Virgin Atlantic and Heathrow Airport

On a recent trip to London/Paris, I was as excited not just to the see the sights, but to give Virgin Atlantic a try for the flight over.  I had heard a ton of great things about their airline and I was curious to see for myself.

I’ll say this right up front – I was underwhelmed.  I totally dug the throwback, 60’s Pam Am look.  Instead of the bright blue uniforms of that airline and era, replace them with the bright red ones of Virgin.  The service was very good; the flight attendants on the flight over and back were very friendly and accommodating.

Everything else about the flight was “eh” though.  On the flight to London, the most glaring issue was the size of the seat I was in.  The planes are split up into three sections – Upper class, Premium Economy, and Economy.  We were in Economy and what I didn’t realize that is even in Economy, if you don’t pay the extra $50 for a “purple seat”, you pretty much have no leg room.  I’m 5’9″, 155 lbs and literally, with the arms of the seat were practically pressed up against my thighs, my legs could spread apart at most 8 inches.  It was the most cramped I’ve ever felt on any airline.

The movie selection was actually very good on the flight over (on the flight back however…I’ll get to that later on), and it’s a good thing because you will NOT get a wink of sleep.  The mood lighting they advertise?  Only in first class.  And like any long flight, the babies were over the place.  Don’t get me wrong, I get that you can’t just leave your child behind while you travel and this is no fault of the airline, but there were toddlers all over the aisles and climbing on chairs.  It was ridiculous – the plane isn’t a playpen.

And one final thing to know – you can’t drink unlimited amounts on Virgin Atlantic.  They announce at the beginning of the flight that they will end drink service at the amount of consumption, not behavior.  As the flight attendant amusingly said “No point closing the barn door after the cows are out running lose”.  Now this isn’t a huge deal for me, I don’t need to get wasted on my flight over.  But it was just an observation I felt should be shared since I know several people who like the option of tossing back a few drinks on a long flight.

Now all of that was on the flight to Europe.  On the flight back, we luckily were upgraded to Premium Economy for free because the previous day’s flight was cancelled and they were trying to bump those folks onto our flight.  I was almost embarrassed sitting in Premium Economy looking up at the poor folks looking down on me as they walked back to Economy during boarding, but it was admittedly a nice feeling to see all the crying babies going past.  I told the woman next to me that we had been upgraded for free and she said, “Oh man, you’re lucky not to be back there.  This airline shoves people all together like cattle.  This is the only airline that I pay extra to make sure I’m not back there.”

Obviously, the comfort level increased exponentially with wide leather seats, a ton of leg room, champagne when you board, hot towels, and after dinner cognacs or Bailey’s as well as a mid-flight Haagen Dazs ice cream break.  And this was just Premium Economy.  I couldn’t even see what the Upper Class folks probably received. The shocking part of the flight back though was how bad the entertainment system was, possibly because we were on an older plane.  Unlike the flight over, this flight didn’t have an On-Demand style entertainment system.  Each movie was run at random times on different channels from a VHS, so you had to know exactly when the movie started, which there was no way of knowing.  On top of that, the colors were way off (everyone on my screen looked yellow) and the audio kept cutting off.  So I ended up watching and hearing only parts of Warrior and MoneyBall.

So all in all, the airline wasn’t horrible – it just didn’t live up to the hype.  They say on their website that they’ve won the Reader’s Choice award for Best International Airline four years in a row, but I can only imagine those casting the vote didn’t fly in Economy or fly on one of Virgin’s older planes.  I’d give my vote to Air France over Virgin any day.

And one quick tip when your flight lands at Heathrow Airport in London.  Chances are your flight will get in early in the morning.  Keep this in mind – if you have a layover in that airport, allow PLENTY of time.  Expect delays because pretty much ALL transatlantic flights coming from the east and west land at that time.  We had to wait on the runway for a gate to open up after landing, customs took a good 45 minutes to get through, and then the terminals are FAR apart.  You’re walking down hallway after hallway, through what is a essentially a huge shopping mall, and getting on the London Underground subway to get to adjacent terminals.  So the time from landing to getting to a new gate in a different terminal could take as long as an hour and a half to two hours.

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