Advantages The entertainment, service and the fact that you get to say to friends 'I've flown with Virgin'
Disadvantages Worth the hype? Decor, standard economy legroom. You're also giving Beardy Branson more cash
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It’s bloody incredible that despite Heathrow being as disastrously large as it is, I found it nigh on impossible to get a decent cup of coffee; for me, the most important part of any waiting experience, wherever one may be. OK, so there are umpteen Starbucks, Prets and one-off coffee shops in Terminal 3 however they are constantly heaving and when you have shoelessly shuffled through a generous security process and are stuck with an over-excited mother who has never flown long-haul before, time tends to fly (pardon the pun) and before I know it I am prematurely fleeing the queue of caffeine lovers and dragging my mum to Gate 18. Bon Voyage!The lack of coffee wasn’t as big a problem as I made out – at least not at the time. The reason was because we were flying Virgin Atlantic; I was enticed by the raunchy adverts, the thrilling prospect of being served great food (and great coffee) by eight-foot tall super-blondes, having my hand personally shaken by the grinning idiot Richard Branson, generally having a whale of a time as I am being whisked to my favourite place on earth; the holy of holies, New York City- just in time for Christmas.
So clearly I harbour great affection for Virgin Atlantic, despite never having flown with them before. I still cannot believe it has taken me this long as they pride themselves on being THE transatlantic carrier, and there is a certain whimsical sense of voyage and adventure when one flies with them (I LOVE how they name their aircraft, our plane – way out and way back – was called ‘Lady Penelope’). Atlantic definitely walk the talk; though despite all this, choosing Virgin was a comparatively expensive consolation prize as usually my useful –sorry - fantastic pilot friend can get us dirt cheap concessions with British Airways. Alas, he was unable to do so this time so I begrudgingly switched on the laptop and went to work.
First impressions of Virgin Atlantic were very different from what I imagined. Call me naive, but it was all very, well, ordinary. Following a very efficient check in process (online check in opens 24 hours before departure) we dropped our bags and went through to the gate (via the ill-fated attempt to get a Starbucks). The whole process was very pleasant and chatty; though nothing to particularly wow me. We were greeted on the plane as normal and were soon up in the air. By now, I really needed caffeine.The planes themselves were very well looked after although I guess I was expecting a bit more colour and swishness about the seating; it all seemed to rely on beiges and greys, with a few red seats thrown in for good measure. Legroom seemed a little more than I got with BA, however, only marginally so. The seats were very adjustable and I actually found them a lot more comfortable than with BA. The toilets were spotless throughout the flight and the flight deck was friendly and communicative, especially as we were stuck on a Heathrow taxiway for half an hour...
I felt that Virgin Atlantic do a lot to look after economy passengers (New Years’ resolution- one day I will try Upper Class). Shortly after take off there was a drinks run, and the choice was extensive; I shirked my much needed coffee for a G&T, followed by another G&T. There was another drinks run before the meal, and another one towards the end of the flight, however the cabin crew made no secret of the fact that you could ask for more drinks whenever you wanted. Cue another round of G&Ts and I was sated.Food service was very prompt; on the way to NYC we were served lunch then just before landing, afternoon tea. On the way back we were served dinner and breakfast. Truth be told, I find that airline food is a bit like flying itself; the first experience is exciting and new, and then is a bit boring every single time afterwards. For me, the food was exactly the same as BA; same old ‘beef or chicken’, continental breakfast and the ever-present risk of running out of one of the choices (which happened on both journeys). Nevertheless, the food was well-timed, piping hot, promptly served and quickly cleared away. It tasted OK, but then I guess you don’t go flying to have a slap up meal.
On the way back I found the food service to be a little less slick; there seemed to be a massive delay between certain rows receiving food and the drink trolley arrived ages after the food. All in all, the whole journey back was a lot less um, refined than the way to the States; it was an overnight flight so maybe the cabin crew were as tired as we were? I finally decided to try a VA coffee halfway to NYC and disappointingly found it to be the same filtered dirtwater found on any other train, plane or hospital waiting room. Looks like the first great cup of coffee would wait until the Marriott at Times Square then!
As fantastic as the cabin crew were, I am kind of glad they weren’t all sky-high eye candy as it left me to enjoy the frankly superb in-flight entertainment Virgin Atlantic offers. Everything is operated via a removable wired remote, located in the arm rest which is the norm on most airlines, however it seemed to me that there was much more choice available in terms of films, TV shows and even documentaries to watch. Movies alone; there were over 50 to choose from. Between the way to NYC and the way back, I brushed up on Frozen Planet, Battle Los Angeles, The Inbetweeners Movie, countless Family Guy episodes (though I am sure the family behind me did not appreciate my screen frequently showing blood, gore, penises and Quagmire).
Call me grouchy through lack of caffeine - I wrote most of this just hours after landing, in a hotel room overlooking Lady Liberty, awaiting my Starbucks to be delivered to my room- I found Virgin Atlantic to be a deflating experience. Personally, I blame their highly effective Sales and Marketing department at their Crawley Head Offices as the build up and trepidation to travelling with the airline cleverly disguised the fact that there is clearly very little any airline can do with the economy experience. Alternatively, I can blame my own naivety; I mean – did I really think I was going to get an experience as good as the advert? At least they could have served up a decent coffee.Maybe this is too harsh; in many ways flying with Virgin Atlantic was the best long haul experience I have ever had. To be honest, the tinsy bit extra legroom is not a deal breaker, however the service standard of the cabin crew certainly is, and the entertainment! I could have spent the entire week on Lady Penelope (sounds dodgy- apologies) and to hell with the Big Apple.
Let’s sum it up like this; I believe that the end of a holiday offers the most enduring memories; one wants their transition back to the bleak realty of pre-recession Britain to be as smooth as possible. The Virgin Atlantic return experience made an otherwise boring and tiring flight away from wonderful NYC a smidge better. And for that reason, I will travel with them again, assuming my pilot friend fails me once more. Just don’t let Richard and his team of red-suited models fool you- Virgin Atlantic is a decent economy experience, and nothing more. However if they stuck a Starbucks store on each flight I may decide differently...
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