Two business class seats are brown in colour with red accents. Two large IFE screens are placed on in front of each seat.

What the design of Virgin’s new A330neo business means for industry

Details and Design banner with text on graph paper backgroundIn the couple of months since Virgin Atlantic unveiled its new business class for its forthcoming A330-900neo fleet, your author has been mulling over the product — and what its design and selection says about the Virgin Atlantic of the 2020s, compared with the Virgin Atlantic of the 2010s, 2000s, 1990s and before.

Virgin Atlantic was at the absolute vanguard of passenger experience innovation for much of its early existence. Beyond headline-grabbers like onboard bars, massage stations and a nail technician, Virgin innovated three entirely new product categories in the seating arena alone.

Virgin Atlantic was one of the two airlines that can lay claim to introducing premium economy in 1992, then called Mid Class. Today, premium economy is the most profitable real estate on the airplane, according to airline beancounters.

In 1999, it introduced the entirely new category of the angled lie-flat sloping sleeper with its J2000 seat, a move that was swiftly emulated by many international airlines, including some of the most prestigious. Some of these airlines still use these angled sleeper seats in regional — or even longhaul — business class today.

Just four years on, Virgin created and introduced the groundbreaking first fully flat business class bed with direct aisle access for every passenger, in its bespoke Contour-produced Upper Class Suite.

Upper Class Suite shown on an aircraft with the thermoplastic shroud, and dark leather seats

The 2003 Upper Class Suite was an absolute gamechanger for business class. Image: John Walton

The airline made a rare misstep in the 2012 launch of its bespoke Upper Class Dream Suite, a densified overlapping herringbone that the airline launched on its first A330s, the -300 model, and scrapped three years later in favour of the previous 2003 product.

Dream Suite on Virgin Atlantic. Pink LED lights cast a pretty glow on this dense business class layout

The 2012 Dream Suite, though innovative, was not a success. Image: John Walton

And so, via the 2019 A350 product, to the present day, we consider the forthcoming Upper Class seat on the A330neos. It’s a six-year-old product aboard Delta and numerous other airlines, based on the popular Vantage XL product that itself was introduced in 2014.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite from its doorway. Purple lights are casting down on it.

Yes, it has smooth brown leather: chocolate, espresso, call it what you will. Image: Virgin Atlantic

Yes, the front-row Retreat pair, introduced by Shanghai Airlines in 2018, is lovely, although it’s still not the double bed that Richard Branson promised all those years ago, and which the airline only somewhat managed to introduce with its ex-Airberlin A330-200s.

Two front row business class seats are brown in colour with red accents. Two large IFE screens are placed on in front of each seat.

The two front row Retreat Suites are similar to the Shanghai Airlines front row product. Image: Virgin Atlantic

But it’s not groundbreaking. It’s a safe bet, the choice that nobody will be fired for, the — we might say — boring option. 

In some ways, that’s understandable for an aircraft like the A330neo, for whose fuselage few novel premium business class seats have been developed since the aircraft was the A330ceo. Indeed, this very seat in its Vantage XL form, without the doors débuted on a Qantas A330ceo eight years ago. Few seatmakers want to invest in a niche aircraft, and today’s Virgin Atlantic isn’t the seat-making airline that it was twenty years ago. Even the much larger British Airways decided, a few years prior, to go with an off-the-shelf seat rather than something bespoke.

A view overlooking Virgin Atlantic's A350 business class seat. A shroud of red and purple lights are casting down on it.

Virgin’s A350 seat is a little-used Safran product, which makes it feel different, as does the unusual hybrid herringbone layout. Image: John Walton

It’s also understandable that today’s Virgin Atlantic, having grown closer and closer to part-owner Delta — to the extent that Delta pilots complain their transatlantic flying is being outsourced to the UK carrier since the 2013 immunised joint venture cartel was implemented — would consider that matching its product to Delta’s would be an attractive option.

Delta One Suite is pictured, with blue stitched material on the seat cover, a dark headrest and a splash of red on the interior of the suite

Let it be said that the Thompson Vantage XL-based product was a big improvement on Delta’s prior seats. Image: Delta

The question is whether Virgin, through the strengths of its soft product and cabin crew, can differentiate Upper Class from the Delta One Suite in anything other than trim, finish, mood lighting and the perching lounge.


Is Virgin, or at the very least the fleet with this product, becoming Delta’s transatlantic feeder, akin to a sort of Atlantic Northeast Airlines, dba Delta Connection, longhaul edition?


Or perhaps it’s a sign of a coalescing of the basic business class product market to a three-option choice: inward-facing herringbone, outward-facing herringbone, or stagger.

That would be, more than anything else as the industry accelerates out of the COVID-19 pandemic, a sign that the market is ripe for design innovation.

We’ll be keeping our eyes out.

Virgin's A330neo suite with blue and purple LED lights shining down upon it

Is Virgin turning into Delta but with a British accent? Image: John Walton

Related Articles:

Featured image credited to Virgin Atlantic