THE FLIGHT: I travelled in Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic’s flight from London- Heathrow to Johannesburg, departing at 22.30 on the airline’s 787-9 Dreamliner. Virgin Atlantic is temporarily operating from Terminal 2 rather than its usual Terminal 3 base, which features its Clubhouse and other lounge facilities. In Terminal 2 Virgin Atlantic passengers can use the Plaza Premium lounge.
PRE-BOARDING: Covid Protocols and Observations. Even before entering the terminal I observed enhanced airport health and safety measures. There is a one-way walk-in system in place, with stickers on the floor to facilitate social distancing as well as hand-sanitiser dispensers. Passengers are expected to have their face masks on before entering the terminal and all airport staff wore face coverings.
Several Covid-related safety announcements were made in the terminal and all seating inside the airport, including in the restaurants and cafes, was arranged with social distancing front of mind. Walking up to the boarding gate I got a stark sense of the dire impact the pandemic has on travel industry: all nearby gates were closed and our flight was the only one boarding.
CHECK-IN: At the check-in zones, travellers formed socially-distanced queues. There was a document check before proceeding to the check-in desk. Airline crew compared passports to our Covid test result (UK travellers need to show a negative test within 72 hours of arriving in South Africa) and, if all tallied, a sticker to this effect was placed on the back of our passports.
The check-in counters had the now-familiar perplex screens; currently it is not possible to check in online 24 hours before departure. The crew check your ticket, passport and, again, compare with your Covid test result. They asked all passengers a series of questions: (A) Have you had symptoms or tested positive Covid in the last 14 days? (B) Have you been in touch with someone who has? (C) are you prepared to wear a mask onboard?
THE SEAT: I was in 5G, one of 31 Upper Class seats spread over 11 rows in a 1-1-1- configured cabin. Virgin’s sexy Upper Class cabin is airy, with subtle mood lighting and features spacious ‘Suites’. The cabin ‘butler’ will make up your lie-flat bed, complete with comforter, and fluff your pillow when you are ready for dreamland. There is a large foldout work and dining table, charge points and an adjustable inflight entertainment screen with a noise-cancelling headset.
The Upper Class goodie bag included a pair of proper cotton socks, miniature REN toiletries and an eco-friendly bamboo toothbrush.
The crew took the time to run through the impressive ‘suite’ functionality and also illustrate new onboard Covid safety measures. Passengers are permitted to wear their own masks during the flight, but are provided with an additional safety kit, containing three medical masks, sanitiser wipes and gels. With the exception of during the food and beverage service, we were required to wear a mask throughout the 11-hour flight and change it for a fresh covering every four hours.
THE SERVICE: The crew was warm and welcoming. With flights not yet at capacity (ours was at 67% with only 156 pax onboard) they are operating on reduced numbers and offering a limited inflight service, which is geared to reducing the amount of time the crew spend walking through the cabin. Electrostatic spraying of high-grade disinfectant is carried out in all cabins and lavatories before every flight, ensuring no surface is left untouched. Once we were at out cruising height we were served alcoholic beverages and again during the hot-meal service, which has been ‘simplified’ in all cabins. Upper Class customers are offered a choice of three hot meals, desserts, including cheese and biscuits and a ciabatta roll. My main course of duck with confit potatoes was delicious! Juice and water is available throughout. The signature communal bar with seats is not currently in service.
THE VERDICT: With the low number of operational flights and aircraft, this felt like the shortest taxi to the runway, and quickest take-off, I have experienced.
Crew members were super-attentive and a comforting presence throughout. While I didn’t feel comfortable trying to sleep in a mask, I did manage a few hours of sleep. Around me, passengers abided by the rules and everyone seemed relaxed and embracing the ‘new normal’. I was very grateful of the opportunity to fly in this cabin, which helped me relax and burn away the pre-flight worries I had about flying during Covid. Another bonus: Upper Class passengers disembark very quickly, avoiding another pinch ‘contact point’ with other passengers.
THE DETAILS: Return fares from London-Heathrow to Johannesburg start at £800 in Economy and £1999 in Upper Class. virginatlantic.com
Reviewed by Renette Hartridge (December 20 2020)