’re trying to eat and watch. There is no in-seat laptop power available.
Despite London’s notorious air traffic congestion for morning landings, we touched down slightly ahead of schedule at Heathrow. And with my luggage checked through to San Francisco (it arrived safely), it was an easy stroll through security and onto my US-bound flight.
An excellent product with plenty of bells and whistles that delivers well above competing Premium Economy cabins on almost all points. Once Virgin Atlantic upgrades its in-flight technology on this route to offer improved entertainment and in-seat power, this will be a cabin of choice for price-conscious corporate travellers.