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Fly Virgin Atlantic Airways 
There's Magic in the Air!

The sight of Terminal One at JFK, its sweeping curves evoking the upward thrust of a plane, brings back the nearly forgotten thrill of flight. Designed by the visionary Finnish architect Eero Saarinen for TWA nearly half a century ago, it retains the optimistic, eternally modern look of the post-war years, a time when air travel was still something out of the ordinary.

Today Virgin Atlantic Airways, a relative newcomer to the world of international aviation, is housed in this terminal. It’s a fitting partnership. In an era when flying has become more ordeal than adventure, Virgin manages to re-kindle the magic.

Passing the time during the obligatory two hours prior to departure for London in Virgin’s Upper Class lounge is not only palatable, it is actually pleasurable. Furnished with sleek Saarinen and Charles Eames -style chairs and decorated with abstract art hung on curved paneled walls, the clubhouse, which opened in early 2000, conveys a streamlined modernist ethos. Fax and photocopy machines, computers and televisions compete for attention with tall menus that appear everywhere offering dinner options on the order of carrot and ginger soup, beef stroganoff, filet of sole in a sauce of lobster bisque, a platter of selected cheeses, seductive desserts. A cheerful hostess dressed in bright cherry red explains the routine: You approach the well-stocked bar, add a cocktail or particular wine to your wish list, present it to the bartender, and in a few moments, a server will find you wherever you’ve decided to decamp -- be it desk-and-chair work station, restaurant-style table with crisp white linens, or intimate conversation area.

It’s a little after 9 P.M.  Departure time is 11. What better way to while the hours than to enjoy a superb dinner with an excellent bottle of wine. The time did indeed fly by (no pun intended) so quickly, we were almost sorry to learn our departure would not be delayed.

But it is the flight itself that defines the experience.

The 26 aircraft that make up the Virgin Atlantic fleet have names like Tinker Belle, English Rose, Mystic Maiden. We boarded Barbarella, a futuristic extension of the Saarinen esthetic, with deep purple carpeting and seating in shades of red and silver, suggesting, at once, a train from the 1930’s and a space ship yet to be born. A free-standing, chrome-trimmed bar stood at the cabin’s entrance, standard in every Upper Class Virgin cabin. Open for the duration of the flight, it proved a welcoming change-of-pace-place to amble over to for a beer, a glass of premium wine, a Scotch on the rocks with accompanying nibbles.

Up, up in the air in this beautiful balloon, pleasures are manifold. The aisle space is wide enough to walk two abreast; deep comfortable seats slink down to the floor and stretch out into six foot-long beds. Uniformly charming and unfailingly attentive flight attendants, speaking in the varied lilts and dialects of the U.K., from Yorkshire to Wales to Glasgow, ply you with drinks and snacks, provide you with full-size pillows, pale blue feather duvets, even a two piece purple and gray sweat-suit ensemble. In the Virgin Upper Class cabin, you really can put on your pajamas, turn out the lights, and go to sleep.

That is if you don’t feel like watching one of the recently-released movies or any of the other entertainment options that continuously run on your personal 10.4” screen equipped with 20 video and 14 audio channels (one of us watched “Chicago” three times, memorizing the choreography) and video games. Or availing yourself of a hand, or back, or neck massage by the on-board beauty therapist. Or dining in style, choosing your appetizer, entrée, cheeses and desserts from a menu that offers complex, well-prepared and stunningly presented dishes. Or imbibing in lighter soup and salad fare. This is Virgin’s vaunted  “Freedom Menu” where you eat what you like, when you like -- until it’s time for breakfast.

As the breakfast trays are cleared, the aircraft prepares to land. On terra firma, you stop at the Revivals Lounge at Heathrow, a twenty-first century take on the air travel experience that opened at the century’s and millennium’s start in January 2000. There, you take a shower, have your suit pressed, and check your e-mail. By the time you set out for London, transfers courtesy of Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, you’re refreshed and restored. The six hours lost somewhere over the Atlantic are forgotten, and you are in splendid  shape for the day ahead.

A week passes. It’s time to go home. Your Upper Class ticket provides for a drive-through check-in at Heathrow and a first class lounge that offers the services of a Health and Beauty salon: facials, coiffures, manicures, even a range of bliss-inducing massages. Parting is such sweet sorrow, as the Bard said, but indulgences like these go far to ease the heartache.

In addition to the ultimate luxury of Upper Class, Virgin Atlantic offers two levels of Economy Class. Full fare Premium Economy has its own check-in and its own cabin with 38” pitch seats, the most comfortable economy seat anywhere, pre-take-off champagne, a priority meal with choice of three entrees, and express baggage reclaim. Economy, designed to give more bang for your buck or pound, as the case may be, has seats with a 32” pitch, free drinks and a meal with choice of three entrees. Both classes provide amenity kits and personal nine inch, 20-channel screens with ample video and audio choices.

“Give travelers more comfort, more amenities, and more entertainment at a better value than any other airline in the sky,” said Richard Branson the erstwhile rock producer when he founded Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984. What began as a run between London and New Jersey has turned into a multi-national operation with the award-winning airline operating out of Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to ten American cities, three Caribbean nations, Dublin, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Shanghai, Delhi and Lagos.     

Though Virgin’s business is in sky, there is a company commitment to maintaining the environment of the earth. On board efforts to recycle materials were evident; the extensive recycling policy extends to suppliers, cleaning companies, and office procedures.

It’s all part of the story of the amazing Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group whose interests span publishing, music retailing, financial services, rail travel, resorts, and telecommunications. His boat “Virgin Atlantic Challenger II” crossed the Atlantic in record time. His hot air balloon flight crossed the Pacific, again in record time.

It seemed like it would take us record time to get to Heathrow. Traffic had virtually stopped. Then we noticed there’d been an auto accident on the other side of the road. A helicopter emblazoned with the words “Air Ambulance” hovered over the scene.

“What a great idea,” we said to our driver. “London has its own helicopter ambulance service.”

“It’s not London, folks” the driver told us. “It’s a private service. Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin, he’s the one. The hospital calls the Air Ambulance, and there it is.”

We’d just been talking politics with this driver. All the drivers in London talk politics. They complain about the mayor who’d recently instituted draconian measures to keep passenger cars out of the city. They wonder what difference there was nowadays between Labor and Conservative. They second guess Tony Blair’s policies.

Now the driver turned and said, “If you ask me, Richard Branson is the man for prime minister. He’d do a fine job.”

Well, if he can run the U.K. the way he runs Virgin Atlantic Airways, that wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Virgin Atlantic Airways
747 Belden Avenue
Norwalk, CT 06850

Phone: 877-7474-0123

The Office
Crawley Business Quarter
Manor Royal

Crawley, West Sussex
RH 10 2NU

Phone: 44 1293 747373

Photos courtesy of Virgin Atlantic Airways

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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