Virgin Atlantic are an airline whom constantly get us talking. Whether it was when they revolutionised the industry with the introduction of seat-back screens for all travellers, or to the launch of their first Clubhouse in 2006. They are renowned for their quirkiness and tongue-in-cheek attitude, something which you could say the entire Virgin Group are known for.
I'm assuming we have all seen the infamous "Still Red Hot" 25th anniversary advert for the airline, and at some point wished we were part of the crew or one of the passengers. Very clever marketing.
I recently flew on the UK's second largest airline from London Gatwick to Orlando International (MCO - or Mickey's Corporate Office as some people call it) in the sunshine state of Florida. Since the opening of the most visited tourist destination in the world in 1971; Orlando has become an incredibly popular holiday destination for families, couples, and even the single traveller.
With an average of two flights a day from the busiest single-runway airport in the world, it goes without saying that us Brits simply cannot get enough of the mouse, some wizards and maybe some thrilling attractions too.
Check In and the Departures Area
Virgin Atlantic flights depart from the South Terminal at London Gatwick, and for reference they depart from Terminal 3 at Heathrow.
After arriving at the South Terminal via coach, it was a short walk along a couple of moving walkways to the designated check in area in Zone A. Since the majority of Virgin's flights from Gatwick depart in the morning or early afternoon, you are able to take advantage of a twilight check in service. This is where you are able to drop off your bags and receive your boarding pass between 17:00 and 21:00 the day before you fly, allowing you to eliminate the hassle of checking-in on the day.
Seeing as I still had not put a single thing in my case the day before, I decided to use the self-service kiosks in the morning.
Using the kiosks is pretty self-explanatory and there was a representative nearby whom happily assisted those who needed it. I was able to scan my passport, receive my boarding pass and bag tags before dropping these off at the a bag drop counter. All in all the process was pretty seamless and took a little over ten minutes, which is often unheard of for a busy Saturday morning.
Once through security it was time to wander through World Duty Free and eventually enter the two-storey departures area, which is full of an array of shops, bars and restaurants - including a Nandos for all you Peri-Peri lovers out there. I ended up following my usual airport routine before it was time to venture towards the departure gate.
Upon arrival at the gate, I noticed that I would be flying aboard G-VLIP (Hot Lips), one of the airline's many Boeing 747-400's.
I don't know if VS were trialling a different style of boarding process, but as soon as I got to the gate I was able to board the aircraft and noticed other customers doing the same. It may have been because of the location of my seat or just an entirely different process that I have not encountered before. Boarding at your leisure? I approve.
The Economy Cabin
All of Virgin's 747 fleet that operates out of Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow were refreshed in 2012 at a staggering cost in excess of £50 million. The refresh saw the addition of new seats and the ultra-responsive Vera Touch in-flight entertainment system, which was formerly known as JAM!.
The Economy cabin itself consists of 375 seats and is separated into "smaller cabins" with seats in a 3-4-3 configuration.
You'll also find 33 economy seats in a 3-3 format on the upper deck. These seats are incredibly popular owing to their position on the upper deck in a very small cabin with storage bins beside the window.
I was very lucky to bag one of these for myself... 78A to be exact.
I found the relatively-new seats to be fairly comfortable and a huge improvement as to when I last flew with Virgin on an A340-600. The seats come with an ample 31" pitch and USB power at every seat, hurrah!
Upon reaching my seat, I found a 250ml bottle of water, a red blanket (no surprise there), and a pack of headphones. Virgin are one of the few mainstream carriers I know to provide Economy passengers with a bottle of water. It is very important to keep hydrated when flying, so really other airlines should take note.
Owing to an issue loading cargo into the hold, we were delayed by approximately 60 minutes at the gate. The crew were in very good spirits and provided regular updates in addition to cups of juice and water. Doors eventually closed 55 minutes after our scheduled pushback time of 11:15 and we were ascending into the skies above at about 12:30BST.
Once the seatbelt signs were switched off, the crew passed through distributing hot towels (another new service in Economy) and a menu card. Little things like this made it hard to believe I was sitting in an Economy seat!
This was shortly followed by a pre-dining bar service, with drinks served in a coloured plastic glass along with a little snack of Penn-State Pretzels.
The Meal Service
I took a quick look at the menu card which outlined what culinary delights awaited me. Now, we all know that airline food can be hit or miss. But I was feeling quietly optimistic given that Virgin Atlantic recently upgraded their meal service.
Unlike other carriers, Virgin Atlantic offer each passenger a choice of three main options, one of which is suitable for vegetarians. On my particular flight, the choices were Beef burgundy, Spanish-style chicken and a Veggie bolognese.
This was accompanied by a side-salad, warmed bread roll and a cute little Gu Pudding for dessert, which went down really well.
I was very excited to experience Virgin's relatively new "Vera Touch" inflight entertainment system, which offers more than 300 hours of on-demand entertainment, which you can watch from after the safety video until you arrive at the your destination.
Developed by Panasonic, the 9" (10.6 in Premium & Upper) touch-screen based IFE is incredibly responsive. With just the touch of a fingertip you are able to swipe across screens and scroll through text, all with incredibly sharp graphics. Even those who struggle with technology will find the system easy to use. It's like having your very own iPad, but only better.
When browsing through the content available, I liked the fact you can also add items to your playlist to enjoy later in the flight, in addition to the making use of ever-popular functions such as the interactive map and destination videos. One of my personal favourites is the Travel Tip Catcher. This is where you can read and share travel times with your fellow passengers onboard. Who knows, someone may know how to maximise your time in the theme parks, or tell you about the chicken exit in the Tower of Terror!
You are also able to connect your camera, iPod, phone and other small personal electronic devices from where you can view your content on the screen. In a day and age where we are all practically obsessed with the battery life on our phones, you'll be pleased to know it may charge some of your devices too.
Virgin were indeed the first airline to provide all passengers with seat-back television screens, but did you know that they were the first airline in the world to use this cutting edge version of IFE. Additionally, they are the first British airline to offer SMS texting and email facilities onboard?
Available on all aircraft based at Gatwick, and a select few from Heathrow and Manchester, Aeromobile allows you to use your phone just like you would 37,000 feet below. The charges for this are very similar as if you were abroad. If you have data roaming activated then you are good to go.
In-between meal times
Once tray-tables were cleared away, the lights were dimmed so that passengers could get some rest before racing off to the theme-parks upon arrival in Orlando. For me, this was the perfect time to catch-up on the movies I may have missed.
In addition to the crew passing through the cabin offering water at regular intervals offering cups of juice or water, a mini-Fab ice lolly was handed out as a movie time treat. It was nice and refreshing.. I honestly cannot remember the last time I had a Fab!
Second Meal Service
Approximately two hours before our arrival into Orlando, the crew passed through offering Afternoon Tea. This consisted of a choice of wrap; Cheddar and spring onion or the Virgin Club (Chicken, bacon and sweet chilli), a packet of Tyrells Plane Crisps and a Broderick Bar (Rocky-Road). This was served with tea, coffee, juice or water.
Thoughts on the Service
Virgin Atlantic cabin crew are somewhat known for their friendly service and for wearing the iconic Red uniform, the latest of which has been designed by none-other than Vivienne Westwood. The crew on my flight were extremely friendly and it was really nice getting to talk to them for a little while and get some great tips for my time in Orlando. I noticed the crew passing through the cabin regularly, and responding to call-bell requests in no time at all.
Arrival into Orlando
In the end, we arrived into Orlando at 16:30 EDT. That's just over an hour after our scheduled time, but that could not be helped due to the delay. Everyone was in good spirits and to my sheer astonishment; I only had to queue for about five minutes at the immigration point before I was able to go through, wait for my bags and then set off on my Floridian adventure.
Overall, I was very impressed with my Virgin Atlantic flight to Orlando. Their Economy service was great, food was tasty, crew fabulous and the IFE was very responsive. Would I recommend a flight with Virgin Atlantic? Of course. They certainly are a great airline whom provide healthy competition to some of their larger competitors.
Virgin Atlantic flights to Orlando currently start from £490 if flying from London Gatwick. Fares from other airports may vary.
Thanks to Virgin Atlantic for another fantastic flight.