Airline review: Virgin Atlantic, premium economy

THE PLANE

Airbus A330-300

THE ROUTE

Chicago O'Hare to London Heathrow.

THE LOYALTY SCHEME

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club – but points can be put into the schemes of partner airlines, including Singapore Airlines, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand. 

CLASS 

Premium economy, seat 22C in a 2-3-2 configuration.

DURATION 

Eight hours

THE FREQUENCY 

Daily, during the northern summer.

THE SEAT 

With a 38-inch (97-centimetre) pitch and a 21-inch (53-centimetre) width, there's no cramped feeling. The tables are inside a fixed armrest, however, which means having a free seat next to you isn't as beneficial as it is in economy. 

The seatback TV is sizeable – approximately the size of a larger iPad. It can be used via touchscreen technology – which can mean back-jabbing from more vigorous users behind you – or a controller built into the seat back. Two USB ports are handy for those wanting to use their own gadgets without running the battery down.

BAGGAGE

Two checked bags up to 23 kilograms, plus one piece of hand baggage measuring up to 23 x 36 x 56 centimetres and weighing up to 10 kilograms. 

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COMFORT 

The seats feel new and well-designed. There are no boxes underneath eating up foot space, and recline is sizeable.

But the amenities seem to be lacking somewhat. Blanket, pillow and headphones are all present and correct, but it seems reasonable to expect an eye mask in premium economy. Maybe some ear plugs plus a mini toothbrush and toothpaste, too.

ENTERTAINMENT

More than 50 films are listed in the guide. There are some interesting TV choices, too – with a surprisingly strong selection of documentaries on niche topics, and some British TV shows that haven't yet made it overseas.

In-flight Wi-Fi is available for $30.

SERVICE

The highest praise needs reserving for the cabin crew – they manage to be human as well as efficient and friendly. Special care is taken setting up the bassinets, and one steward makes extra efforts to talk to a nervous, disabled flyer. The airline clearly allows crew to let their own personalities shine through – and they're happy to crack a joke or two with passengers when appropriate.

FOOD 

Food is served about an hour after take-off. Options are a beef curry, roast chicken or spinach and cheese ravioli. The curry is more like a stew, but it's tasty and has good-quality meat. The black forest gateau as dessert is all right, but hardly pushing boundaries in airline cuisine.

The beer selection – Heineken or Tiger – is uninspiring. The same applies to the wine choices – a sauvignon blanc or a merlot-cabernet sauvignon blend. 

Just before landing, breakfast is delivered. The full English option has genuinely tasty bacon and a herby potato rosti.

ONE MORE THING

The premium economy sections are fairly large by the standards of most carriers – and on this flight, not full. The cost of upgrading at check-in is worth considering.

THE VERDICT

Virgin's attitude sets it apart from other trans-Atlantic carriers, and an already solid premium economy offering is boosted by letting the crew be real people rather than ingratiating automatons. For those who can't stretch to flying business but want the extra space and comfort, this is an excellent bet – particularly if upgrading on a special deal or using frequent-flyer points.

Tested by David Whitley, who paid for his own flight.

See also: The easiest airline to score an upgrade

See also: Why you should upgrade to business class

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