Virgin Atlantic’s “Premium Economy” Class: Skip It.

My partner Paul and I recently went to London for a long weekend and for the first time for us both, we flew Virgin Atlantic. Neither of us sleep very well on planes, so we generally try to fly business or first (using frequent flyer miles) when we travel internationally. We’d be the first to admit it: flying premium class internationally is part of the vacation for us; it’s not something we do everyday, and it’s a nice way to kick off the holiday in a special way.

Virgin offers 3 classes of service between NY and London: Economy, Premium Economy, and Upper Class. We didn’t have enough miles for Upper Class (and it wasn’t available, anyway), so we chose Premium Economy. My guess is that Premium Economy was introduced because so many companies stopped being willing to pay for Business. It’s a way to give business travelers a little more comfort than economy while still keeping an eye on the bottom line. While we weren’t expecting this to be a true business class, we figured that as the middle class of a 3 class international flight on a high quality airline, it would likely be fairly close to Business Class. Mmmm…not so much.

The Premium Economy seating configuration was 2-4-2 on the outbound 747 and 2-3-2 on the return A-340.  This is loads better than the 3-4-3 layout (brutal!) or 2-4-2 layout in each respective aircraft’s economy cabin, but tighter than a typical Business Class cabin would usually be (2-3-2 or 2-2-2) on comparably-sized aircrafts. Here’s how we’d classify additional amenities of the service, focusing on comparison to a typical business class vs. economy class:

Special Check-in/boarding: Very nice. Because the Premium Economy cabin is about the same size as a Business Class cabin would be, the experience here is about the same. The 3 or 4 dedicated Premium Economy check-in counters at JFK and Heathrow had only short lines, and we were able to board at our leisure before Economy was called.

Seat pitch: Fair. A step above economy for sure, but we definitely felt like we were sleeping in a severely upright position. No comparison to how much you can lean back in Business Class.  Anyone much taller than my average 5′-10″ height would have been really uncomfortable. We slept so poorly that we arrived exhausted in London and lost half a day taking a 3 hour nap.

Seat controls: Basically the same as economy. One button to lean back, another which was purportedly for lumbar support, but seemed to do nothing.

Seat foot rests: Poor. Foot rests in Premium Economy do not extend outward from your own seat (as is usual in business class), but rather are only a hard ledge which extends downward from the seat in front, like the footrests you’d find on a Greyhound bus. Paul, with his short legs, loved it…I found it unusable and irritating.

Seat power: Fail. Virgin somewhat apologetically explains that Premium Economy seats come with DC power that you can use with a special adapter for laptops. They sell those adapters (as available) for a jaw-dropping £69. No thanks. We didn’t have an adapter, but I looked for the outlet anyway; I couldn’t find it. Neither did I see a single other passenger on either the outbound or the return flight who seemed to have any device plugged in. Either the outlets aren’t there, or they’re so inconvenient that they might as well not be. Considering that Virgin America offers true 120V AC power in each seat, I think Virgin Atlantic needs to step it up here.

Entertainment hardware: Ok. Individual, decent-sized screens were in the seatback in front of each seat. This was ok but not great: Paul found them too far away and too small. And strangely, when I peeked back in economy, I saw that they had ‘swing up’ screens from each seat, which is the typical model for first class or business class. So I think Premium Economy got the short end of the stick on this one.

Adequate (but not great) entertainment hardware; quirky UX

Adequate (but not great) entertainment hardware; quirky UX

Entertainment content: Really strong. Excellent selection of on-demand movies and TV series (even if a lot of them were British comedies I had never heard of). The video controllers had some software quirks that made them tricky to use (Paul had the same problem); I think they need a better UX person to give them a hand. But overall, no complaints.

Main meal: Poor. Essentially an economy meal in every way. 3 choices of main dish (including one vegetarian), no options for appetizer or dessert. Everything was served at once on a single tray. Wine was served in a glass so small that we jokingly called it the ‘thimble’.

Wine selection: Poor. Two options (just one white and one red) of Spanish wines which were fair but no better than what we’d expect in Economy on an international flight. In a cabin this small (50 people or so at 100% capacity) there should have been more choices.

Snacks/beverages: Outbound: pretty poor, but then again, most people were sleeping. On the return, it was great. It seemed that every 15 min. they were coming through the cabin with juice, ice cream, fruit, water, etc. Very nice. Although I did miss the fresh/warm chocolate chip cookies which even US airlines offer on first class coast-to-coast travel.

Amenity kit: Fine. Had the basics of toothbrush, toothpaste, earplugs, and eye patch. Lacked any sort of premium lip product, facial mist, hand lotion, etc. (which was fine; I rarely end up using those when they’re offered, anyway). Virgin does point out that the kit comes with a “Stylish Pen.”  Uh-huh.  And they’ve pulled off one rather clever feat: they claim they’ve designed the kit to “compliment” [sic] the seat and service.  “Hey!  This seat is brilliant!” I suppose each kit is meant to exclaim when opened.  “And this service is perfectly divine,” it might continue.

Writing is one way to pass the time, since you won't be able to sleep in these seats.

Writing is one way to pass the time, since you won't be able to sleep in these seats.

Pricing/use of miles: For sure, we spent fewer miles roundtrip (55,000) then we would have in Business Class (most airlines require 80K+ for business class transatlantic, and in fact some airlines require more than 55K even for economy). But the odd thing here was the high fees: we paid $450 each in “taxes, surcharges, and misc. fees” for the trip. The fees for Upper Class were only about $500, suggesting most of this must be fixed, per-segment charges.  I don’t know that I’ve ever paid such high fees when using miles. (and no, this was not the ‘miles plus money’ offer, which requires even higher payment)

All in all, we were glad we weren’t packed like sardines into economy, but Premium Economy left a lot to be desired. Virgin would probably counter that the “expectation is in the name” (and the lower mileage requirement) so we shouldn’t have been expecting anything close to Business Class amenities. We weren’t (quite)…but the gap between Premium Economy and Business still surprised us. So just don’t kid yourself that the ‘middle’ class on a 3 class international flight is going to necessarily be close to traditional business. Next time, we’ll probably postpone our trip or save our miles until we have enough for a true Business Class experience so that we can – yawn – get some decent sleep before we arrive.

Better than economy, but just barely

Better than economy, but just barely

15 responses to “Virgin Atlantic’s “Premium Economy” Class: Skip It.

  1. That’s too bad to hear. We flew Virgin America over Labor Day and really enjoyed the little differences between VA and other domestic carriers. I wrote about them here

  2. I haven’t flown Virgin America yet but I’ve heard very good things about them (and in fact I even came very, very close to taking a marketing job with them). Note though that my post was about Virgin Atlantic, not Virgin America. I’m looking forward to trying Virgin America soon.

  3. Not 100% sure you get the concept of “Premium Economy”.

    As the name suggests it’s an upgraded economy class, not a watered-down business class.

    So, bigger/wider seats, larger screens, more legroom, dedicated washrooms etc but more-or-less Economy F&B.

    It’s unfortunate that your expectations were of something “fairly close to business class” but they were, ahem, your own expectations.

    The swing up screens in Economy are only found in rows where there are no seats in front.

    And as for “regular” business configuration being 2-3-2 or 2-2-2, I do hope you one day fly Virgin Atlantic’s anything-but-regular Upper (business) Class with its 1-1-1 or 1-2-1 configuration, flat beds, guest seats, sit-down bar, anytime dining, limo transfers, Clubhouse lounges.

    Now that’s something you be better off walking into with “something like business class” expectations.

    Happy travels,


  4. @penny: yup, you’re right- much of my disappointment was undeniably due to unrealistic expectations. Live and learn.

  5. Eduardo Teixeira

    We all know United sucks but United Business class is better than Virgin Premium economy. At least you can sleep like you are in a bed and there are more choices on the food. So, I don’t understand all this hipe about Virgin. We always end up getting for what we paid. United business is more expensive than Virgin Premium. Virgin is just like United, it happens they don’t offer business and United doesn’t offer Premium economy.

  6. Sorry you had a not so good experience, but don’t be quick to dismiss all premium economy services. ANA and JAL’s E+ services often INCLUDE their excellent business class lounges. For example, JAL’s NRT lounge includes showers, table massage, hot buffet, full bar, kids play room (with fully padded mats like at a gymnastics school!).

    Note that with JAL, if you upgrade to E+ at the airport you won’t get lounge access unless you purchased a full Y ticket. Both JAL and ANA offer the occasional E+ sale and two years ago, I paid $500 more than the discounted economy fare. Completely worth it, IMO to get the lounge access, better comfort and amenities for the 21+ air hours plus ground time. Plus it was nice to have Dean & Deluca vanilla ice cream and curry udon カレーうどん, as E+ snacks. Yeah the main meal was the same as economy, but still pretty good and much better than Untied economy.

    Regarding the sky high fees and taxes, I take it this is your first trip to the UK in a while. This is purely the part of the British government which doubled the air travel taxes back in 2007 and increased the taxes again in late 2010. These taxes are based somewhat on distance traveled by “bands” and taxes are nearly double on premium cabin travel vs. economy. Seems that premium economy is considered premium in the eyes of the UK government.

  7. Pingback: Virgin atlantic premium economy – Virgin atlantic | Fly to Space » Blog Archive

  8. Poor report in the extreme. Premium economy is a great service. Not as good as business or first/upper class but a big improvement over standard economy. It is after all premium ECONOMY!!!. As a 6’2″ 18st passenger I find it quite comfortable as long as I am paying and am not a lottery winner I wouldn’t bother with anything more expensive.

  9. It’s clearly sold as an economy product not a business class product – you don’t seem to have realised what class you were flying.

  10. So bad worn out seats cotten had it, tv not working placitic cups for G&T no lemon rude starf all this for £3410 a load of sh*t

  11. Virgin PE. Total waste of money! Better paying for a good seat in Economy. Food is the same – we were given a sausage roll in a bag to warm us up when the cabin got too cold. Choices are poor. Just like Economy, you get your beverages in paper cups. Just look at the Virgin website and how it is portrayed as almost Business when it is definitely almost Economy. Staff are nice enough but are doing their job – we were told to close our window blind because others wanted to sleep and spent 10hrs with the seats in front of us fully reclined into our faces. Virgin PE? Total hype for fools and their money.

  12. I have flown with Virgin Atlantic everytime and they have amazing customer service. The experience on board is great and the seat pitch is very generous. The new Virgin Atlantic IFE will featue USB ports to power your devices and an all new interface. The upgrade is a welcomed update to the dated IFE which was added in the 90s.

    T3 has a review of the IFE which I have linked to below

  13. I flew from Shanghai to London Upperclass and then return in the premium Economy. Firstly, I thought that having enough points guarentees you for FREE upgrade. However this is not so I spent about 300 pounds on top of the PE fare, as well as the 12500 points on top to upgrade to upper class. Upper class is excellent. No complaints about that apart from when checking in at Shanghai. There was a note on the receptions about prices to upgrade from PE to upper class. Only 100 pounds??????? I was fuming.

    On the way back, i went to heathrow early to check in, to see if I can qualify for free upgrade. Staff said complimentary upgrade not allowed. Then i asked the I would like to use my points to upgrade to upper class then. Oh, sorry sir, your ticket is RESTRICTED. Means you can not use points to upgrade for free. So i ask how much the ticket is then to upgrade. The staff took their time fiddling around with the computer. Whilst doing that, I was looking at the desk ladies over used make up.

    5 mins later, OK sir, you can upgrade your seat from PE to UPPER CLASS for 1000 pounds, plus 12500 points. There are only 8 seats left here, so if you want, you must act quick. REALLY i said, I give it a miss.

    So board the flight, there was an empty upper class. i say around 30% occupied.

    PE isn’t bad, but it didn;t help when there was a large guy who was seated in ECONOMY decided to upgrade to PE when boarded. He manage to get the seat in front of me, and really really needed a shower. Basic hygiene people!! please be considerate for others!

    Entertainment was poor, it was like a rolling schedule where you could not select what you wanted to watch. I am sure previously before in you could select what you wanted to watch on the entertainment. So what do you want me to do, watch a film in the middle of it? ridiculous.

    In the 4 years i have been in China, I was very loyal to virgin using their planes. but this experience, which was supposed to be very good makes me think other wise. I will try Cathay pacific, BA, or even Emirates.

    Richard Branson, Sort it out!

  14. And you don’t get lounge access. Choose another airline if wanting to go business class

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