Virgin Atlantic’s Puzzling (But Still Great) New Business Class Seat

Filed Under: Virgin Atlantic

On this trip we had the chance to fly Virgin Atlantic’s brand new A350-1000 Upper Class. The airline unveiled this seat earlier in the year, and it only began flying between London and New York as of a few weeks ago.

Before I formally review the flight, I first wanted to talk a bit about the new Upper Class business class seat, because I’m rather confused.

I Love Virgin Atlantic, And I Love Their New Business Class Experience

Spoiler alert — I love Virgin Atlantic’s new business class experience, but I don’t get the decisions they made with their seat. So this post is merely intended to share some thoughts on their new seat, rather than suggest that this isn’t a good product (which in absolute terms I think it is, even if it’s not groundbreaking).

I love the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class experience — I really like the Clubhouse lounge they have, I find Virgin Atlantic employees to consistently be fun and customer focused, and the new business class seats is a massive improvement over the old one.

Virgin Atlantic’s A350 Upper Class cabin

I’d go out of my way to fly Virgin Atlantic again in their new A350 business class. But that won’t stop me from sharing some constructive criticism about the seat.

What I Don’t Understand About Virgin Atlantic’s New Business Class

Typically when airlines introduce new business class products, they do so in one of three ways:

  • They introduce a new seat altogether
  • They purchase one of the existing “generic” seats
  • They take an existing seat and improve on it

Just to give some examples, we continue to see lots of airlines choose B/E Aerospace Super Diamond reverse herringbone seats. These are pretty generic seats, but they’re excellent (among my favorite business class seats), so I’m all for it.

Air Canada B/E Aerospace Super Diamond reverse herringbone seats

Then you have some airlines that have improved on seats. For example, British Airways took B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seats for their new business class, and they put a door on it.

British Airways’ new product is a customized reverse herringbone seat with a door

That brings us to Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Class business class seat. They’ve essentially taken elements of various seats, but they haven’t actually improved on them… and that’s sort of confusing?

So, what design choices don’t I get about the new seat?

The Center Herringbone Seats

With Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Class layout, the seats along the windows are reverse herringbone, which is to say that they face towards the windows. Great!

Virgin Atlantic’s A350 Upper Class seat

This is where things get weird. Rather than having the center seats also be reverse herringbone (facing towards the center of the aircraft), they instead made them herringbone seats. This means that:

  • Passengers in the center section face the aisle, rather than the center of the aircraft
  • If you’re traveling with someone and seated in the middle, you’re faced away from one another, which doesn’t seem ideal (when seats face one another there’s otherwise typically a privacy divider)

Virgin Atlantic’s A350 Upper Class seat

I’d be curious to know what motivated them to go with a hybrid herringbone and reverse herringbone configuration. I don’t see the benefit of this “innovation.”

The Poorly Designed Tray Tables

Apparently this is an issue that Virgin Atlantic is already addressing with future aircraft, because this has been a huge complaint. The tray table for the new seat folds out from the front side of the seat (it’s that thing with the silver lining in the left of the below picture).

Virgin Atlantic’s A350 Upper Class seat

You can extend the table out there so that you essentially have a side table, which sounds nice, in theory.

Virgin Atlantic’s new business class tray table

The problem is that the tray table can’t be moved very far back. For example, below is a picture of the most space you can have between the seat and the tray table. There have been so many reports of many people not being able to fit in the seat with the tray table extended.

Virgin Atlantic’s new business class tray table

Like, I didn’t have issues with fitting into the seat with the tray down, but I consistently found myself wishing I could push the tray table further away from me, because it felt unnaturally close. I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone larger or with a different shape.

The Lack Of Storage

Virgin Atlantic’s new business class seat lacks storage. When you look at the two popular “off the shelf” reverse herringbone products out there, both have storage. In Virgin Atlantic A350 Upper Class:

  • The storage area next to the seat is small, and is exposed, and really isn’t big enough to store anything
  • Often in this configuration there will be an armrest on the aisle-side that can be popped open for storage, but here there’s no storage

Virgin Atlantic’s new business class storage

The Seat Button Location

While minor in the grand scheme of things, I don’t understand the location of the seat controls. They’re to the side of the seat on a panel, and they’re where you’d usually place your arm or hand. So several times during the flight I accidentally hit the buttons without meaning to.

Virgin Atlantic’s new business class seat controls

The Lack Of Curtains

While not a design flaw with the seats as such, I do find Virgin Atlantic’s onboard lounge decision to be surprising. The airline has introduced a lounge rather than the bar they have on all of their other aircraft, which I don’t actually mind.

But they’ve decided not to add a curtain between the cabin and the lounge. The way it was explained to me, this is to create a more social atmosphere. However, being seated in the last row meant that I could hear the loud conversation of the people in the lounge even with headphones on.

Virgin Atlantic’s new business class lounge

Bottom Line

I’ll have a full review of Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Class shortly. The above isn’t at all meant to suggest that I didn’t enjoy the flight. Quite to the contrary, I thought Virgin Atlantic’s new business class was excellent, and I also thought the seat was extremely comfortable.

However, I sometimes wonder about the thought that goes into airline decisions. Did Virgin Atlantic choose this cabin layout because they actually thought it was an improvement over your typical reverse herringbone configuration, was it much cheaper for them to come up with this concept, or what?

It just seems like they made some pretty obvious mistakes, subtle as they might be. Usually customization is supposed to lead to improvements, but I don’t think that’s the case here.

What do you make of Virgin Atlantic’s new business class seat?

  1. I flew version upper class last week and found the actual seat to be one of the most comfortable seats I’ve been on in a very long time, particularly for sleeping.

  2. I agree that’s a very odd layout in the center. I suppose the advantage is that for couples traveling together, they’re closer together. But since they face away from each other, it pretty much defeats the point. And having the seat angled toward the aisle really reduces the sense of privacy – that’s the main differentiator between a class-leading J seat and a merely good one. And it’s not even like they’re gaining any density from this configuration – unless I’m missing something the number of seats that fits into the space is exactly the same as if they’d gone with a more conventional layout.

  3. Issue I had is the somewhat random behavior of the seat buttons. Most very easy to find the position you want. Took me way more than a few seconds to get the position I wanted. Lack of storage was v frustrating. Also found the door that is a half door as pointless. Bags/toiletries, food, duvet, service etc were all excellent

  4. A common criticism of the conventional reverse herringbone seat is that in the centre passengers are seated very far away from each other, so this is a problem I think they tried to solve here and although the seats do face away from each other it’s still easier to communicate with the person next to you. Just a thought.

  5. Me and my wife just flew jfk to london Heathrow on our way to our honeymoon in Mauritius. Lucky I have to disagree with your review. I think as someone who travels first and business class regularly, these new seats are amazing. We have both sat in the reverse herringbone seats that face each other and we felt much more far away. With these seats you are actually closer. I suspect their rationale is that most people who travel nyc to lon are doing so for business and not with a plus 1. The details in the seats, the large lcd, the mattress padding, the tray table not being in front of you. (Sorry fat people), everything about the seat was great.

    My only complaint is that they should have gone with a full door. BA has a full door. I also preferred the bar on the old planes. A lounge doesn’t have the same feel.

  6. “being seated in the last row meant that I could hear the loud conversation of the people in the lounge even with headphones on”

    So, the biggest problem of the current set-up — loud-mouth drunks at the bar disturbing nearby passengers — is carried-over to the new design. What on Earth were they thinking?

    I’m out.

  7. Glad these seats face the window! That had kept me from even considering VA Upper Class in the past.

  8. It’s clear that Virgin Atlantic has done their research, has tons of data to go by, and knows their target audience are business travelers who want space and privacy – hence all the business class seats in the middle facing away from each other. I guarantee if VS we’re going after couples vacationing and thought that was their core market they would have done things different. They’re not dumb.

  9. @ Lucky’s losing his street cred — Did you read the post? As I noted, in a standard reverse herringbone configuration, the center seats have privacy dividers. If business travelers want privacy (as you point out), wouldn’t they want to be facing away from the aisle where they have privacy, rather than looking at the aisle?

  10. yes, a strange centre seat lay-out as Ben suggests and the J/C lounge looks more like a cheap bar & lounge wanna-be than the premium product which EK/EY/QR offers. The cabin lighting colour is (to me) rather off-putting- looks very punk (that’s pink in New Zealand speak)…

  11. The airline is a style focused airline and their approach seems to be on style and atmosphere which also doubles as a practical seat. They tried to integrate functionality into it but ultimately there trying to create an experience where a traveler doesn’t focus as much on these aspects, which is just a consequence of what is otherwise an amazing airline to fly with. Then again, their market isn’t really a Business Traveler looking only for an event less flight.

  12. Most of the customers they care about are solo business travelers. From business travelers, I have frequently heard complaints about reverse herringbone seats In the middle. They don’t want to look at the person’s tv, meals, but most importantly, their feet. @Lucky, So while you look into the aisle and it’s slightly less inward privacy, it’s much more of a barrier than looking at your center seat mate. Business travelers can be counter intuitive sometimes but there is a reason.

  13. Virgin Atlantic’s on-time performance rate of 83.8% last month was good enough to rank 46th among global airlines – not as good as Spirit, 85.0% and 40th, but better than Air Europa, 83.6% and 50th.

  14. Virgin has long been about style over substance, and everything you describe makes it sound that that trend is frustratingly carried over into the new layout. Sorry but this product just doesn’t seem appealing at all.

    BA’s new Club Suite looks more private, more quiet, and more sensibly designed.

  15. TPG’s review of this product had the same complaints you did, esp with regards to the lack of storage and issues with the tray table.

  16. @ Ben –

    I did the read article, thanks for asking. Did you??? How exactly is having a seat that faces toward the middle where the passengers head is right next to the aisle in seat mode and when reclined more private than the set-up they have now where a passengers head is AWAY from the aisle in seat mode and when reclined to sleep??

    You’re not a true business person, you’re a blogger, so I get you don’t understand what business people want. It’s very clear in your posts…

    Others are commenting the exact same thing about your misunderstanding of what business travelers want. So take the hint…

  17. @ Lucky’s losing his street cred — Get a grip:
    a) By “others” you mean one other person?
    b) I’m not a business traveler because I don’t have a widget sales meeting upon landing, or why, exactly? I’m quite literally in the business of business travel, and I review airlines from the perspective of what business travelers look for — privacy, comfort, a good sleeping environment, flexible dining, etc.
    c) You must not be reading for very long, because if there’s one criticism I constantly get with reviews it’s that I care too much about privacy, so suggesting that I don’t is a bit preposterous.
    d) When you’re sleeping in a reverse herringbone seat your face is closer to the aisle, but there’s generally a partition, so you have privacy, a lot more than if everyone from the aisle can look at you
    e) Do you support going back to full herringbone configurations then? Shouldn’t the window seats face the aisle then as well, since it’s soooooo much more private/because I have no understanding of how airline seating works and am a complete idiot?
    f) Nothing really says the true voice of the business traveler like an internet troll with an anonymous email and the screen name you have… keep fighting the good fight!

  18. Hi Ben,

    One of the main concerns I’ve always had with reverse herringbone seats is the fact that your computer screen faces the aisle and especially when you’re working on sensitive documents (not that you should be working on them in a public environment in the first place but there are times when you need to), it’s uncomfortable as no privacy screen for the monitor will work at all given the cabin brightness.

    Another issue is that this seat seems to solve is that if you’re travelling with a partner, you’re much closer albeit facing opposite directions. I think it’ll make it much easier to converse with them on board.

    It seems like this combination solves many of the downfalls of both reverse and normal herringbone as it removes the “coffin” esque feeling of herringbone by adding additional side tables and storage, allows the window seats to look out, allows for the centre seats to be able to communicate easier.

    Regarding the computer monitor issue, I’m probably one of the minority of traveler who has such an issue however.

  19. The one thing I can’t get over is the color scheme they went with. I get it, they want to be fun and sparkly, but there is only so much lipstick hue I can take before it gets old. They could have gone with a darker theme to make for a cozier cabin (look at BA’s new business class – I’d actually choose VS over BA any day, but BA’s new Club World is gorgeous!). Kind of sad that they’d invest so much in a new cabin but then go with the colour scheme they did, which I think will get old fast.

  20. @Lucky: thank you so much for responding to “Lucky´s losing his street cred”; I just can’t stand those kind of losers commenting on blogs. Job well done, and keep up the good work!

  21. +1
    But I do think you could have shortened his handle in your replies to @LLHSC.
    I was confused for a moment that you were addressing yourself!

  22. “being seated in the last row meant that I could hear the loud conversation of the people in the lounge even with headphones on.”

    Sadly if they were loud enough to be heard with headphones on, then I’m not sure a curtain would make much difference in this case, probably only good enough to cut out normal sound levels of conversation. The only way to avoid the noise is probably to sit as far away from the lounge as possible. A problem on the old product if you were too close to the bar too

  23. I think the centre layout is absolutely brilliant. The more traditional setup that your reviewer prefers means that the two centre seats have virtually no privacy from each other. This way the centre passengers head is away from the annoying aisle and each centre section passenger has privacy one from the other. Brilliant!

  24. I agree with Lucky – new seat is an improvement, but I wouldn’t say a massive one. To me it seems as if they went through the design process without proper testing. I haven’t heard of any elites who were invited in on beforehand to try the seat out. Such an easy way to potentially improve something that is so important to their business – particular with BA stepping up their game.

    The door that only partially closes – again, to “allow for socialization” – also came across as cheap when I flew the new product a couple of weeks after launch. It doesn’t slide nicely, but rather rough and bumpy.

    Moreover, I find the way that they end up covering for a lot of the windows with that odd storage wall to be a massive design flaw. Just look at the pictures – also as opposed to e.g. BA. So unnecessary when finally you actually have a seat that faces the windows…

    The new lounge is an odd space, but I was told it is more intended for the longer-hauls, i.e. SFO, LAX, JNB. The intention is to also show movies on the big screens there?! The old bar area could surely get rowdy and be a pain for the rows close to, but surely the new concept might not be much better.

    All in all, this does not seem to be completely thought through, but a bit of a rushed design – and we, the VL loyalists (I fly them almost weekly), had surely hoped for something better and more innovative.

  25. Bob nailed it. When I think of privacy, I am not concerned about what I can see; instead I’m worried about what others can see of me and more importantly, what others can see of my work. Give me the regular herringbone configuration every day of the week.

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