I Just Flew Virgin Atlantic Upper Class and 1 Thing Made Me Want to Scream (It Was Richard Branson’s Fault)
This was all Richard Branson’s fault.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
She saw me coming.
I arrived at London's Heathrow Airport after an arduous trip and a woman with a kindly face was holding a sign that read: "Ask Me About Upgrades."
How did she know that I and my girlfriend were tired and desperate for peace, quiet and, perhaps, a touch of pampering?
And this Virgin Atlantic employee was so pleasant, without being gushing.
Before I knew it, I'd taken her up on her two-for-one offer and we were in what Virgin calls Upper Class.
If you've never ventured into this part of the plane, the seats are pods, placed at 45 degrees to the fuselage.
Romantic, it isn't.
Comfortable, it is.
The comfort was only enhanced by the attitude of the staff.
Throughout this journey from San Francisco to London and back, the Virgin staff had been uncannily wonderful.
When we checked in at San Francisco, the agent volunteered to find us a better seat in Premium Economy.
She even got a colleague to help.
Some minutes later, the first check-in agent saw us walking through the airport, wandered over and asked whether her colleague had found us something better.
She had, and this was a proactive customer service I wasn't quite used to with most airlines.
Anyway, back to Upper Class.
The quite stellar customer service continued.
The art lay in a relaxed manner that belied a careful anticipation of a passenger's needs.
Water glasses were topped up without fuss.
Wine glasses were poured without needing to be topped up.
Even the food, which I never imagine will be too wonderful, was remarkably good.
My chicken, mushroom and potato dish was restaurant quality.
Frankly, we'd been given the same level of service -- if not the same florid array of food and wine -- on the outward Premium Economy journey.
What, therefore, could possibly got wrong?
AND THEN THE ATMOSPHERE CHANGED.
It was the word f*** that alerted me.
This was followed quite closely by two f***ings and a b****.
No, this wasn't some deranged passenger throwing a fit for perhaps medical reasons.
This was a bunch of British business types getting drunk at the bar.
One feature of the Virgin Atlantic experience, you see, is the Upper Class bar.
There's one on every plane.
It offers several stools around a semi-circular shape, there for anyone to come, sit and, oh, socialize.
We happened to be sitting close to it. We soon wished that we weren't.
The more these men -- it's so often men, isn't it? -- drank, the more I wished I was back in Premium Economy.
It's usually quite peaceful there, perhaps because there's no bar.
After a while, it all became a little much.
The voices got louder, the language got even coarser, and I won't even try to describe the ignorance of the opinions on offer.
No, there's nothing redeeming about the word f***ing, even if it's followed by the word Tesla.
I asked a Flight Attendant whether there was anything they could do.
"I'll go and have a word," they said. (Yes, I'm hiding the Flight Attendant's gender, for reasons that will hopefully soon become clear.)
The Flight Attendant returned.
"I've told them to quiet down. If they don't, I'll send them back to their seats."
"Does this happen a lot?" I asked.
"Yes, it does. All the time. And the staff all hate it," said the Flight Attendant.
Apparently, the people who least like the bar are the people who have to police the behavior at it.
"Every time the staff ask for the bars to be removed, Richard says no," I was told.
The Richard is Richard Branson, Virgin's founder, who clearly believes that the bar adds some sort of flavor to his brand.
DEAR VIRGIN ATLANTIC, WHY DO YOU HAVE A BAR?
I know that Virgin isn't alone in having a bar, but I thought I'd ask its HQ why the airline has one at all.
Please, it's not as if I don't like a drink. It's just that encouraging noise and perhaps inebriation in your high-falutin' First Class seems like a strange step toward the serenity you're always seeing in ads for First Class.
So, from my seat, I emailed Virgin.
"We always welcome feedback from our customers and their current opinion is that they love the bar as a social space onboard our aircraft. Customers use it for many reasons, to enjoy a pre-dinner drink, sit and dine with their friends, chat to our cabin crew or even have a business meeting," an airline spokeswoman told me.
Yes, but why would I want to pay a lot of money to listen to someone else's business meeting? (Unless, I suppose, I was inclined towards insider trading.)
Wouldn't you imagine that if a group of friends is going to have dinner at the bar, the noise level will tend to increase?
And who are these people who get on a plane, desperate to talk to other passengers?
It's not them, it's me, isn't it?
I have the wrong attitude.
I simply don't understand why listening to a group of men discussing f***ing Tesla, f***ing Steve Jobs and f***ing great beer, while throwing down seemingly copious amounts of alcohol, isn't the apogee of civilization.
This was a noon flight.
These men filled the bar with their raucous racket for several hours. The cabin crew tried very hard to quieten them down and they began to disperse just as one of my gaskets began to signal it was at overload levels.
Yes, the fine headphones the airline gives you to watch movies were a blessing.
But just think what Virgin could do with the space instead.
If Branson insists that a bar is necessary, why not launch an entirely new concept?
The Whisper Bar.
Wouldn't that be rather alluring?