The Evolution Of Virgin Atlantic Upper Class

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On Monday 8 April 2019, Virgin Atlantic is expected to unveil its new Upper Class suite for its forthcoming Airbus A350-1000 aircraft.

As Virgin Atlantic’s top tier cabin. Upper Class has always featured  prominently across the airline’s advertising since its formation in 1984.  To use marketing speak, it serves as a “brand halo” for the airline.  Virgin Atlantic has consistently marketed the cabin as distinctive from rival airline’s business class, even claiming it offers a First Class service for a business class price.  

Although Virgin Atlantic has a significantly smaller route network and marketing budget than BA, the genius behind its advertising and branding has been to position the airline as a comparable rival to BA for both business and leisure travellers.

The early days of Upper Class

Here’s an early TV ad for Upper Class from 1985.  

You can see distinctive features it still offers today, an Upper Class bar and complimentary car transfers and as well as a now defunct Upper Class lounge area.  Virgin also used to offer free economy tickets to entice business travellers.

Virgin Atlantic Press Advertisement 1984
Virgin Atlantic Press Advertisement 1984

“BA Don’t Give A Shiatsu”

"BA don't give a Shiatsu"
“BA don’t give a Shiatsu” (Image Credit: Virgin Group)

BA has always been a target in Virgin’s advertising.

Some times indirectly.  Some times very directly, as indicated by the above advert.  An extremely simple, but highly effective, execution from the early 1990s illustrating Virgin’s complimentary on board massage service.  A simple statement of fact that is of course left open to wider intepretation.  The onboard massage service was removed around ten years ago.

Helen Mirren / Terence Stamp

Compared to BA, Virgin has used television advertising relatively rarely, relying more on PR to generate attention and press coverage.

Here are a set of spots featuring Helen Mirren and Terence Stamp from 1993-1994, again highlighting distinctive features of Virgin Atlantic Upper Class.

The double beds that never were

One of the luxuries of private ownership is that Virgin Atlantic can brief journalists that it is “considering” doing things, without having to follow them through.

And so in the 1990s when Virgin Atlantic ordered the Airbus A340 aircraft it announced plans to include private double bedrooms with showers, an exercise area, and massage tables in the lower deck of the aircraft. It generated a huge amount of press coverage, with inevitable references to the mile high club. These of course never materialised.

Not all flat beds are equal

In 2000, both BA and Virgin introduced lie flat seats in business class.

However, there was a crucial difference. BA’s seat converted into a fully flat horizontal bed, whereas Virgin Atlantic’s seat, known as J2000, was at an angle when flat. For passengers sleeping on it, this difference was crucial. Virgin lost market share to BA and started work quickly on a new seat design.

With the J2000 seat still rolling out across its fleet, in 2001 Virgin once again turned to celebrities to endorse its cabin, including Miss Piggy, Anna Friel, Iggy Pop, and Malcolm McLaren. With Virgin unable to press advantages over BA, this campaign was more abstract in nature.

The Upper Class Suite

In November 2003, Virgin Atlantic introduced its first fully flat bed, the Upper Class Suite.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite (Image Credit: PearsonLloyd / Virgin Atlantic)
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite (Image Credit: PearsonLloyd / Virgin Atlantic)
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite (Image Credit: Softroom / Virgin Atlantic)
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite (Image Credit: Softroom / Virgin Atlantic)

Designed by PearsonLloyd and Softroom, the cabin design was based on an inward facing herringbone layout, the first of its kind. This was a more space efficient layout, albeit with less privacy, than previous herringbone layouts at the time such as BA First Class where passengers face the exterior of the aircraft.

Each suite features a seat encased by a hard shell. All seats benefit from direct access to the aisle. The seat converts into a fully flat bed by flipping over the seat. This has the advantage of using separate surfaces optimised for sitting and sleeping. However, it does require the passenger to rise from the seat to convert it to a fully flat bed. It also makes for a more complex, and heavier, seat mechanism.

Unlike BA, which never licensed its patented Club World bed to other airlines, Virgin did licence the seat to Air New Zealand in order to offset the development cost. Other airlines such as Air Canada chose not to licence the seat because of the licensing fees. A number of other airlines including Cathay Pacific and Delta (now a 49% shareholder in Virgin Atlantic) adopted similar designs from the manufacturer of Virgin’s seat which led to court action by Virgin Atlantic against the seat manufacturer.

The seat won a number of industrial design awards. It is claimed that its introduction led to a 12% increase in Virgin Atlantic’s market share.

Virgin has retained the basic seat design and layout on Airbus A330 and Boeing 787 aircraft, albeit an unpopular 1-2-1 layout on Airbus A330 aircraft was scrapped due to negative feedback.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite Airbus A330 Aircraft
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite Airbus A330 Aircraft (Image Credit: Virgin Atlantic)
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite Boeing 787-9 Aircraft
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite Boeing 787-9 Aircraft (Image Credit: Virgin Atlantic)

“Suite And Inncocent”

Now this is frankly bizarre.

In 2004, Virgin’s US ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky produced a 10 minute spoof of a soft core porn film set on board a Virgin Atlantic flight from New York to London. It was shown on adult pay per view channels in US hotel rooms.

One suspects they did not envisage it would be available for all to see on a video streaming platform some years later.

The Upper Class Wing and Clubhouse

In 2007, ahead of BA’s move to Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic opened its new Upper Class Wing and Clubhouse in Terminal 3.

The Heathrow Upper Class Wing and Clubhouse have become a signature part of the Upper Class experience and its Heathrow Clubhouse is still regarded as one of the best airline lounges in the world.

3 thoughts on “The Evolution Of Virgin Atlantic Upper Class”

  1. The Bars going in Upper class is the end of Virgins special place. Way behind Emirates and Etihad. It was great and special while it lasted.

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