In a nutshell: Virgin Atlantic 787-9 economy was a pleasant experience for the nonstop haul from the West Coast to London. I had high hopes going into our flight, and they were mostly met. Great service complimented reasonably comfortable seats and an excellent in-flight entertainment system.
This January I took my older two kids on a 6-night trip to London. It had been years since I’d visited England. I’ve wanted to go back, but new destinations have always been higher on the list. I’ve argued that a city that welcomes 4 million more people than even Paris might be a bit overrated. But I can’t help but remember how fun it was to tour the British capital over 12 years ago.
London wasn’t really on the radar for the short term. But then a deal came along that I simply couldn’t pass up.
With cash fares of $375 for adults and $275 for kids for a round-trip on full-service airlines, it was impossible to say no. The discrepancy between the adult and child fares is due to the fact that the UK’s infamous Air Passenger Duty isn’t levied on child tickets. Some carriers drop it at time of booking. Others require you to ask for a refund. Even others seem to have no idea they should be pricing tickets differently and make no mention of this on their website.
I booked our tickets through KLM with a Virgin Atlantic outbound and a return on KLM via Amsterdam. Even though the Virgin Atlantic 787-9 economy flight is a codeshare, it is eligible to earn Delta miles. This outbound segment would earn me 5,368 Medallion Qualifying Miles and 5,368 redeemable miles (before the Medallion bonus). The redeemable miles were far higher than I expected. Judging by the fact that this segment alone earned $1,074 Medallion Qualifying Dollars (20% of flown), it credited as R-, L-, or U-class with Virgin Atlantic. KLM showed everything as V-class.
I’d expected the ticket to also be booked into Virgin’s “Economy Light” cabin experience. The restrictions were no issue. Virgin Atlantic guarantees that families with kids under 12 can sit together, and we could easily travel with only hand luggage. However, upon logging in, I found that I could select seats free of charge. I experienced the same with KLM. So not only were we getting an incredible price, we had also somehow avoided the basic economy experience!
San Francisco Airport Experience
With our flight not departing until 9:25 PM, it was easy to work a half day and then make the 5-hour drive down to SFO. I’d picked up a rental car in San Francisco a few days prior when returning from another trip. This was far cheaper than booking two one-ways.
As I still had Delta Platinum status through the end of January, we were able to use the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class check-in counters. The economy line wasn’t long, though, so this only saved us a bit of time. I asked about lounge access. Delta’s partnership with Virgin Atlantic includes Clubhouse lounge access within the U.S. for Gold, Platinum, and Diamond elites. However, you may only bring one guest. I did ask if they’d make an exception, as I was traveling with two of my kids. The answer was that we could spend $30 (for one extra person) to access the Clubhouse. As we’d eaten just an hour earlier, I declined. Had we needed to buy dinner, I probably would have opted for the lounge access, as we would have spent nearly that anyway on dinner for three.
Instead, we simply headed to our gate in International Terminal A and waited for our flight.
Our Virgin Atlantic 787-9 was at the gate, but given the location, I couldn’t get a good shot. Instead, I settled for a photo of this Qantas 787-9 being parked. Same thing, right?
Boarding Our Flight
The kids amused themselves watching a couple episodes of a show while I worked on my computer. I was actually glad we didn’t end up with as much time as I had expected; there was only an hour or so to kill. As we got closer to boarding, the gate agent announced that there were 205 customers on our flight. With a capacity of 258 on Virgin Atlantic’s 787-9s, this meant our flight would be fairly full, but not packed.
Boarding started on time, and we entered at the end of the Upper Class queue, another perk of still being Delta Platinum Medallion. I’m going to miss boarding long-haul flights early. It’s nice to not have to worry about people right behind you while getting settled. It’s also nice to be able to take some decent photos of the cabin.
Except that Virgin Atlantic’s iconic mood lighting made it horribly difficult for my older iPhone to take any decent photos. It’s great in person. Not so much through a camera lens. I snapped a photo of the Premium Economy cabin as we walked past.
The seats are wider in a 2-3-2 configuration across the aircraft and have better pillows and an amenity kit. Virgin Atlantic sometimes has decent premium economy prices, but it surely doesn’t seem worth the premium over the fire sale price we paid.
The Virgin Atlantic 787-9 economy cabin is a typical 3-3-3 layout. As we boarded with the Upper Class folks, we had it to ourselves for a couple minutes.
The mood music included some Van Morrison tracks. This dredged up one of those weird facts that sticks in my head for no apparent reason: Virgin Atlantic has operated a nonstop Belfast – Orlando service the past summer and it will continue once weekly this summer with service on Sundays. There must be enough demand for the Disney market. It’s operated by one of their remaining 747-400 aircraft, which are slated to disappear by 2021.
We got settled into our seats of three seats as the cabin started to fill. The remainder of the boarding process was uneventful, guided by the cheerful flight attendants in the economy cabin. The aircraft did get very warm while sitting at the gate but cooled down once the engines were started. Our flight took off just a bit after scheduled.
Virgin Atlantic 787-9 Economy Seat
I’d selected seats near the back of the bus in row 58 for the three of us. We were in 58A, 58B, and 58C. The kids were excited to have a window (they split the long-hauls with who got it each time), even though it was a mostly night flight.
Each seat had a pillow, blanket, and headphones waiting for us. So much of the cabin and amenities in is Virgin’s signature red.
The seats are a bit firm, but they were more than comfortable at the outset. We’d see how the flight progresses. Everything was in great condition and there wasn’t any noticeable wear and tear.
Virgin Atlantic 787-9 economy seats offer 31 inches of pitch, which is very typical for long-haul economy.
Some of the window seats have less legroom due to the IFE units, but the impact is fairly minimal. For my 9-year-old son, there wasn’t any impact at all. I figured it was most courteous to stick his very full backpack under the seat to ensure the overhead bins had sufficient room.
The tray table is the fold-out style that lets you use either half or all of it, depending on the configuration. I prefer these over the “standard” type, as it lets you slide out even if you haven’t finished your beverage. There is also a slot that will let you keep your phone or small tablet tilted at a decent viewing angle, if needed.
The seats seem to have a reasonable amount of recline, better than other economy products at first blush. One issue is that the IFE screen does not adjust, so the screen angle is off if someone recline in front of you. People in front of us reclined before dinner, which was annoying. But the cabin crew announced for folks to sit upright during the meal service, which they did.
That being said, it was a bit hard for me to get fully comfortable with the seat reclined. I do admittedly have a lot of trouble sleeping in economy. The cradle head rest helped, but I still prefer the type that you can adjust manually.
Overall, I was happy with Virgin Atlantic’s 787-9 economy hard product. Virgin generally has a very good reputation for their product and service and holds its own among the better international airlines. They may have a very standard pitch, but the seats are comfortable and offer all the amenities you’d expect.
Traveling with kids, good in-flight entertainment is a major consideration. I’ve gotten into the habit of loading movies and shows onto a tablet, but this is a stop-gap for when there isn’t real IFE. Traveling long-haul, there should always be in-seat entertainment.
The Virgin Atlantic IFE didn’t boot right away and just stayed on the main screen. In their haste, the kids touched the handful of buttons available, pushing the flight attendant call button in the process (oops). The only consolation was at least half a dozen other people did the same thing. I’m sure Virgin Atlantic flight attendants are used to this during boarding.
Once Virgin’s “Vera” entertainment system was up and running, it was excellent. There were plenty of movie options. The IFE is very responsive to light touch and the screen high quality. I settled in to watch Speed, an old action favorite.
My daughter was at first perplexed by the apparent limited selection of kid films, but we eventually realized there are a number of appropriate titles for kids not filed among the dozen or so choices. So do some searching, if needed.
The kids accidentally popped off the covers to the two sets of headphones within minutes of using them. I don’t expect much from cheap headphones, but ear buds might have been preferable to these really chintzy over-ear pairs.
Virgin Atlantic offers WiFi for purchase. Given how little data 20 MB and 150 MB are, these prices aren’t especially good. I decided not to buy any access during the flight.
The flight attendants explained the meal service proceedings shortly after takeoff. Service starts with drinks, followed by the hot meal, followed by tea. I perused the menu and made sure the kids and I had all settled on what we wanted.
Main course choices included pulled pork, chicken curry, or garlic tomato gnocchi. The kids both wanted the pulled pork while I figured I better go with something quintessentially British and have the curry.
The meal service started with drinks around 10:15 PM, which is less than an hour after scheduled takeoff. I was a bit bummed that there was no sparkling wine choice (such a first world problem). Well, there is an option, but it isn’t free. You could buy a bottle and enjoy a toast mid-flight, if you wish. But I settled for the Cabernet Sauvingnon. The white wine choice was a Sauvignon Blanc.
The meal was served with a second bottle of wine, which was fine by me. It helped me settle in to nap for a couple hours after the service and movie, which was the only sleep I got.
The chicken curry was decent. Economy food is never incredible, and I’m highly forgiving of what is served at 39,000 feet. I will say that I vastly preferred the chicken to the pulled pork. For the record, the kids barely touched their food. Accompaniments included bread, a biscuit, and cheese.
Definitely not a memorable in-flight meal, but certainly not a bad one. I’ve had both better and worse in long-haul economy. I opted for tea after the service since, hey, we’re headed to England. This isn’t necessarily the wisest of choices on an airplane, however.
Pushing Through The Empty Middle
The middle of any flight is always the worst part. I napped for a bit, which was followed by the unavoidable neck ache. Even with a neck pillow and cradle headrest, I generally get comfortable. If I do manage to nap (which I did), I’m pretty much done once I wake up.
The flight attendants offered juice and water multiple times throughout the flight. Things don’t get quite as dry on the Boeing 787 as with older aircraft, but I always make a point of staying hydrated. The nice thing about traveling with kids is that I always book myself an aisle, which means I can get up to use the lav or stretch my legs anytime.
The toilets in the Virgin Atlantic 787-9 economy cabin are in the middle rather than at the rear. This was actually nice, as we were in the middle of the rear section, and there wasn’t a ton of foot traffic past us through the flight. With four lavs, the wait was minimal.
Entertained by movies through the remainder of the flight, I entered zombie mode around 3:00 AM California time. Overnight flights to Europe are hard, and it can be hard to stay awake on the plane. But I find that exhausting yourself is the best way to get a decent first night’s sleep. After this flight, I’m also keen on the late evening departure and mid-afternoon arrival.
Final Service and Arrival
Breakfast was served starting around 6:00 AM California time, which was roughly 90 minutes before arrival. The light breakfast consisted of a ham and cheese croissant, greek yogurt, and cookie bar. Not a bad spread before arrival.
Virgin Atlantic’s flight attendants provided friendly and professional service throughout the flight. In general I prefer the service offered by foreign airlines, as their flight attendants generally seem warmer and more engaged. There are exceptions, of course, but I can’t help but think back to my two American Airlines business class flights where the service was downright huffy at times. I guess I should also mention that my best service experience ever was in United’s old Global First. The attendant was downright wonderful.
Still, I was more keen on Virgin Atlantic’s service than even Delta. Maybe I’m more forgiving of non-American staff? Or maybe I’m just charmed by the British accent? Either is possible.
We touched down at a foggy, rainy London Heathrow airport. I would have expected no less in January. Luckily, that evening was the worst of the rain we’d experience during our trip.
My best av-geek moment came when I spotted a Pakistan International Airlines plane “in the wild.” This is not an airline I expected to encounter anytime soon, so seeing their aircraft at Heathrow was pretty cool.
My older two were quite exhausted by the time we landed, having barely slept. Both said they wouldn’t sleep a wink. At different times, though, the IFE was turned off and both settled in for a nap. Given that they’re generally glued to the screens, I was impressed. But…still smiles. Barely. We’d head to our hotel via the underground, eat dinner, and collapse into bed.
The Verdict: Virgin Atlantic 787-9 Economy With Kids
On the whole, we enjoyed our Virgin Atlantic 787-9 economy experience. The seats are comfortable, the food decent, and the IFE more than extensive enough for the 10-hour trek. The service was warm, and I certainly notice the additional cabin comfort of flying aboard a 787 versus a 777 or 747. It was nice to fly nonstop from the West Coast and not have to connect at the tail end of our long-haul, something I’m loathe to do.
I don’t expect we’ll be flying Virgin Atlantic again anytime soon, but I would be more than willing to book them again, especially for the price we paid for our trip to London!