Behind the scenes – Tests and tailors in our Upper Class Wing

By: Dave Gunner

February 25, 2021

Early on in the pandemic we turned our Upper Class Wing into a covid testing centre for our people. It was an inspired solution to a challenging situation. We go behind the scenes and find out how the centre works and how come the people who test our cabin crew wear tailor-made designer scrubs.

The Upper Class Wing

Our Upper Class Wing at Heathrow has always been a special place. In normal times it’s an oasis of calm in the hustle and bustle of the busy airport. Limos glide up to the doors to be greeted by our team, waiting with our Upper Class customers pre-printed boarding cards and bag tags. Then they are whisked through a private security channel and into our Clubhouse. From car to Clubhouse can be done in just nine minutes. At the moment Terminal 3 is not in use. So in a role reversal, our Upper Class Wing has been temporarily repurposed and has become the only hive of activity in an otherwise ghostly and empty terminal.

Testing takes over the wing

Dee on final approach for your tonsils

"This is the only place at Virgin Atlantic where we don't like being positive!" – Dee Garrett – cabin crew and covid testing assistant.

Roger in front of the famous drive-in

Our health team were tasked with setting up a fully operational testing centre for our crew at Heathrow. This rapidly evolved into a full-scale operation, testing every cabin crew and pilot before every flight, together with all our airport teams and engineers. They also run regular testing sessions at our other offices and training centres offering the operational teams on the ground a weekly covid test.

Roger Newman from our health and safety team was brought in to supervise the teams up there. Roger is rightly proud of the testing centre, which was established in record time, making us one of the first companies to offer in-house testing with a set up that works for both the testers and those getting tested. Roger was joined by other members of our family including David Gawn from operations and Mark Lemon from our project office, and along with the health team recruited sixteen team members who are all cabin crew to cover early and late shifts. The centre is also ready to react to a global situation that changes from day to day as different countries require different tests or make changes to their testing requirements. It’s a military operation, done with Virgin flair and a smile.

As you look around the Upper Class Wing testing centre, you’ll find it’s full of resourceful thinking. Everywhere you go, you’ll see existing airport equipment ingeniously repurposed by the team. Baggage tags on the floor signal the social distancing space. Baggage screens are used to create the testing booths. Carts that are usually wheeled between gates to set up arrival welcome stations are repurposed as reception desks. There are onboard food carts used as desks, gate security trollies used to store testing kit and a small conference room has been newly reinvented as a laboratory for LAMP testing.

Dee administers the antigen test. The results will go directly onto the patient’s app in as quick as ten minutes.

“I think airlines need to be quick to react to these situations, and we made sure we were ahead of the pack,” said Roger. “We had anti-bac gels on our reception desks and one way systems in place before the first lockdown was even announced”. Roger has spent 21 years as cabin crew and is now a health and safety advisor. He spent most of his lockdown time volunteering for the ambulance service in the 111/Integrated Urgent Care team. “It’s important that our customers know that every step that can be taken has been taken,” Roger continued. “This has been a phenomenal team effort, and the APEX diamond health and safety certificate is testament to our efforts”.

Depending on destination requirements, the team can administer the antigen test which requires a nasal swab and gives results in 15 minutes or the more sophisticated LAMP test that takes a bit longer. This involves a mouth swab and then a very techie process involving pipettes and centrifuges. It’s quite specialised so is implemented by a specially employed bioscience graduate. The results are sent to our people via an app or email.

With such a focus on preventing the spread of covid there are protocols to protect everyone’s health. As well as a robust antiviral cleaning regime,  another requirement is that our testers need to wear scrubs. And being Virgin Atlantic, this is where the worlds of science and fashion collide.

Meet Max, our very own fashion designer

Max at his tailoring station in the Upper Class Wing. The cool shirt is his own label.

Max Longhin is one of our flight service managers. Born in the small town of Ivrea in northern Italy, Max spent his school years in South Africa before moving to the UK in 1988. He spent four years pursuing his dream of becoming a fashion designer and worked for several famous fashion houses before starting his own label and boutique. After becoming disillusioned with the world of fashion, he couldn’t help but notice how much fun his cabin crew flatmates seemed to have at work. A quick career change, and following a few years with other airlines  Max joined Virgin Atlantic. That was 30 years ago and since then he’s never lost his love of flying or his passion for Virgin Atlantic.

Despite a fabulous career in the air, Max still keeps in touch with the fashion world, hasn’t lost his eye for a bit of fashion detail and still maintains the skills he learned as a designer. As the first lockdown began Max put his skills to good use. While on furlough he joined a Facebook group called ‘For The Love Of Scrubs’ and set to work making scrubs for our NHS workers.

Once back at work after furlough, Max went to the Upper Class Wing to be tested ahead of his first flight. That’s when the fashion designer in him immediately spotted a problem. “I noticed that the scrubs were all badly fitted, they had no pen pockets, and their hems were taped up or dragging. At the time, scrubs were in short supply, so they were making do with what they could find” said Max. “My first thought was ‘what can I do to help?’ so I decided to set up an alteration service for the team”.

After that, Max decided to go one better and create bespoke fitted designer scrubs for the testing team. Surely the finest scrubs in the land.

Scrubs in action

A lesson in scrub fabric

In the early days of the pandemic, when scrubs were in short supply, Max saw that a high-end fabric manufacturer in North London had temporarily switched its whole operation to producing scrub material. When supplies improved the factory switched back to normal production, but Max managed to buy the last roll of this high-quality material. The fabric is 55% cotton and 45% polyester. This ideal mix can withstand the high temperatures required for washing scrubs without losing colour and shape and is non-iron. The roll was enough for Max to make a set of beautifully tailored scrubs for each of our testers.

When Max sits down to explain his process, he’s instantly in fashion designer mode. He talks about warps and wefts and brandishes a much-loved set of vintage tailors shears (not to be used for cutting paper under any circumstances – be warned). The team have all been measured; they’ve chosen their sleeve style and how many pockets they want and where. The first set of scrubs is now in production, and ok, they might not look quite as lovely as our Vivienne Westwood uniform, but we’re looking forward to seeing the smartest testers in the business in the coming weeks.

Max has always been a kind and thoughtful person and embodies the caring spirit that has been so in evidence during the pandemic. He’s doing all of this in his own time yet is quick to point out that it also lets him catch up with many of his friends as they pass through on their way to their flights.

As for Terminal 3 and the Upper Class Wing, we can’t wait for that to get back to normal. To the excitement that comes with the start of a million journeys. To cars sweeping through the Upper Class Wing. And to a time when scrubs, even the most stylish ones, are just a distant memory.

Our cabin crew covid test team are Netsai Chirenda, Thomas Burn, Katy Burn, Mark Crouch, Michael Rooke, Amie Brophy, Dee Garrett, Nicola Evans, Celine O Moizard, Jon Price, Katie MacVicar, Katie Rudd, Eleanor Wells, Marie Boland-Redford, Chris Grace, Ombi Farr and Catherine Broomfield

Our ‘You’re in safe hands’ page has full details of all the new measures we’ve implemented to give you even greater peace of mind when you take to the skies with us.

Dave Gunner

Dave Gunner

I love telling the story of our people, our planes, our places and our planet through Ruby Blog.

Categories: Our People