Virgin Atlantic: Upper Class Airs

What happens when you ask a famously acerbic writer to review Virgin's new Upper Class Suite? Victor Lewis-Smith signs up for duty on Campaign, that's what. Prepare for some turbulence ...

Highly evolved though homo sapiens is, we all still carry within us the primitive hoarding gene that we acquired long ago from squirrels (or tree rats, as I prefer to call them). This gene expresses itself primarily in the hobbies of collectors, such as numismatists (who spend money to buy money), philatelists (who pass their leisure hours idly thumbing their Gibbons), train-spotters, people who spot train-spotters and even patriotic gentlemen who follow the royal train with pooper scoopers in hopes of collecting a regal jobbie from the rails. As for me, I once amassed a collection of collectors by using a large butterfly net to catch specimens of autograph hunters, brass rubbers and the like, then pinning them to huge pieces of card and displaying them in gigantic glass cases, each one carefully labelled. Well, they were hardly in a position to complain and, as I told the judge (shortly before skipping the country while on bail pending psychiatric reports), it's good to have a hobby.

Fortunately, I have also spent many years pursuing a more socially useful hobby. I'm the curator of a large collection of glossy corporate brochures published by travel companies that wish to convince us their service is exemplary, when in truth it's execrable; and attached to each of their fantasy publications is a photo that I've taken with my miniature Leica, while sampling the grim reality. My collection started back in the early 80s with British Rail, whose promotional brochures for on-train dining always depicted smart, uniformed, scrubbed and smiling staff, pointing at plates of delicious food as they conscientiously served delighted and contented diners. How different from my "reality" picture of a filthy, gloomy, freshly vandalised restaurant carriage, where soggy, scalding, salmonella-ridden microwaved bacon buns were served by surly, unkempt, alcoholic staff, mostly ex-sailors (clearly chosen for their sea legs rather than their culinary knowledge), whose knuckles scraped along the floor as they walked. Indeed, if I remember correctly, even the arms of the chairs had tattoos.

My naive hopes (inspired by SNCF's corporate brochure) that the French might do these things better did not survive my first excursion on an overnight sleeper to Avignon. The fantasy photo depicted a smartly dressed gendarme ushering a delighted couple in to their spacious padded cabin, handing them their SNCF jimjams and bidding them "bonne nuit". But my reality pic shows a space so cramped that only someone from a circus family, who specialises in slipping their entire body into a goldfish bowl, could possibly expect to enjoy pyjama-clad sleep in it, a space where everything folded away or doubled as something else (including the bed, table, chair and sink) like a demented Swiss army knife. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but I may well be the first man ever to have given himself a total-body bed bath using only a single Femfresh vaginal wipe, while bumping across the French countryside at 8mph.

Fortunately, I then became a practitioner of the ignoble profession of journalism (the art of turning your enemies into money) and was soon able to afford first-class air travel. Yet even there, the discrepancy between PR fantasy and ghastly reality persisted. The exquisite food depicted in an American Airlines brochure bore no resemblance whatsoever to the stale and inedible fare I photographed on my own plate, while the dinner served to me by one Irish airline (I think it was called Cunni Lingus) also left a very funny taste in my mouth. And even Concorde (which, in its heyday, was as good as its publicity photos claimed) ultimately failed the reality test, ending up like a vastly-overpriced easyJet flight crossed with a not-very-good Michelin- starred restaurant.

Which brings me, finally, to Virgin Upper Class. I have flown regularly with the airline since it began in 1984 and I have always travelled with my Leica close to hand, ready to photograph any failings. But the fact is that, if anything, the corporate pictures don't do justice to the reality.

From the off, Virgin Atlantic was a revolutionary concept because Richard Branson was determined to give the entire industry a much-needed kick up the jacksie by upping standards across the board. And that's always been especially apparent from the lavish Upper Class treatment it offers, which begins at the moment you enter the club house: no-wait check in, efficient at-table waitress service, an excellent menu and plentiful distractions if your flight is delayed (everything from a beauty salon and computer games to a shoeshine).

In-flight, the contrast with first-class services becomes even more obvious.

Virgin was the first airline (in the jet age) to introduce a bar area in the cabin (so you're not restricted to your seat but can stroll about freely), to provide an in-flight massage and countless other on-board treatments.

Its staff are trained to be polite and efficient without being either servile or supercilious, its "open dining" food and drink service allows you to order what you like when you like and the seats allow for effortless reclining, with plenty of space to use a laptop (a standard power adapter is provided). The myriad choices on its audio and video services far outstrip all rivals and can be viewed on refreshingly large and clear screens. And when you land, the "fast-track" service quickly whisks you through immigration and reunites you with your luggage, after which there's the famous limo service to your destination.

Back in the 90s, Virgin was the first to offer this and it was undeniably dressy to be driven through Manhattan, watching colour TV en route to your hotel.

Having travelled first-class on numerous airlines around the world, I can legitimately claim to know what I'm talking about when I say that, for the past 20 years, Virgin Atlantic has flown head and shoulders above the competition. Not that this piece is an uncritical hymn of praise to Dicky Boy - far from it, because although he's generally the acceptable (even likeable) face of free-market capitalism, I'd happily crucify him when I'm stuck in the sidings on a Virgin train, or stuck in the electronic sidings on

But, believe me, if you've experienced Virgin Upper Class, and then ever find yourself back in the cramped cheap seats in another airline, the words of Mephistophilis from Marlowe's Dr Faustus will soon be echoing through your head: "Why this is hell nor am I out of it. Think'st thou that I that saw the face of God, and tasted the eternal joys of heaven, am not tormented with ten thousand hells, in being deprived of everlasting bliss?" Well, some people really take it to heart when they don't get enough legroom and their peanuts are served cold in a foil sachet, instead of heated and in a china bowl.

Or, to put it another way, there is only one direction to go when you walk on to a plane, and that's left towards the pointy end. Frankly, there are only two valid reasons ever to sit in the back row of an aeroplane: either you have diarrhoea or you're anxious to meet people who do.

- Victor Lewis-Smith is the Evening Standard's TV reviewer.

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