Behind the scenes of a Virgin Atlantic test flight

In 2019, Virgin Atlantic will be one of the first airlines to operate the brand-new Airbus A350-1000. Virgin Atlantic Flight Service Manager Anne Spencer-Barlow was on board the A350-1000 long haul test flight in May. She takes us behind the scenes on an exciting day for Virgin and Airbus…  

The Airbus A350-1000 is the next chapter in our story, and means we’ll have one of the youngest, greenest fleets in the skies, which is brilliant. Like any new airliner, it has to go through years of tough tests before going into service. In May, I was lucky enough to be part of that process. It all started with a call from my manager saying I had the opportunity to take part in the first Early Long Flight Test as one of the first crew to fly in this type of aircraft – and I thought, “This is going to be amazing!”

I got off the phone and straight onto Google to find out what it was all about. I realised that it was indeed a very big deal – the first time the plane would have passengers on board. 

Dream team

There were 13 cabin crew including myself selected for the test flight, but I wasn’t sure who I would be working with until about six weeks before as we were not allowed to talk about it. We all met at Heathrow one afternoon in early May to fly to Toulouse for training before the flight, and exchanged what information we had; but I don’t think any of us realised how special it was going to be until we arrived at Airbus in Toulouse.

We had three days of training there, overseen by Anne Kerrien, the Cabin Operations Manager for Airbus, and then an aircraft visit to familiarise ourselves with the aircraft layout, galley operations, safety demo positions etc, so we’d feel comfortable and ready on the day of the flight. The test aircraft held 310 passengers, and apart from the crew the majority of the aircraft was full of Airbus employees who had been involved with the design or build of the A350-1000. When we arrived at the airport on the morning of the flight, the passengers looked very pleased to see us – I’m not sure if they were aware that Virgin Atlantic crew were going to be operating the flight!

Up and away

The flight began with a briefing from Anne Kerrien and Captain Peter Chandler to make sure we were comfortable with everything. We were also introduced to the rest of the Airbus crew before starting our duties. Everyone on board was really excited to be on the plane, so it was a brilliant atmosphere. We tried to keep everything as close as possible to what we’d normally do on a Virgin Atlantic flight, but the moment the seat-belts sign went off, the passengers were all up and exploring the plane! We’re used to passengers relaxing, watching the entertainment system or reading, but everyone wanted to have a look around. The aisles were full and people were queuing to get into the cockpit, as that was open, too. It felt very different to a normal flight.

The plane itself is very similar to our A330 – but an enhanced version of it. There was definitely more sense of space, and it was unbelievably quiet. The Virgin layout hasn’t been finalised yet, but we had a few of our team on board so they could see what worked well for us, and why. Talking to the captain, I discovered that the A350 has a huge range and will fly non-stop to Australia – I’d love to do that.

About two thirds of the way down the plane there was a big testing station, similar to the inside of a cockpit, with lots of screens where two engineers were testing and measuring the aircraft functions, which was very interesting. One of the checks was to measure noise levels throughout the aircraft at different stages of the flight, and we had to maintain complete silence while this was carried out.

Each of the galleys was equipped with an espresso machine, which is where we spent a lot of time during the flight making coffees and chatting with the Airbus employees, finding out how they had been involved with the design of the A350-1000. They were also interested in how certain pieces of equipment worked within the galleys, and how we found the aircraft environment to work in – it was such a great experience.

Fab fleet

We were in the air for nearly 12 hours, basically doing a big circle, but I don’t think anybody wanted to come home as we were all so excited! It was a huge privilege to be on the flight representing the company, and we’re all still in touch on WhatsApp, exchanging updates – everyone’s still thrilled about it. Our fleet is pretty young, with the B787-9 and A330s, but it’ll be brilliant when the A350s arrive: we’ll have a really great fleet.

For more from Virgin Atlantic, check out how to change a jet engine in an Airbus A340-600, or book your next flight on the Virgin Atlantic website.


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