British Airways versus Virgin Atlantic: My view!

London Travel Blog

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If I have a choice, I will always choose British Airways over any other carrier - especially if I am flying long haul.

As I write this posting, I am on a BA flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Narita airport and thinking about why I prefer British Airways.

I fly long haul at least once a month and for a time started to use and try out Virgin Atlantic a bit more. However, although at first there are some unique and undoubtedly innovative elements like the amazing lounge at London Heathrow Terminal 3. To see my photos, a video and commentary of the stunning Virgin Atlantic Heathrow lounge: click here.

Virgin also were the first to introduce the "herringbone" layout for their Upper Class (what they call their business class), where all seats have aisle access and clever flat beds as the whole seat flips over to create a completely flat surface. They are still (I believe) the only airline offering in-flight massage service to their business class passengers.

A few things for me let down the Virgin Atlantic service, which keeps British Airways as my favorite airline:

1) Inconsistency of the experience. If you fly out of Heathrow in Upper (business) class you have a remarkable experience. A limo collects you, curbside check-in the limo drives into, stunning lounge with spa, restaurant and more, in-flight massage, video and games on demand, bar to sit at and the large flat bed with sleeper suit and duvet.

However, fly from anywhere else and it is less unique with run of the mill lounges and inconsistent and often surly check-in and other staff. It seems that they use contract staff and services that provide just that.

2) When there is a problem on Virgin there is a real problem. I was stuck and incredibly badly handled (along with a full plane load of other passengers) flying out of Newark New Jersey. I have a number of blog postings on the event (click here) and passengers were so outraged that they started a blog called "Virgin Nightmare".

It showed up that, unlike an airline like BA with all their history, resources and discipline, that Virgin was fine when things went to schedule and everyone knew their role in the "show" - but when there was a problem there was poor leadership and as staff were largely contract there main interest was passing the problem on. As a regular business traveler away from home, I don't want that uncertainty.

3) Slickness of service on BA. The Virgin service is informal and familiar which makes sense for the sort of experience they are trying to create. But for me, BA makes you feel more special. The long haul service has a brilliant balance of efficiency, dialogue and thoroughness. They also offer a much wider selection of options, especially in drink.

British Airways in their Club World have the "back-and-front" layout which means some people face backwards and that some people have to climb over a passengers legs to get to their seat. However, even the original seats (they are rolling out a newer version through 2007 and into 2008) are comfortable and the recent introduction of more duvet style covers to replace the awful tartan blankets that got horribly electric make for a much more comfortable sleep.

Unlike Virgin, BA has retained the amenity kit with various toiletries.

4) The possibility of being upgraded to First. There is always the chance, especially if you fly regularly with BA that you get upgraded, and then this is a real treat. BA First is really special. There are just 14 seats and remarkable service and treatment. I have been fortunate enough on 3 out of the 4 last long haul trips to be upgraded on the way home (but never - interestingly - on the flight out of London!)

5) The Upstairs Club section on BA 747s. Virgin has half upper class and half Premium Economy upstairs on their Jumbos, while BA have just Club. There are only a few rows and with 2 toilets and lots of staff this also tends to be very quiet and the best place to choose if you are flying on the 747.
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photo by: ulysses