Following on from my review of the standard Upper Class Suites on Virgin Atlantic’s A330neo, Ed the pilot has now written up his experience in Virgin Atlantic A330-900neo Retreat Suite at the front of the aircraft. Ed flew a few days before me on the A330neo’s inaugural flight for Virgin.
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Whilst the Heathrow to Tampa flight was chosen for the press flight and celebrations, Virgin Atlantic brought their A330-900neo into service a week earlier on the 27th of October to Boston Logan. These A330-900neos were ordered in 2019 to replace the airline’s current generation A330s. Virgin ordered 14 of the aircraft with six further options for delivery in 2021.
The pandemic got in the way and the first plane G-VJAZ was only delivered in October 2022. Earlier in the year, the airline announced that it was to take 16 of the type meaning two of the options were converted to full orders. I do have to appreciate the amount of effort that Virgin goes through in naming their aircraft. The last three letters of the registration are always connected to the name. G-VUFO is Lady Stardust and G-VJAZ is named after one of the most famous jazz singers, Billie Holiday.
In interviews, Virgin’s CEO has hinted that the A330 and A350 may be the sole types in the fleet, meaning that the 787s may be returned, in the near future, as they come off lease. The perk about these A330s is that they can be flown by A350 rated pilots with minimal conversion, which helps Virgin behind the scenes meaning one pool of pilots is needed rather than the current duopoly of Boeing and Airbus pilots.
Onboard the product is a major improvement compared to the older A330s which use herringbone style seats, a nightmare for passengers like me to take photos from! The standard Upper Class seat has already been reviewed from the press flight, but I was lucky enough to snag one of the two “Business Plus” products the Retreat Suite!
Whilst you may assume that booking through Virgin would be the easiest way to purchase this flight, I found it better to use KLM. The booking was less than half the price than if I had booked directly. As part of its joint venture with Air France, KLM and Delta, most transatlantic flights are bookable on all the websites so shopping around doesn’t hurt. You should note however the terms and conditions of each airline can vary, so book carefully.
I had some issues where the issued ticket was different from the one described on the booking engine with a £150 cancellation fee appearing and a business class seat on a Delta A220 coming home booking into the economy cabin! Previously, I have been informed that the cancellation fee is to do with Delta operated flights but it is a poor show to advertise a ticket as fully refundable when it isn’t. KLM were less than helpful in solving the seating issue but I have noted that the seats now book into “Delta One”, it seemed to be limited to the A220.
With regards to the Retreat Suite itself, you have to log into Virgin Atlantic’s site using your booking reference to pick a seat. These suites are available 14 days before departure (one assumes because the aircraft operating the route has been finalised). I logged on both at the beginning of the day and at departure time, but neither were available, it was only when I checked the next day that I saw them available.
My seatmate bought his ten days before departure. The upsell to book these seats is £200 and I would argue it was well worth that. If the seats don’t sell, then they are allocated to high-level Virgin Flying Club members. Some on board, my flight, were disappointed not to have been allocated the suites because they had been bought by me and my seatmate.
This was my first time flying Virgin Atlantic and, therefore also my first times trying out the Upper Class Wing and the Clubhouse.
I was really impressed with the drop-off area though surprisingly, the three Virgin staff who met us seemed rather surly, which was a surprise. We were checked in with no issues though and headed through to the private security lane, which is a godsend during the chaotic travel times we live in. The one quirk, down to the layout of the airport, is that this does just open out into the terminal unlike BA’s First Wing which empties into the lounge.
The Clubhouse was a really rather impressive lounge with a good selection of food and drink (QR codes at the tables mean you can order from anywhere). There are also good views and activities in the lounge including Peleton bikes as well as an open-air viewing terrace. Virgin really have thought of everything to keep you comfortable and entertained, even going so far as installing a padded bench in the lift to the lounge!
The Upper Class cabin consists of 30 new Upper Class seats that have been reviewed already and two of the new Retreat Suite seats. The seats are arranged over eight rows with the Retreat Suites in the centre of Row 1. The new seats are all forward facing and have privacy doors. These seats are very similar to those that you would find on Delta. This makes sense given the ownership stake and close partnership Virgin has with Delta. That said Virgin has put their own colours and touches to the seat that make it very competitive.
At the rear of the cabin is the new seating area The Loft, this replaces the onboard bar and is at door 2 where the boarding is done. Here there are four seats, higher than previous iterations to allow better eye contact with those standing, and two 27-inch televisions that can be watched using Bluetooth-connected headphones.
Disappointingly, until I read the review of the press flight, I didn’t realise that there is also a freezer here with a selection of ice creams available during the flight! At least I know for next time.
Having shooed away the other avgeeks crowded round my seat taking pictures I was able to settle in. A member of the cabin crew came round and offered welcome drinks, with a selection of water, champagne, orange juice and the signature Ruby Slipper cocktail. I tried the cocktail which was very nice, it’s a combination of champagne and rhubarb and raspberry-flavoured tonic water. The Captain welcomed us onboard with an announcement about the details of the flight, mentioning the fact it was the inaugural flight and introducing herself and her co-pilot who would be operating the flight to Boston.
Impressively, before departure, the passenger in the window seat, managed to lose his phone in the seat and lower the top half of his seat’s door. I thought this was a very ingenious way to get the meal service passed through without opening the door. In actual fact, it was activating the emergency escape mechanism. At least with Virgin’s door the whole thing doesn’t come off the rails like BA’s does and so is easily reset, the phone was reclaimed by the crew after take off.
After climbing away from the northern runway at Heathrow, sadly having to peer across the aisle longingly at my neighbour’s window, the crew passed around again taking a drinks order, this time I had the refreshing cranberry spritz which came with a small bowl of crisps.
For a business class seat, the Retreat Suite really is quite incredible. When reclined, the bed is six foot seven inches long which for someone my height is brilliant. It means that when I was laid back I couldn’t touch both the top and bottom of the bed, that’s relatively rare on an aeroplane for me. Even better is because there are no seats in front and the footrest doubles as a chair for buddy dining; there is no tiny cubby where your feet get squashed.
The only minor, and it is minor, complaint I had is that when fully reclined, the width was a little tight for someone my size with their elbows either side of them. This is a common feature of the A330 though given the relatively narrow fuselage. Virgin also provide bedding for the seat though I did not utilise it as I was happily watching my films and trying to enjoy the full experience rather than sleep. I found the seat very comfortable even without the mattress pad that’s provided.
Unlike the standard Upper Class seats, there is plenty of storage with deep bins by the side of the seat, I was able to put my rucksack and coat in one for easy access during the flight. There was still extra space if I needed to store other items. There are also the same storage compartments in the armrest (for the IFE remote) and over your shoulder as in the normal seats with a mirror in each. Behind you is also a wireless charging point which is recessed with a small lip to reduce the likelihood of your device slipping down into your seat or being bashed and a normal plug socket.
There was an amenity kit tucked into the side of the suite and a resealable can of water. The suites, like the rest of the seats in the cabin have doors, these are double doors given the size of the suite and open from both the front and back and meet in the middle. The two suites are not identical and so the big storage compartments are slightly different on each one, mine was by the doors to the suite and my seatmate’s in the middle. He also could not locate his amenity kit as it wasn’t in the same place as mine and seemed to have gone AWOL.
There is always a dire lack of individual air vents on European long-haul services, but amazingly, the Retreat Suite has four per suite, two for your head and two for your feet (or more accurately, your buddy diner). This meant that there were eight vents in the overhead area, more than I have ever seen grouped together on a long-haul plane. In this unit there were also reading lights, one issue I noticed was that if your neighbour either behind or beside you had their overhead light on and you were reclined, it was quite noticeable and distracting, potentially making it harder to sleep without an eyemask as they were really quite bright.
The two Retreat Suites are designed to be combinable a la Q Suites on Qatar. When travelling with a partner with the dividing wall down, the seats feel incredibly spacious. When it is up, however, they definitely feel noticeably smaller though still a lot bigger than standard Upper Class seats. The dividing wall was curious as it was raised electronically by the crew but only actually comes up from your waist to your feet, you then must manually pull out the middle section to fully deploy it.
I think really, these suites have been designed for a family to eat together. Parents sitting together with children joining for buddy dining. My seatmate and I kept the divider down for most of the flight as it was more spacious and we were chatting about various planes and first flights we had been on.
These seats really did feel more akin to a First Class product rather than a Business one!
One of the interesting things about the Retreat Suite is that the passenger is not meant to operate the tray table. When my seatmate attempted to open his table, the crew rushed over to do it for him. I am still not 100% sure why that was the case, though I think it might have something to do with the release mechanism. He had been able to pull it out halfway, but then it got stuck whereas the crew seemed to push down on it first. Both tables can slide together over the seat divide to form a larger table if you are eating as a group.
The tray table is more traditionally shaped than the ones in the other seats, with no crescent cut-out, given it is intended to be used for buddy dining. One thing I didn’t like about the service itself though was that Virgin only provides a small mat rather than a table cloth to cover the table. If you are buddy dining, it was mentioned that no mat is provided at all. I found this mat too small to comfortably have your food and keep your cutlery off the table.
Whilst this was the inaugural flight, and the table was therefore clean and unused, I’m not sure I would be particularly comfortable keeping cutlery on the table on subsequent flights given how notoriously unclean tray tables tend to become.
When the table was set up, I was given the famous Wilbur and Orville salt and pepper pots shaped liked planes. These are aptly labelled with “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic” on their feet. Interestingly, the sets provided to the Retreat Suite are different from those provided to the standard Upper Class seats. They are maroon rather than silver. (look out for some in the upcoming giveaway!)
As mentioned before, I am new to Virgin Atlantic so did not know that, unlike KLM and their clog salt and pepper pots, they are not sealed in any way. This meant that when I turned one of them over to see the label on the foot, I emptied quite a bit of the contents over myself, so if you ever fly in my seat and find salt everywhere you can blame me, whoops.
Moving past the table and the salt, Virgin’s culinary offerings were good with a choice of two for both starter and dessert and three for the main course. For a starter, I chose to have the chicken parfait. This was a nice change from the standard offerings for a starter and was served with toasted bread and chutney. The serving size was also good as well. A choice of bread rolls was provided as well along with butter.
The main course I picked was the chicken and wild mushroom pie with mashed potato, peas and carrots. This was one of the more unusual main courses I have had on a plane. Overall, it was good and maintained its structural integrity when it was served.
For pudding, I was asked if I wanted the chocolate gateau, but I decided that I would prefer the warm brioche bread and butter pudding. I did think it was quite a small portion for dessert, but it was tasty nonetheless. Afterwards, I asked to have the cheese plate as well as I was still hungry and a plate of three cheeses, grapes, biscuits and chutney was brought to me soon after, all delicious.
Unlike on the press flight (Michele managed to write her 3000-word article on the flight over WiFi), I was not at all impressed with the wifi, but I think it should be put down to teething issues. It only worked for the first and last hours and nothing in between. Helpfully Virgin did make the Full Flight pass available for free, though interestingly, the hour long passes still had a price on it so careful not to buy it when you can get it for free, at least for the inaugural season.
When it was working, however, I was quite impressed. It was smooth and rather quick to load the webpages I was looking for.
Where the Retreat Suite excels is in the IFE department. The TV is giant at 27 inches. For comparison, Spirit Airlines in the US gives you one more inch of seat pitch in their standard economy than the size of this TV! This is about 10 inches bigger than the screen in the standard Upper Class seat. The screen is a touch screen, though I would be impressed if anyone could touch it whilst still wearing their seatbelt given how far it is from your seat.
The controller is clever in that you control it using a carbon tracking pad with your finger to move the cursor on the screen. I also really like how the remote displays the remaining flight time on the route. You can also pair your phone or other device to the system to use as a control. I found the built-in controller was more than suitable though.
The entertainment selection was varied as well. I was able to finally watch AmbuLAnce, a movie I have been wanting to see for months and Downton Abbey, a New Era. As well as newer movies, there were older films, including the very relevant to the destination The Town, about Boston bank robbers, available as well so you should be able to find something interesting to watch.
The airline’s complimentary headsets are stored in one of the storage compartments over your shoulder, which some of the other passengers struggle to find, and are wrapped by a paper envelope where Virgin hopes you will leave spare change. Much like the remote, it was possible to pair your own headphones to the entertainment system which is probably recommended if you have a particularly good pair.
Surprisingly, at least to me, Virgin Atlantic doesn’t actually have a second formal meal service. Instead, they have a light bites menu that can be ordered at any point. Given I had stayed awake the entire flight to try and enjoy the Suite as much as possible, I was pleased that a member of the cabin crew came over and asked me if he could get me anything to eat. I opted for the chicken Caesar salad sandwich which came with a side of crisps.
When it came, it looked like Virgin had only given me a quarter of a sandwich, but it turned out it was two that were stuck together. I also asked if I could try the cream tea option which came with two scones, one plain and one caramel, clotted cream, strawberry jam and salted caramel spread. It was absolutely delicious! I really liked the second meal service, although the sandwich by itself may not have been enough to keep me from being hungry.
I emptied the rest of the salt from Wilbur into the empty jam jar so that I wouldn’t get it all over my bags when I took Virgin’s advice and pinched them. The pepper, however, didn’t empty out as easily so Orville still contains its contents. (if you ask the crew they will empty them or bring something to wrap them in).
During the descent, the purser came over to the Retreat Suites and handed me and my seatmate a pack of Virgin Atlantic playing cards each. The jack, queen and king are some of the nose art figures that adorn the Virgin jets. I thought this was a really nice touch. The crew also came round with sweets before landing, a throwback to the bygone era when pressurisation systems were not as good, and you got sweets to suck on to equalise your ears.
The crew seemed to be in no rush to take their seats, and in fact, those of us in row one advised them just how low we were from looking out the windows. It’s the first flight I have ever been on where at least one of the crew was not safely sat in their seats for landing. Famous last words of “If I’m at least in my seat when the wheels touch down, it will be fine” followed almost instantly by the wheels touching down. At least it was a very smooth and gentle landing, with no injuries occurring, kudos to the pilots for that.
I (and a couple of other passengers) had hoped to get some pictures of the flight deck once disembarkation started, but the Captain’s family came to say hello to her and obviously got first dibs, they stayed in there until we were shooed off the plane by the purser, so, sadly no photos.
There were no queues at passport control which was good, but the border guard we had wasn’t the friendliest. As is sometimes the case at the US border, they can be a bit surly and a little devoid of humour, this one tried to be funny several times but sorely missed the mark. Baggage reclaim was quick and the bag was already on the belt when I got there allowing for a quick pickup and for us to head to the taxi rank without delay.
I have to say, I really enjoyed my flight with Virgin. I hadn’t been sure what to expect when I booked my flight. I did feel that despite their marketing hype, the airline isn’t all that different from any of the others. Enjoyable, but no more memorable than others I have flown with. Maybe this is because the celebrations and onboard party were reserved for the Tampa press flight.
What I will say is the new Upper Class cabin is a real step up from previous iterations, particularly the herringbone design on the A330 and whilst I haven’t flown Virgin’s version, I have flown a similar product on Air Canada. The cabin is inherently more comfortable and private.
The Retreat Suite is a brilliant product, particularly considering the marginal upsell, but it remains unclear to me whether it will be a success long term given the fact there are only two of them on each plane and the booking process is a bit chaotic. If you are on a plane equipped with one though, I would highly recommend them for the extra space, storage and buddy dining opportunities you get.