Virgin Atlantic scraps A330 Upper Class Dream Suite

Up FrontVirgin Atlantic is pulling its unique staggered herringbone 2012-released Upper Class Dream Suite business class seats off its Airbus A330 fleet and replacing it with an updated version of its 2003 product, which was the first fully flat business class bed with direct aisle access.

It’s a surprising climbdown for the airline after just three years in service with the Dream Suite, which it had originally intended for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner as well.

“We have taken the decision to reconfigure the Upper Class cabin on our A330 fleet to bring it in line with the 787,” a Virgin Atlantic spokesperson confirmed to Runway Girl Network after frequent flyers flagged the change on private FaceBook forum, “I love sitting in 1st/biz class”.

“This will improve consistency of experience for our Upper Class passengers and give more of them the opportunity to enjoy a product which has received excellent feedback from both our customers and our people on the 787.”

The spokesperson promised “more details on look and config to be revealed in due course,” but the story is one with wider ramifications for the passenger experience side of the aviation industry.

The staggered layout adds density to the A330 seats

The staggered layout adds density to the A330 seats

The Dream Suite was created to fix a problem: the existing Upper Class Suite, created for a 1-2-1 configuration in the main cross-section of the Boeing 747, wasn’t dense enough to compete economically on the narrower fuselage of the A340 and A330 — especially with British Airways’ Club World product, which went fully flat but didn’t (and still doesn’t) have direct aisle access.

On the 747, the original suite is nice and wide

On the 747, the original suite is nice and wide

Virgin’s in-house threesixty design seatmaker (formerly Reynard, and now sold off to Zodiac following the stunningly precedent-setting Virgin v Contour decision) came up with staggering the seats in the centre section to add density.

RockwellThe problem was fairly immediately apparent (as I spotted on the first media flight of the new seats): they were too dense, the centre versions were too short, and there wasn’t enough storage. Overhead bin space was particularly a problem in the denser cabin given the A330’s smaller bins and Virgin’s decision not to install centre bins for aesthetics.

Oh, and the seats were so delayed that they couldn’t make the 2011 delivery of the first A330s, which were quickly shipped off to China Airlines in Taipei for a lease with a temporary economy class section where Upper Class should have been, while other A330s were hastily added to the leisure fleet with just premium economy in the pointy end.

The seats didn’t exactly excel on installation either. I recall my crossed leg slipping off my knee and knocking off one of the ottoman’s plastic moulded side panels as the first A330 lined up to leave New York JFK just a couple of days into its operation. Red faces all around there, although mine did feel a little more green in the style of the Incredible Hulk. (#PaxEx Hulk smash!)

Virgin 1

The A330 product is not a wide seat

It will be interesting to see how Virgin Atlantic plays the refit, since it has a few options available to it. At present, the seat comes in two sizes: large, which is used in a 1-2-1 layout on the 747 and Air New Zealand’s 777 fleet, or small, which is used in a 1-1-1 configuration on Virgin’s A340 aircraft. The most noticeable difference in the larger version is width, and many virgin Virgin Atlantic flyers whose first times were in the small version found it baffling that so many people liked the product — since those people had experienced it on the larger 747.

RIchard Branson, not a large man, highlights the narrow problem with the smaller A340 seat

Richard Branson, not a large man, highlights the narrow problem with the smaller A340 seat

Will Virgin Atlantic re-engineer the smaller shell into an up-to-date version — with modern IFE, AC power outlets and USB sockets? Or will it find product commonality across its future fleet of 787, A330 and lingering 747 aircraft too tempting to resist? The spokesperson’s comment about consistency and the 787 would suggest the larger version. 

Another option, possibly complementary: in the age where 24° seats are possible — though, as both Zodiac and B/E Aerospace have found recently, hard to certify — will Virgin increase the angle away from the centreline on the A330 fleet? In replacing the Dream Suite, Virgin Atlantic needs to be certain that it doesn’t create a nightmare for itself.

10 Comments

  1. Gareth Richards

    I just flew VS103 LHR-ATL on March 6 2016 in an A330. These seats are just awful and really detracted from the experience. At 6’0″ I found them barely long enough, but way too narrow to sleep comfortably. There is no storage for personal items. The finish (enamel metal and plastic) has not held up well, with chips and cracks making it look cheap. The seat can be reclined to a point or flipped over into the bed. Neither is comfortable. It was a shame because I found the food and drink service good. The checkin at LHR via the special UpperClass Wing drive-in was the best I ever experienced in the world…the staff member opened the taxi door and literally had my boarding passes and bag tag in her hand already. From curb to lounge in about 4 minutes. But the flight was not a good experience. I will go out of may way to avoid this in the future. I think it is only the A330 and A340 VS A/C. But I may just use Delta to be sure.

  2. Shan Phoenix

    Does anyone know if these changes will affect a flight from London to Barbados? I flew Upper Class May 2015 and found it fine, but we are flying in May this year(2016) and don’t want any disappointing surprises!

  3. Paul

    I just flew LGW to Barbados today (16.3.16) on Upper Class. The plane was an A330 and the Upper-class flight experience was awful.
    The staff were great and food was pretty good, but the cabin is way too crammed and it’s nothing like an exclusive experience. Uncomfortable, narrow seats. Very poor.

  4. GEORGE C CUMMINGS

    I fly regular on LHR to IAD flight business class and much agree with Gareth’s comments above. Virgin staff are excellent but the aircraft on occasions has the aged look about it. Indeed I have sent letters to Virgin customer service and complained about this on two separate occasions. Always a nice reply but obviously not taken serious enough. Lounge at Heathrow is exceptional yet lounge at Dulles is pretty ordinary., although not the worse I have experienced. Beds are OK for me as I am only 5 ft 9″ and certainly better than that of BA, even those on the airbus A380 with a configuration that allows the cabin crew to miss you at meal times.

  5. Marc

    I will fly in July 2017 and they just change the aircraft on my. From a 789 to the 330

    BUT the “case your seat” map shows 1-1-1 configuration in Upper Class so I assume by then the retrofit will be on the way (done for this route)

  6. Howard

    Flew Upper-class to Antigua from LGW on 05/01/17 in seats 3G & 3K and not impressed at all. All previous Virgin flights were upper-class on the upper deck of a 747 with no seat issues. These A330 seats are truly are appalling and far too narrow and short. After complaining to the cabin manager about this AND the fact all of the champagne had ran out within an hour of leaving London, a complaint form was filled in.
    The night flight home was even worse in seat 7G and 7K and impossible to sleep comfortably as my feet kept falling off the ottoman! My wifes 7K faired a little better, (not sure if they are a little longer!
    I also complained in an email stating it was a complete waste of money and had we known we would have saved our money and flown premium economy OR B.A. I asked for compensation between the cost paid of upper-class seats to that of premium economy as we were so disappointed. The best that was offered was 5000 points!! Needless to say next January we are already booked on BA business class out and first class back. Bye Bye Virgin, get your act together and sort these crap seats out!

  7. Tom

    We have booked return Upper Class flights for our honeymoon from Gatwick to Antigua in January 18 on a A330. I was getting slightly confused by the seat layout on the VA site until I saw this article, as it was showing 1-1-1 layout. This is good news from reading the comments on here. I have flown BA business class on an older 747 last year and found the experience very underwhelming, hence booking Virgin for this trip.

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