Five ways Virgin has shaken up the airline sector

Virgin Atlantic Airbus A350-1000
Image from Virgin Atlantic
Natalie Clarkson
by Natalie Clarkson
28 November 2022

Virgin Atlantic has recently launched its brand new Airbus A330neo aircraft – and it’s got us thinking about all the ways Virgin has changed aviation for the better over the years.

Banning smoking

Do you remember getting on a plane and there being a smoking section? No? That’s because in 1990, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to ban smoking on flights to and from America.

At the time, just 55% of passengers said they would be happy to travel on a non-smoking flight. But the move was welcomed by doctors and the American Cancer Society. And now it’s hard to imagine anyone smoking on any flight.

Image from Virgin Atlantic
Image from Virgin Atlantic

Seat-back entertainment

Enjoying a good movie on a plane is one of the best parts of flying. And you’ve got Virgin Atlantic to thank for not having to watch the same movie as the rest of the plane. The airline was the first to invest in personal seat-back entertainment screens in 1991.

“As the little guy, we could do it more easily,” former executive director David Tait explains. “We had half a dozen airplanes. Just imagine doing it with 600.”

Richard Branson on a Virgin Atlantic plane with the first seatback entertainment screen

But even before the screens were introduced, Virgin Atlantic introduced individual headphone sets for customers to take home with them. David says it was actually cheaper to give them away than collect, clean and repackage them all.

In-flight bar

Taking a seat at Virgin Atlantic’s onboard bar is a little luxury exclusive for Upper Class customers. But there was a lot of scepticism at Virgin Atlantic when the idea to replace a fifth of the seats in the cabin with a bar was first mentioned. Fortunately, the risk paid off and as well as introducing a ‘destination’ for people to visit during their flight, it became something that attracted corporate travellers away from their default of flying with British Airways.

And when Virgin Atlantic introduced the Airbus A350 into its fleet in 2022, it came with a brand new social space for Upper Class customers. Walking into The Loft is like stepping into the Clubhouse while you’re high above the clouds. With a wide range of cocktails, dining options and the Mile High afternoon tea all on offer, it’s the perfect place to chill out onboard.

Fully flat beds

It’s no secret that Virgin Atlantic’s first attempt at flat beds wasn’t exactly a success. The airline was in a battle with its rivals British Airways to be the first to offer customers a lie-flat bed to enjoy during their flight. And in its haste to be first, Virgin Atlantic didn’t quite get it right.

As Richard Branson explains: “‘Flat’ is an interesting term. When I say that a door is flat, you probably think of a perpendicular surface, whereas if I say that a bed is flat, you automatically think of a horizontal one. The problem with our new ‘lie-flat bed’ was that while it was flat, it wasn’t horizontal.

“In our rush to be first, we had taken the fastest route and produced a seat that converted to a flat bed that sloped at an angle of about 30-degrees. Passengers (including me) worried that after they drifted off to sleep, they might slide off!”

Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic

While Virgin Atlantic was developing its not-quite-flat bed, British Airways had gotten wind of its secret seat and the rival airline took its time to develop a truly horizontal lie-flat bed, beating Virgin Atlantic to the punch.

However, Virgin Atlantic went back to the drawing board and took the time to develop a completely new, horizontal seat. And it became the first airline to deliver a full flat Upper Class bed, with direct aisle access in every single seat – so no more having to climb over someone else to get to the bar.

Mood lighting

Before Virgin America, US domestic travel was pretty basic. So when Virgin America introduced mood lighting into its cabins, it was revolutionary.

Virgin America
Virgin America

At the time, most cabins were dull blue or grey, under yellowish fluorescent lights – not exactly inspiring. Virgin America illuminated its cabins with colourful lights that it could control and change throughout the journey. This gave the cabins either a vibrant and exciting feel, or restful and relaxing vibes. Unsurprisingly, customers loved it. And now many aircraft feature moodlighting as standard – helping passengers to arrive at their destinations feeling relaxed, refreshed and ready to go.

The future of flying

Flying is getting even better with Virgin Atlantic’s new Airbus A330neo aircraft.

Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A330neo
Virgin Atlantic

The Airbus A330neo is the first aircraft in Virgin Atlantic’s fleet with a brand-new Upper Class seat, a refreshed social space, and The Retreat Suite – the most spacious suite in Virgin Atlantic’s history. And customers in all cabins will get to enjoy their best, most-personalised flying experience ever.

Visit Virgin Atlantic to find out more.

And for more insider knowledge on all things Virgin, check out Virgin By Design – the book that details all the highlights from over 50 years of innovation.

A close up of the Design by Virgin book which has a red cover with the Virgin logo on the front and "Virgin by Design" written on the spine

Pick up a copy of Virgin By Design from Virgin Red for just 6,250 Virgin Points