At an event in London’s trendy Shoreditch district last night, Virgin Atlantic revealed the interior designs for its upcoming Airbus A330-900neo, which held a few surprises. New seat choices, an updated social area, and a space-efficient new travel class were highlights.
Work on the new cabin designs began in 2019, when Virgin Atlantic placed an order for up to 16 Airbus A330neos, to create reductions in fuel (11%), carbon (11%), and airport noise contour (50%) over the A330-300 fleet the aircraft are directly replacing. The airline’s average aircraft fleet age is now just under seven years, comprised of 68% next-generation aircraft, which will increase to 100% by the beginning of 2027.
So what’s in store for the A330neo passenger experience? Some may have expected Safran’s Cirrus NG suites to feature in Upper Class, for consistency with the A350 fleet (full details of the A350 Upper Class cabin designs here). However, the airline has opted for Thompson’s Vantage XL, a forward-facing staggered seat that offers a flat bed, direct aisle access, a relaxed lounge position for take-off, a privacy wing, a ‘honeymoon’ option for the centre doubles, and customisable stowage spaces (Virgin Atlantic worked with Thompson on a custom closable upper stowage space, with a flash of Virgin’s brand red within).
Virgin Atlantic also dipped into the options list for the 30 Upper Class suites, with fully closing privacy doors (good for the seats closer to the aisle), translucent dividers, ‘do not disturb’ lights to ensure undisturbed slumber, and passenger-controlled mood lighting. The VantageXL can accommodate IFE monitors of up to 20in, but Virgin has opted for 17.3in displays (as with Virgin’s A350s, Safran Passenger Innovations’ RAVE systems are fitted throughout the aircraft).
VantageXL is a solid choice, space-efficient for Virgin, comfortable for passengers, and providing a consistent level of experience with the suites flying with JV partner, Delta. Some may have expected a unique or more heavily customised seat, but amid a recovery period for aviation, there is a lot to be said for taking on a design proven in terms of certification and passenger experience, to minimise the risk of the unknown.
The front row is where things get even more interesting. Thompson has worked with Factorydesign throughout the development of the Vantage seating range, and they cooked up something really clever a few years ago, when they realised that some often underutilised space could be taken from the front-row monument and given to the front row of business class, to create a J+ suite. Factorydesign dubbed the idea ‘First Class for Free’, and while its first adopters were Shanghai Airlines for its B787-9s (see how it works HERE) and Malaysia Airlines (A350s), seeing it again in person at the Virgin Atlantic reveal event reminded me just how dramatic the effect is.
The front-row centre doubles are dubbed the Retreat Suite, the most spacious suite in Virgin Atlantic’s history, at some 6ft 7in long – long enough for the ottoman to be used as a proper seat for companion dining. That companion had better be entertaining though, as they will block the view of the 27in IFE screen, which is a treat for movie lovers. As a single seat the Retreat Suite is a great experience, and a reasonably priced one too, as design manager Henry Buckley indicated at the launch event that it could be available for a £200 premium over Upper Class.
If two people travelling together book both Retreat Suites, they can create something really special. Lower the centre divider, close the double doors and a luxury, super-spacious shared space is created. Bring in two others in a group, or even some new friends made in The Loft (see below), and it is an open and comfortable space for four people to enjoy, with large tables for dining, playing cards, working, or whatever they may wish to do. The ottomans are large enough for a comfortable experience with back support – no perching here.
Upper Class and Retreat Suite guests can all access Bluetooth connectivity and in-seat wireless device charging. They can also access The Loft, which has received quite a few updates for the A330neo.
The Door 2 social space, The Loft, serves as a welcome area for all passengers on the A330neo, and as an inflight mingling area for Upper Class guests.
The idea of The Loft began with Virgin’s A350-1000, as a move away from a purely bar area, towards a lounge area with a perch bar. I happily explored the area ahead of judging it for the 2020-2021 Crystal Cabin Awards, in which it took a runner-up spot in the Cabin Concepts category.
For the A330neo the Virgin Atlantic team decided to move further away from the bar idea, to create an updated lounge zone. The team worked with Factorydesign and AIM Altitude to create a space for eight people, including four seats, where guests can chat, watch content on the dual panoramic 27in IFE displays, and hear it too if they connect Bluetooth headphones.
They can also help themselves to refreshments from the new self-service fridge, freezer and drinks dispenser. A clever feature is that crew can unobtrusively load stock for the drinks dispenser from a drawer on the other side of the galley. Cans slip silently through to the front of the dispenser as if by magic, isolating passengers from the mundanity of stock replenishment – but it is just a really simple system, unlikely to cause maintenance issues.
The seats are set a little higher than those in the A350 Loft, which means knees intrude less into the passageway, making it easier for people to pass through and access the fridge or the other aisle, with a foot bar to help shorter passengers feel comfortable. As with all Virgin Atlantic social spaces, the ceiling has received a lot of design attention, to create a distinct experience.
The 46-seat premium economy cabin will be familiar from the A350, with the Collins Aerospace MiQ carried over. This seat is a solid choice, good enough that Collins also offers it as a narrowbody business-class seat, and it has won over other customers including American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Air China.
The Virgin Atlantic Premium experience brings in a 38in pitch, a recline of up to 10in, calf rests at every seat, four-way adjustable headrests,13.3in touchscreen IFE displays with Bluetooth audio, in-seat power including wireless charging pads, and satisfyingly robust and large bi-fold tables. Trimmed in a tasteful burgundy, overall the Premium experience is among the best on the market.
The Virgin Atlantic team has created a tasteful and comfortable look for the economy-class seats, with a pleasing mixture of textiles and a 31in pitch for the 156 Economy Classic seats. The seats are Recaro’s CL3710, fitted with 13.3in touchscreen IFE displays, Bluetooth connections for audio headphones or to use a smartphone as a controller, plus AC power (a socket shared between each seat pair) and USB ports.
Customers can upgrade to the 28 Economy Delight seats found among the outboard pairs, which offer a 34in seat pitch and can be identified by their brighter red stripe on the backrest cushion.
Throughout the aircraft passengers can access Viasat’s in-flight connectivity System, which will be line-fitted to each of the 16 A330-900s at the Airbus Center of Excellence in Toulouse, France. Passenger devices can be connected directly to Viasat’s network of owned and partner Ka-band satellites, a system that creates the capacity needed on Virgin Atlantic’s key routes between large airport hub cities and on busy flight corridors.
Viasat says the connection will be powerful enough to enable full video streaming, web browsing, messaging, social media scrolling and more. The onboard equipment on the A330neos will also be forward-compatible with Viasat’s next-generation satellite constellation, ViaSat-3, which will bring additional capacity and expanded global coverage.
Virgin Atlantic is always an airline to watch, and we plan to delve deeper into the thinking behind the A330neo cabin designs for the next issue of Aircraft Interiors International.
From September 2022, Virgin Atlantic will take delivery of the first three aircraft, with the remaining deliveries following between 2023 and 2026.
The first customer flight of the airline’s A330neo will be London Heathrow to Boston, expected in early October. Tickets will go on sale later this month.