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Virgin Atlantic A340-600 economy class

Originally published on businesstraveller.com 27/08/2010   RSS

CHECK-IN I checked in online for the 1115 flight (VS005) from London Heathrow to Miami with Virgin Atlantic but there was no option to change where I was sitting as the seat map was not working. Fortunately, I had been assigned a window seat, which I prefer anyway, so it was not really a problem.

I arrived at check-in Zone A in Terminal 3 at 0845 – there were eight economy bag-drop desks (19-26), four premium economy and four business class desks. There were long queues so it took more than 30 minutes to be processed. I was given a customs form and an immigration form – for those not travelling on a visa, a green visa waiver form is also provided. As I had journalist visa, I asked for the appropriate white form to fill in instead. (For details on changes to the ESTA visa-waiver scheme, registration to which is obligatory for UK citizens travelling to the US, click here.) The one-bag rule applies to economy class passengers flying to the US so I could only check in one piece of luggage up to 25kg and take on board one item of hand baggage. 

BOARDING At 0920 I headed up the nearby escalators to security, where liquids had to be presented in a clear plastic bag as usual, jackets taken off and laptops out. There was a bit of a wait here but by 0930 I was airside in departures. My gate (16) opened at 1000, and once I had completed the shopping I needed to do, I made by way there, which took about eight minutes. I arrived at 1010 and joined a line of people waiting to show staff their boarding passes before being allowed to enter the waiting lounge where there was a decent amount of seating. 

This process took about ten minutes, and then there was another 25-minute wait until boarding started. There was a separate lane for Upper Class (business) and premium economy passengers, as well as gold Flying Club members, who were called first. After these people had boarded, economy class travellers were called according to rows from the back of the plane to the front. I was in the last group to board, via an airbridge to the plane, as I was in row 43. (Economy class is from rows 31 to 65 on this aircraft.)

My fellow passengers and I were welcomed by crew and told to turn right – directly to the left was the Upper Class bar. I then walked through premium economy (rows 18-23), which appeared to have good-size seats with extra legroom (seven inches/18cm extra plus two inches/5cm extra recline), into economy. Virgin’s medley of upbeat pop music was playing overhead. 

THE SEAT I was in my seat (43K) – by a window just behind the wing – by 1100. Economy class is spread across two sections on this A340-600 (rows 31-46 and 51-65) and seating is configured 2-4-2 (A-C, D-E-F-G, H-K), which is great if you are in either of the pairs but not so good if you are in one of the middle E-F seats as they feel quite claustrophobic. (For a review of the return night flight in 38E, click here.)

Seats A-C and H-K are upholstered in grey fabric and have red seatbelts, while middle seats D-E-F-G have red fabric and red seatbelts. There are individual nine-inch seat-back in-flight entertainment (IFE) screens and remotes in the armrest or in the back of the seat underneath the screen (as with seats D-E-F-G), and the cabin was clean and smart with chrome handles on the overhead bins and air conditioning vents. 

Virgin’s economy seats on this aircraft have a pitch of up to 31 inches/79cm, a width of 19 inches/48cm (1.5 inches/4cm more than on its B747s and A340-300s), a recline of six inches/15cm (one inch/2.5cm more than on its other planes) and audio-video on-demand entertainment systems. I found that a real plus was that standard headphone jacks can be plugged in so I was able to use my own noise-cancelling headphones, which were far better than the ones provided by the airline.

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Middle seats D-E-F-G in row 43 are behind a bulkhead so have tray tables and IFE screens that come out of the arm instead of the seat in front, as do those in exit rows 31 and 51. Passengers wanting extra legroom will have to pay for it upon checking in at the airport – those seats with an increased pitch of three inches cost from £30, and in exit rows from £50. 

Avoid sitting in E-F seats as they offer no direct aisle access and can make you feel claustrophobic. Those sitting in rows 44-46 and 64-65 may suffer some disturbance from people queuing for the adjacent washrooms. If you want a decent view out of the window, avoid seats A/K in rows 31-38 as they are over the wing.

THE FLIGHT The purser gave a professional welcome, with each attendant introduced by name, and passengers thanked for flying with Virgin on behalf of Richard Branson. After this, the animated in-flight safety film was played – the most entertaining and informative I have seen, with a voice-over by Vic Reeves and music by Mr Scruff. (Click here to watch.)

The estimated flight time was given as eight hours, 54 minutes with an ETA of 1530 local time (Miami is five hours behind the UK). Instructions were also given on how to complete the immigration forms, which I did promptly.

Red fleece blankets and pillows were provided, as well as amenity kits containing a toothbrush and paste, socks, eye mask, pen and charity envelope for Change for Children, which I thought was an excellent touch. Take off was at 1130, 15 minutes behind schedule. Once cruising, headphones were handed out at 1155, followed by a beverage service at 1215, with a choice of soft drinks, spirits, beer and wine, free of charge. 

Shortly after, my vegetarian meal arrived. (All passengers get a choice of two meat-based meals and one vegetarian, as standard.) It was a really tasty dish of savoury rice and peas, alongside two types of curry – paneer cheese and mixed vegetable, plus a green salad, a fruit salad and a wholemeal roll with margarine. It was better than some business class lunches I have had on other airlines. Cutlery was pink plastic and there was a cup of water provided on the tray – I was glad I had bought my own bottle of Evian, though, as this wouldn’t have been enough. tea and coffee was ordered at the end of the meal.

There was a good selection of movies on the AVOD (audio-video on-demand) entertainment system, which I took advantage of. I also did some reading. At 1515 ice cream was offered, followed by soft drinks (juice/water) at 1700. At 1900, afternoon tea was served. This consisted of either a coronation chicken or a cheese and pickle sandwich, a soft coconut and fruit cookie, coffee or tea and juice or water. 

ARRIVAL The plane started its descent into Miami at 1945 (1445 local time), but from the window I could see we were flying into bad weather. There was a very bumpy descent and we were about to land at 2010 when the pilot suddenly pulled up and we made a steep, fast ascent. I could sense an atmosphere of anxiety in the cabin as people were asking each other what was happening, but within a few minutes the captain came on to explain that due to strong wind and rain it was not safe to land, that this was a common occurrence at this time of year (June) in Miami, and that we would fly around the storm and try landing again. 

After circling the area we did indeed land safely, at 2030, but we were then stranded on the tarmac at the gate for over an hour because the rain was coming down so heavily the ground staff had to temporarily stop working. The pilot provided frequent updates and I read my book to pass the time. Passengers were finally thanked on behalf of Richard Branson and disembarked via an airbridge at 1635 local time. I was off the plane by 1645. 

There was a five-minute walk to immigration, which was not crowded, and there was plenty of staff on-hand to help direct passengers to the correct channels or give them new forms to fill in if they had done it wrong on the plane. I was asked a few questions about what the purpose of my visit was, and my visa checked. Luggage from the flight was coming through when I arrived at reclaim at 1700 and I only had to wait five minutes for my case to appear. Downtown Miami is about 15 minutes drive from the airport, depending on traffic. 

VERDICT A great economy class product with a good selection of films on personal AVOD entertainment systems, tasty cuisine, free alcohol and amenity kits. The crew were particularly friendly and professional, and if it wasn’t for the bad weather on arrival, it would have been a surprisingly pleasant long-haul flight. Fortunately the captain kept us informed and the situation was dealt with as best as possible. 

PRICE Internet rates for a return economy class flight from London to Miami in October started from £506. 

CONTACT virgin-atlantic.com

Jenny Southan

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