It may not be as thrilling as flying to the edge of space with Virgin Galactic, but the debut of Virgin Atlantic’s new A330-900neo aircraft, which comes complete with an entirely redesigned Upper Class cabin (as well as premium economy and economy), is not far off it. After a highly challenging time for the airline during the pandemic, it is now returning to form with a new route from London Heathrow to Tampa, Florida, a sector being operated by its newest plane—dubbed “Billie Holiday.”
I was on the debut TPA flight, and upon landing in the U.S., passengers were welcomed by Richard Branson himself who came aboard wearing a red Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey from the local football team. The new year-round Tampa service will initially fly four times a week before increasing to daily from November 28, 2022, complementing the airline’s services to Miami and Orlando.
Stepping onto the plane, first impressions were of a sleek new interior with 30 forward-facing Upper Class suites (previously, the seats were at an angle). Arranged 1-2-1 across eight rows, everyone has aisle access but only A and K provide views through the window. Branded Upper Class, the cabin is business class rather than first class (and priced accordingly—with return flights for about $3,400), but the experience is so comfortable you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in first. Interiors of the A330neo are illuminated with hot pink mood lighting, and every seat is enclosed in its own private cabin with sliding doors, creating a huge amount of privacy (although people can still see you’re watching Good Luck to You, Leo Grande when they walk past).
I was particularly grateful for the doors on the return night flight, when I was able to recline the seat to a fully flat bed, lay out the soft mattress, cotton duvet, and pillow, put on some Virgin Atlantic pajamas, and go to sleep feeling secure. There’s even a “do not disturb” sign if you don’t want to be woken for breakfast. At the front is the Retreat Suite, an entirely new concept for the airline, which takes the form of a pair of ultra-spacious suites in row 1 with two extra “buddy” benches opposite that allow four people to dine face-to-face (these seats also convert to 6-foot, 7-inch long beds, even longer than British Airways’ first class). Confusingly, you can’t book it outright—sitting here requires Upper Class passengers to pay for an upgrade on a first-come, first-served basis, 14 days before departure.
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