Here at Virgin Atlantic, our seats are some of our most prized possessions. After all, they’re the feat of engineering and design that carries our customers in comfort to their final destination, which is why we have a dedicated team to look after them so they’re ready for your next flight.
I met with Ian French, a manager in our Cabin Maintenance team at the London Gatwick Hangar. Ian and his team work on a variety of projects, from making sure the leather on our arm rests is in pristine condition, to keeping check on our Inflight Entertainment system. The team showed me something they’re working on that’s a little bit out of the ordinary – an Upper Class seat that will never take to the skies.
So why would our engineers spend over 200 hours creating a fully working, like for like, luxury Upper Class seat, only for it not to go in one of our aircraft? Well, our friends at Virgin Holidays have been taking over the high street with their dedicated retail stores, with the aim of inspiring customers to start planning their next holiday. There’s an island-themed bar where customers can stop by for a drink, a dedicated Disney-themed kids’ area to keep little ones entertained, and even a discovery wall where customers can immerse themselves in one of our fantastic destinations. We worked with Virgin Holidays to find a way of bringing our flying experience to life, and what better way to do it than with a fully functional Upper Class seat – after all, holidays are a time to indulge yourself!
Taking a seat that’s built for an aircraft and popping it into a shop isn’t as simple as it sounds. Ian took me back to when his boss first told him what he’d like to do for Virgin Holidays.
“My initial thoughts were that our seats have no back or sides when they’re out of the aircraft, so they wouldn’t look that appealing, and I’d need to find a way to make them look as close to our Upper Class cabin as possible,” he said. “The power supply we use for a seat on an aircraft is completely different too, so I knew I’d have to come up with a bespoke solution for the stores. Our inflight entertainment systems are all customised for flying, so I needed to think of an alternative for this too, so that customers on the ground could get as close to a flying experience as possible. It was going to be a challenge, but I knew with some creative thinking my team would be able to do it’.
First of all, Ian had to take a journey to the Arizona desert to source some Upper Class seats to convert from the Airplane Bone Yard at Goodyear Airport (which sounds pretty cool to me). We weren’t able to take seats from our own planes, because well…where would you all sit? But Ian found some seats (along with a couple of scorpions) that needed a new home and shipped them back to the UK, which is where the hard work began. As you can see from the pictures, they looked nothing like our own seats once stripped back.
Several engineers from Ian’s team were dedicated to converting the seats into worthy replicas for one of our Virgin Holidays stores. From making the leather seat covers, to sorting out the electronics so the seat back TV would work (we used iPAD airs as an alternative), every element was done by hand. Naively, I never knew our engineers were involved in hand cutting leather and sewing, so I asked Ian what skills you’d need to work in the Cabin Maintenance team.
“Electro mechanical and upholstery skills come in very handy here,” he said. “I started off my career as an apprentice for Rolls Royce, working on the interiors for luxury cars. Seventeen years down the line and now I’m working with a team on interiors for aircraft. A lot of my team come from similar backgrounds, or have worked for manufacturers of some of the products we have onboard. A passion and a love for aircraft are also handy.”
So after 200 hours of hard work, the finished product is finally ready to go into a Virgin Holidays store. There’s already been some great feedback from the stores in Bluewater, Lakeside, Manchester and Merryhill where customers are loving experiencing the seat. This one is off to Glasgow, so if you visit one of these Virgin Holidays stores soon, remember it’s had quite the journey from the scrap yards of Arizona to get to you. Scorpions – you’ll be glad to hear – are not included.