Virgin Atlantic’s Impressive Refurbishment Of Airberlin’s Old A330s

Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at the various consequences of the worldwide issues with the Trent 1000 Rolls Royce engines fitted to some Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Some 787-operating airlines have been heavily impacted, some have not.

Earlier this week I wrote about how Scoot is leasing a Singapore Airlines 777-200 for certain Sydney flights this month, and how that represented a huge upgrade for some passengers, and a minor downgrade for some others.

Virgin Atlantic has been one of the airlines that has been most affected by this engine issue, meaning several of their 787-9s are currently out of action.

Virgin could have just leased aircraft like Scoot has, or used a charter airline like Hi-Fly, but they came up with a different approach.

Earlier this year it was announced that they had acquired four Airbus A330-200 aircraft from the now defunct airberlin, on an initial four year lease. As well as their 787s, A340s and 747s, Virgin Atlantic operates Airbus A330-300s, so this was a logical choice for emergency aircraft.

Airberlin A330-200

They could have just operated the aircraft as is, but they have gone to impressive lengths to ensure the passenger experience reflects the premium intentions of the airline, spending £10 million in the process.

Exterior

Earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic repainted the exteriors of the airberlin aircraft in the Virgin livery. Here is a time lapse video of the process (if you have a keen eye you will see the airberlin livery at the start):

But the interiors raised some interesting problems for Virgin Atlantic to solve, as they were significantly different to the rest of the fleet.

Upper Class

Virgin Atlantic uses a 1-1-1 herringbone seat in its ‘Upper Class’ business class cabin. While that layout sounds fantastic, I’ve flown it twice, from both Seattle and Hong Kong to London, and did not like the seats at all.

They’re very high density (just like British Airways Club World is), have zero privacy, zero storage (I had to keep my menu on the floor), and why any seat designer thought every single passenger would want to face away from the window is still beyond me.

It was definitely one of the worst fully-flat seats I have experienced.

Virgin Atlantic 747 Upper Class

The Air Berlin business class cabin featured staggered, forward-facing 1-2-1 seats. In my opinion, this design is significantly better than the Upper Class seats. This created a unique problem for Virgin Atlantic — should they install their Upper Class seats in these planes to ensure fleet consistency, or retain the superior product which would be quicker and cheaper to implement, and better for their customers?

Fortunately for everyone, Virgin Atlantic decided to retain the Air Berlin seating.

Although it’s a superior design, it does look quite tired and not the stylish, playful brand Virgin Atlantic is known for.

Airberlin A330-200 Business Class

So Virgin Atlantic is in the process of making some cosmetic improvements, namely new seat covers and changing some surface covers.

Although it’s a promotional shot that is carefully lit and angled – doesn’t it look better!

Virgin Atlantic A330-200 Upper Class
Virgin Atlantic A330-200 Upper Class
Virgin Atlantic A330-200 Upper Class

While there will be no on-board bar on the airberlin A330-200s, I think its a small price to pay for a vastly superior seat.

Premium Economy

Ben wrote some time ago how these planes do not feature a premium economy cabin, and at that time Virgin Atlantic had no plans to install one. They have changed their minds because these four A330s will now feature a premium economy cabin, installing the same seats as their 787 Dreamliners. I’m guessing they’ve decided to keep the aircraft beyond the four year lease so see the benefit of installing premium economy in them.

I’ve had a good look at the premium economy cabin on their 787s, and it looks pretty good as far as premium economy goes.

Virgin Atlantic A330-200 Premium Economy

The 2-4-2 economy cabin is also receiving reupholstered seats. The A330 remains a great choice for both couples and families travelling in economy because of the 2-4-2 layout:

Virgin Atlantic A330-200 Economy

I imagine the exact routes of these planes may change over time, as they are swapped in and out to cover 787s, but as for now will be operating routes from London Gatwick and Manchester, to Boston, San Fransico, and some Caribbean destinations.

Bottom line

Virgin Atlantic is not my favourite airline, but I am impressed by the effort they are going to in order to improve the customer experience on these planes. They are planning an all new Upper Class seat for their 12 new A350s they have on order (that will replace their ancient A340s and B747s) — I hope the new seat is more like their new A330-200 seat and less like their 787 Dreamliner seat!

What do you think of this version of Upper Class?

Comments

  1. I also dislike the herringbone dear arrangement. It feels like you’re laid out on display for everyone to look at. Strangely, I liked it more on ANZ – maybe because that’s not a party airline which believes in “organised fun”.

    Though it’s *great* news that there won’t be a bar.

  2. Typo: Their instead of they on the last sentence. Isn’t it weird I liked a 17 inch 787 Dreamliner seat over an A332’s 18+ inch seat. I guess the extra 1 inch on MF over DL’s A332 31 inch padding makes a huge difference. On the way back after the horrendous experience on the A332 I was on their 3-3-3 777, which was miles and miles superior and year I flew the same exact type of and it still felt pretty good

  3. Sounds great! I really hope VS will come to learn how much better an experience it is with that kind of business class seat!

  4. Its a waste. People are creatures of habit and/or look at the bottomline, money.

    They may whine incessantly but will go with the cheapest option.

  5. I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw these pictures. My first ever J experience was Virgin Upper Class to JFK two years ago, and certainly have no intention to use them again. I absolutely hated that seat, and as you say James, who wants a window seat facing away from the window?

    I also had a really unpleasant bag-drop experience with a snooty check-in agent who said it was obvious to him I’d never flown in a premium cabin before (I regret not escalating). That said, once in the Clubhouse and onboard, the crew were all lovely.

    But that seat…no, no, no. It also puts me off flying Air NZ. That said, I’d consider using VS again if I had one of these planes. Are they currently flying with the old Air Berlin interior? It does seem a little odd they would lease them to cover out of service aircraft, then take these out of service too for the interior refit.

    On a separate note, I (very briefly) met you at the London meetup a few weeks back – was very nice to meet you (if only for a matter of minutes).

  6. Looks like I’m in the severe minority..I absolutely loved Upper Class on VS on the 330 or 340, I forget which one. I have moderately broad shoulders but I didn’t feel restricted in the seat, the bar was great and the “bed” helped me get my best airplane sleep ever. I like this design as well but I think they should maintain consistency on all configurations.

  7. I like VS’s soft product, but I wasn’t a fan of the herringbone coffin-like seats on the A330 I flew ATL-LHR a couple of years ago. I had the opportunity to fly upper class MAN-ATL in April on the ex-Air Berlin A330 and I didn’t love it either. It was OK for a day flight and I snagged a window. Good privacy, but the lack of air vents was annoying and the seat was lumpy. The foot well is also tight and the length isn’t enough (and I’m only 5’11”). Wouldn’t want to try an overnight on this bird.

  8. Great article James.

    That said I do think people should stop being hysterical about the VS Upper Class seats. Are they the best business class seats in the world? Absolutely not. Are they much more spacious (just from a numbers point of view) than BA? Absolutely yes. (+ better than Delta/AA 767s, most of which fly to London, LH (which has 2-2-2 on most planes and 2-3-2 on others), Swiss, which has a super-cramped staggered configuration, United’s 777s, many of which fly to London and are all one-direction 2-4-2.

    Comparatively speaking, especially combined with the ground experience in LHR and the great service, it is actually quite good. At least when compared to BA.

  9. Have a flight LHR-LAX in September in Upper Class and am hoping (against all odds, I know) that there’s some freak equipment swap and I end up on one of these refits. I don’t really mind the herringbone seats too much because I’m not a huge guy, but I absolutely agree with every negative aspect delineated above. And, like @The nice Paul mentioned, not having a bar would be a dream. While I love the concept, I’ve found the execution always leaves a lot to be desired in my 10+ flights with them. It’s never been the cool, chill hangout place it was intended; EK, EY, etc. do it much better. C’est la vie.

  10. I still don’t understand anyone who thinks Virgin’s regular herringbone set up is anything close to a good product. Give me a bulkhead Club World seat any day over that. Air Berlin variant looks way more comfortable.

    typo: San Fransico

  11. It’s a massive improvement over their current product but the half the seats seem rather exposed on the aisle side.

  12. @James: “why any seat designer thought every single passenger would want to face away from the window is still beyond me”.

    I often wondered the same, and actually had the chance to talk a few months back to someone in the design team of a major airline that is thinking of making a move from an otherwise rather innovative product, to that terrible herringbone layout for their business class. I asked her why would they pick herringbone over reverse herringbone, and according to her it’s because it allows them to fit more seats. It sounds strange to me but honestly I have no reason to doubt her.

  13. I’ve been in AB business class lots of times, and while you can get a truly great seat (the ‘real’ window seat) you can also end up with terrible seat (one of the honeymoon seats in center), so buyer beware…..

  14. VS has always had the overall better package vs BA. Until recently, AA was rubbish as well.
    With regards to VS, I don’t like the tight herringbone seats (many airlines do this much better than VS), but if the alternative is BA, with £200 for seat selection and all that rubbish that comes along with flying BA, I continue to fly VS because the overall experience including the clubhouse and in air service is infinitely better (unlike BA where its hit and miss). Also, VS have a code share with 9w (my domestic carrier who fly intl as well). 9W herringbone seats are infinitely better than all of the other direct BOM LHR services at present (I hate stop overs unless on a long leisure trip).

    Also, the price does count. If I get a super cheap deal on BA, of course I would fly them (and will fly AA on the USA leg using the code share) because I pay for my flights. As someone else said in one of the previous posts, bottom line counts for the airline – I say it does for the passenger as well!

    I just hope that VS’s new seats that are planned for their 350 are much nicer (hopefully virgin australia style). BA is due to reveal their new seat in 2019 as well. I think then there will be a much more clearer picture of whether its worth jumping ship to BA at that stage. Having said that, considering the time BA took to roll out bedding, I doubt the new seat will ever see more than 20 % of their fleet in 5 years from introduction. Thats BA for you.

  15. I don’t mind the current upper class seats, and I have always had a a good experience with service and the soft product. The feature I do not like is how the seat has to flip over to make the bed. These new seats look great, EXCEPT the aisle seats. You’re so exposed with zero privacy. I’d like to try this out, but I’d only do so in a true window seat.

  16. James you’re not particularly correct about one thing. You say VS would change a seat cover in business class. In fact they would replace the seats and install brand new ones with new IFE (with larger screens than any of their other aircraft offers). They said they would keep the similar layout and the number of seats in J in order to skip certification process and make it quick. However the seats themselves in J would be brand new (they will also be a little different from AB ones – with extra storage and quite wider when in flat mode due to the position of armrests).

    All in all when done it would be VS very best product, a way way way better than footfetish paradise Upper class.

  17. For fetish. Love it. Had the pleasure of a smelly one a few months ago on my flight to LAX. Other than that, excellent

  18. I remember when Virgin introduced those seats in 2001 or 2002. They were amazing — a lie flat seat in business. I’d move heaven and earth (and suffer a 12 hour layover at LHR on the way to TLV) to fly it. But lets be clear… that was nearly two decades ago. Other airlines caught them and then passed. VIrgin… it’s time for a new seat!

  19. I remember that day when virgin introduced t hose seats in 2002 i think .. they were awesome man !!!
    Ai’d move heaven and earth and suffest a 24 hour layover at LHR on the way to TLV to fly it .. but lets be clear that was nearly two decades ago .. other airlines auto liker caught them and then passed. virgin .. it’s time for a new seat Man 😀

  20. @ aatraveler you are not alone. I like the UC seats too. Always get my best sleep in them and I’m neither small framed nor short.

    Oh and this James:
    “So Virgin Atlantic is in the process of making some cosmetic improvements, namely new seat covers and changing some surface covers.”

    No mate you’ve got that wrong – @Denis is right. New seats of a type already given certification for speed.

    PS – Denis also gets post of the day for the foot fetishist comment.

  21. Wow, I’m surprised at all of the hate on the current VS Upper Class seats. In the 1-1-1 configuration they seem to check most of the boxes. They 1) don’t have the tiny footwell problem, 2) provide direct aisle access for all seats and 3) have a good bed length for taller people. To me they seem obviously miles better than BA on LHR routes. Narrow width is the main gripe I can see. But the consistency across their fleet is also a great feature IMO — they were all-flat years before anyone else and you weren’t in the position of possibly getting rubbish trans-Atlantic products like AF A380 angled business or United 8-across or BA CW.

  22. Hi James! The pictures of the new A330-200 Premium Economy doesn’t look anything like the existing B787 Premium Economy (for instance, on the picture the seats seem to be a dark purple and feature legrests whilst the actual B787 PE seats are black and don’t have leg rests, just foot rests).

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