I have just travelled to Vegas by BA in March 2016 so I’m updating this section of the blog to tell you about the changes since I last flew with BA and give you details of any new wrinkles that might help you when you travel.
I didn’t start out with the intention of making this post a direct comparison between Virgin Atlantic and British Airways but, the more I think about it, there seems little alternative. I travelled from London Gatwick (LGW) to Las Vegas (LAS), leaving at a similar time in the morning and arriving at about the same time in mid afternoon.
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class is effectively the equivalent of BA’s Club World. I can say that with confidence given that the ticket price was almost identical. Upper is Virgin’s highest travel class. BA does offer a First Class service which is a lot more expensive but it doesn’t operate on all routes. For example it isn’t available on the BA 777 I’m travelling on. So, effectively I’m travelling in the best available class and it is a valid comparison.
The first obvious difference is that Virgin fly from the South terminal while BA fly from the North. The terminals are not identical. It takes five minutes longer in the car park courtesy shuttle to reach the North terminal. Once dropped off it’s a short walk at the South to the elevators up to the departure level. At the North the walk is measured in minutes. The walkway is covered but not enclosed so some of you may feel the cold (or heat).
Once inside there are a similar number of Economy check in and bag drop desks. Flying Virgin from the South I have never waited to check in, not once in over forty occasions. Flying BA from the North however it was immediately apparent that Club is nowhere near as select. There was a significant queue to check in. Not like in Economy, don’t get me wrong, but many more people and much scruffier. There was a wait of about five minutes.
The check in staff were fine. Security was similar but it was evident that £40 million hasn’t been spent on the North terminal as it has been on the South. The one passport scanner wasn’t working so the officer was entering details by hand so another short queue.
As at March 2016 the British Airways lounge at LGW is under construction. They offer free use of the Number One lounge instead. OMG. Dire. Self serve, very limited cold food only and far too many people for the size of the room. Whatever the opposite of select is this was it. Lots of children and men in cargo shorts. Remember this is a direct comparison with Virgin and therefore with the Clubhouse in the South terminal with its choice of hot food served to you by a waitress, a spa, shoeshine etc. There is simply no comparison.
Fortunately I brought my Priority Pass with me and went instead to the Swissair Aspire Lounge downstairs. At least here there were no crowds, hot bacon rolls and some available seating.
The BA staff tell me that their new lounge is being built in the South terminal. I wasn’t quite sure how that would work unless flights are also being relocated but BA really should have made better lounge arrangements pending completion of the construction.
Ground phase complete I will update this post when I get to Vegas with my observations on the flight itself. When it comes to the comparison so far, sadly there is none. Virgin beats BA in every category and on every level.
One more issue before boarding. When you arrive at the designated gate there is always a crowd. Virgin operate a two queue system so Upper Class passengers don’t have to wait in line with the great unwashed. BA – not a chance, just the one mammoth queue. Another own goal by BA. The score is mounting up. Irretrievable deficit?
I did a little research by speaking to some staff. To my horror I found out that in or about January 2017 Virgin and BA are swapping facilities! Virgin is moving to the North – all its flights and facilities and BA is moving to the South. So BA will get the Clubhouse and Virgin will get whatever is built.
Ok, I’m now on the plane and I’ve found my seat in the Club World cabin, J11. It’s comfy enough. I’m on the aisle with one bed between me and the window. That guy gets to his bed around the back of mine. The next window occupant forward however gets to his seat by walking between my seat and my footstool. This could be a problem.
It duly is. I have converted my seat into a bed joining the seat to the footrest. Now there is no way through for him. He has, literally, to climb over me! This guy is also prolific in going to the bathroom, fiddling with his bags in the overhead locker, fetching snacks from the kitchen and generally wandering about. Each time he has to hurdle me twice so what chance of sleep did I have? Zilch.
Come on BA. Over £2,000 in the sale for a seat and you have to be straddled twenty times by a stranger. Absolutely ridiculous.
The writing was on the wall for the entertainment system when the video safety demonstration had to be aborted for an old fashioned manual briefing. The choice of movies was probably one third of that available on Virgin. I loaded up the one film that appealed. After watching the compulsory commercials there was an announcement that the system needed to be reset. I counted at least ten subsequent resets but to no avail. The entertainment system didn’t work at all for the entire duration of the flight. Given that we took off about fifty minutes late despite having boarded early I was on the plane nearly twelve hours with no TV, not even the sky map!
I asked what their back up plan was for this eventuality. None at all.
Cabin crew were certainly on a par with Virgin but nothing else came up to the same standard. Food choice was less. No desert appeared at main meal time, we skipped straight to the cheese. There were too few crackers served in a sealed bag and no grapes or chutney. Other small touches were a let down. When the bread rolls came round you were invited to stick your hand in and help yourself. Not entirely sanitary. The Virgin staff use tongs and serve you your selection. Condiments were in small disposable sachets you expect in McDonalds not in Business Class.
The crew were conspicuous by their absence between meals and I wasn’t once asked if I wanted anything. I appreciate the menu said something about self service snacks from the galley but this is supposed to be business class – self service, really?
My other gripe is that the occupants of the other cabins also load by the same door at the front so they have to file past you hitting you with their luggage as they pass. Virgin set up the plane differently so this doesn’t happen. Another small issue I know but these add up. Overall experience compared to Virgin – grossly inferior. I would assess the comparative value of this package at about sixty percent. To tempt me to travel BA the fare would need to be no more than sixty percent of the Virgin fare. Given that the ticket price is in fact the same the choice of carrier going forward is a no brainier.
I understand that the BA service from LGW to Vegas is about to end. Only the Heathrow service will remain. I have no reason to believe that the Heathrow service will be radically different in terms of set up but I invite BA to tell me if that’s not the case.
In the interests of fairness I have to tell you also about the return flight. A long haul flight is never a pleasant matter whatever class of cabin you’re travelling in so it’s a good idea to choose your seat whenever you can. You can pay (a hefty fee) to choose your seat in advance – unless you have at least a Silver Flying Club card – otherwise you can select your seat when you check in online. I made sure I was online 24 hours ahead of my flight when online check in opens. It’s not always possible to guarantee an internet connection when you’re on holiday so I made sure I was somewhere I knew there would be a reliable service. I couldn’t get online check in to work. I tried and tried over the course of the next sixteen hours but BA’s system was down so no seat reservation for me, I just had to wait until I could manually check in at the airport. Sorry BA, yet another black mark. This has never happened in over forty flights with Virgin.
The lounge at LAS is not great but that’s not BA’s fault. The flight loaded promptly and took off on time. The layout of the cabin was the same so there are still passengers climbing over other passengers to get to the toilets but I’m not going to repeat myself. Everything else went smoothly and the entertainment system actually worked save that someone had ‘failed to load the hot breakfasts’. All that was left for me was a spinach panini. Not ideal. Come on BA, at over £2,000 a ticket you’ve got to remember to load the breakfast. Again, this has never happened at Virgin.
I have issued a formal complaint to BA about these two flights. In the interests of fairness I will add their response to this post as and when I receive it. For the time being Virgin beats BA on absolutely every level when it comes to flying from London to Las Vegas – there is simply no comparison at all.
It took almost two weeks but I did eventually hear back from BA Customer Services. Their reply was predictably polite but comprised only platitudes and no actual proposals to reimburse me for the inadequacy of the service. I don’t know about you but continually saying sorry then doing nothing about it doesn’t wash with me so I jotted off another email missive demanding something tangible.
The wait for a further response was a little less and the outcome was an offer of Avios (air miles) equivalent to about one leg of the journey. In fact I’d already steeled myself to sue BA if they didn’t come up with something meaningful as, the more I thought about it, they’d given me an Economy class service at a Business Class price. A little haggling ensued and the amount of Avios was increased – equivalent to a decent Economy class free flight – so I’m leaving it there. I have two further BA flights coming up (not to Vegas) and I’ll review the situation when I’m back.
In the meantime my advice remains to use Virgin Atlantic although a new carrier has entered the market – Norwegian. Let’s see how they do.