Virgin Atlantic VS 04 JFK-LHR Upper Class April 13 by J. Augusta

After my live trip report from TPA-JFK I headed to baggage claim to grab my bag (I actually requested Delta to not check my bag through to LHR as I wanted it to get tagged as an “Upper Class” bag on VS and thus faster delivery), which took about 20 minutes. I then headed to the AirTran to T4 to check in for my VS flight.

T4 was relatively empty at 3:30pm with only a few flights leaving (including a NW flight to Amsterdam) at this time- way too early for the body to adjust to a time change if you ask me. Check-in was a breeze, and my bag was specially tagged and a lounge invitation was presented. I headed to the Virgin Clubhouse to spend the next hour or so which was relatively empty 3 hours prior to the flight. The lounge at JFK is pre-security which is a bit of a pain, but is still fairly nice. It’s in the upper section of T4 which means it has an open ceiling and also a view of the main section of T4. Since I had mostly skipped lunch (thanks to the mayo ridden sandwich served by DL) I settled down and ordered some food from the VS lounge- along with a martini (or 2). I went with the cream of chicken soup (awesome) and a tilapia dish served with basmati rice and candied carrots. The food was excellent- although was slow to arrive thanks to my server messing up my order. People around me, however, had no issues. Around 5:00 I headed down to explore duty free and kill some time before the 5:25 boarding. Nothing looked good so I just headed to the gate.

T4 has a security lane for Upper Class and Business Class passengers so I made it through in about 2 minutes with plenty of time to buy a few bottles of water and walk around checking out the gates (to see if there was anyone headed anywhere more interesting). A Swiss flight was leaving, as well a KLM flight to AMS, and a DL flight to LHR. Other than that the terminal was quite empty. Boarding was prompt at 5:25 and I headed to the plane.

The plane was placed in service in January, 2006 (Thanks to the lettering on the plane itself proclaiming its service date as well as its name- which I forget) so it’s one of Virgin’s newest A346s. Upon boarding I made my right hand turn to settle into my seat for the next 6:30. For those who have never been on a 346 these things are MASSIVE. Looking down the plane one can barely see the back of this thing. I must say I find it much more impressive (and roomy) than any 777 I’ve been on. I settled into seat 5k, on the right side of the plane and ironically the same seat I’ve had for every prior VS flight I’ve had. It’s a great seat (not that I can compare it to anything). VS seats are 1-1-1 with the middle seat facing the left side for the first 8 rows and the right side for the remaining rows. This meant I had no one to stare at me in my herringbone shaped pod for the entire flight. Since I left the lounge early I was one of the first to board. I was immediately offered a sleep suit which I accepted and changed into. On my return to my seat I was offered a glass of champagne which I sort of spilled onto my suite thanks to the poorly designed drink holders. After a quick cleanup it was as if nothing happened and, slightly embarrassed, I accepted another glass of champagne.

The plane continued to fill up and I sat around, sipped my champagne, and enjoyed the boarding process. As with many other European airlines (including BA), VS tends to, IMO, “cheat” this flight out of a proper meal. They sell it as a sleep flight (even though it’s leaving at 6:25) and thus offer only a limited menu. Today’s offerings were an express salad with Caesar dressing served with Shrimp, or a Flat Iron Steak or Vegetable “pasty” (British food!) as the hot options. There was no choice in starter, and dessert was cheese or cheesecake by request only. Orders were taken while on the ground, and I went for the steak without dessert. Keep in mind one can eat a full meal in the clubhouse so I may be a bit unfair here, but the options on the plane are a bit limited.

We pushed back on time and had a relatively short queue (for JFK at least) before heading out 31R (at least I think that’s what our pilot said). One thing about the A346s- these things take up the entire runway when fully loaded! Once in the air the captain waited about 15 minutes before turning the seat belt sign off (most European airlines tend to be more lenient with the seat belt sign than their American counterparts) at which time the FAs came around to make people’s seats into beds and begin meal service. They also fired up VPORT the entertainment system. The only complaint about VPORT is the fact that they show literally about 20 minutes of adverts before the system is accessible. I felt like I was in a movie theater being forced to watch 30 minutes of previews- which is never fun knowing what you paid for the right to be there!

My meal arrived about 10 minutes later (25 minutes in the air) with my salad (with Caesar dressing on the side), 3 rolls, and a main course all on the tray. Given the short flight I suppose I like the speed of this service (compared to the 2-3 hour Continental and Delta ordeal) so I’m a bit torn about the reduced menu. The meal was so-so, it was edible but not the best thing I’ve ever had by any means. I tried washing down the steak with a glass of their French red on offer, but the wine wasn’t drinkable so I left the wine and stuck with water. I ended the service with peppermint tea and had my bed made up. On VS the seats actually flip forward to create a flat bed. They then add a mattress cover and a duvet to create a mini-casket/bed type effect. This is the first time I actually used the bed and I was very impressed. It’s a bit firm but is REALLY nice to be able to lay down at 180 degrees. I tried finishing my movie (some Dean Cook comedy that was really bad) but ended up dozing off- I slept off and on for the next few hours which checking in on the flight progress on the interactive map from time to time. I didn’t get any real sleep (as I mentioned I have trouble with this) but at least was comfortable while dozing, and the cabin was nice and dark without much foot traffic (at least it wasn’t noticeable).

About 1:30 prior to landing breakfast was offered (one could pre-order before sleep if they liked)- options were fruit, cereal, bacon or sausage rolls, bread, and cake. I went with a croissant and some fruit which I washed down with some OJ and peppermint tea. I went to the bathroom to change out of my sleep suit and enjoyed the remainder of my flight watching the sky map.

For about the first time ever we had a very short approach and landed at LHR around 6:30- about 5 minutes early. We taxied for the next 15 minutes or so before parking at a gate at T3. The walk from the gate to customs took about 15 minutes, and I’m a fast walker. Upon arrival the general queue was madness- most likely the product of the Singapore A380 landing just shortly before us. Luckily we were given fast track and I walked to find a completely open section. I was through customs in about 2 minutes, walked down headed to the bathroom, and made my way to baggage claim which, at this point the bags were already coming off the belt (only about 20 minutes post-landing). Amazingly my bag was among the first 20 or so, so I grabbed it and headed through customs. All told this took about 20 minutes to deplane, go through immigration, grab bag, and go through customs. I headed to the trains to take the Heathrow Express into Paddington. I had to wait about 5 minutes for a train and then after the quick 15 minute ride I found myself in central London. I headed for the taxi stand and took a 20 minute taxi ride back to my place in Clapham. All said and done I was home almost exactly 1 hour after we arrived at the gate- and that includes walking to immigration, clearing immigration, waiting for baggage, exiting customs, walking to the train station, taking a train into London, waiting for a taxi, and riding to my place. That is record time in my book and a HUGE benefit to me as I was able to take a few hours nap before calling into my first meeting. They do have an arrivals lounge, but I decided to get home for sleep instead of checking out the lounge.

Overall VS has some great advantages. OK the food isn’t as good and the selection isn’t that great, but since one can eat in the clubhouse (which does have a nice menu) this isn’t a big deal. Service was much better on this flight, the flat beds were excellent, and the baggage delivery was nothing short of amazing. I go back and forth on my opinions of US and EU airlines and I think it’s down to the experience one wants. If you want a seamless flight, a quick meal, and a comfortable bed then you cannot beat Virgin. If you don’t sleep, enjoy the 3 hour meal and want constant, excellent service then you can’t beat the US carriers. It’s a personal preference, but a great experience nonetheless.


Delta Business Elite CVG-JFK-LHR March 8 by J. Augusta

Talk about a perfect weather weekend- with temps in the 70s the whole week it was a nice departure from the cold and grey in London. Of course all good weather comes to an end and it looks like I got out just in time. I arrived at CVG approx 2 hrs before the flight to a very empty airport, got my shoes shined, and skipped the Crown Room in favor of a large Sam Adams and pretzel sticks at Max and Ermas for one last dose of good food. The flight boarded about 30 minutes early- a Trans-Atlantic configured 757-200 (The same plane I took over from JFK that I didn’t write a report on). While boarding I ran into my seatmate from the flight over who was headed back to JFK on the same flight, I love odd airport coincidences like that.

For those who are interested the DL TA 752 feels very similar to the CO ones- although in a bit better condition since they’re newer and they have the leather seats. The seat, although different from CO’s, has a very similar feel as CO’s. One note is that there is no underseat storage in any seat up front. However the recline was great and there was plenty of room in the overheads. I think this would certainly be a decent plane to spend 8-9 hours on up front. Once on board a pre-departure Heineken was in order. F had about 6 seats empty on boarding, but 5 were taken by deadheading crew leaving one seat open. The back was mostly empty too. Talk about a light load for a Sunday night flight- although I guess it was a bit late of a flight to connect to most international flights so that may explain it. We left on time and were #1 for takeoff. Flight time was under 1:40- FA did several beverage runs (Club Soda and vodka for me with some biscoffs and chips). Delta on Demand was at every seat, although the movie selection is the same as on the 767 so I chose to listen to my Ipod instead. We arrived into JFK about 45min early keeping my early arrival trend alive (I arrived from LHR into JFK 45 min early and into CVG from JFK over 1 hr early)—what a difference light loads and nice weather make on JFK flights!

At JFK I decided to kill some time at the Crown Room sipping a bloody mary and making a few phone calls to friends and family (“Surprise, I’m here in the states… but I’m leaving tonight!”—doesn’t go so well with the parental units). Boarding started about 40 minutes before departure- sort of late for a transcon flight- but boarding was completed on time. Note that since Europe isn’t in Daylight Savings Time until later this month most flights were leaving an hour later than scheduled.

The flight was another 763 and also in good condition. Delta 1—always cool to fly the flight #1. I took a seat on the left side today- 5B. Business was full and Y looked to be about 80-85% full. Just an observation but I recommend the other side of the plane as it is closer to the bathrooms and seems to get less traffic. After a brief chat with my seatmate I sipped a glass of bubbly and read through the menu. Unfortunately Delta is much like Continental in that although they rotate their menu- this is the 3rd time I’ve had the same choices in food (including starters). I guess I need to start timing my flights on Delta to be on months that have the other menu rotations. Or maybe I fly too much.

Starters were a cold shrimp with some sauce I don’t like, tomato salad with blue cheese on romaine (served with Balsamic and Ranch), and a tasty tomato soup (my description, not Delta’s!)

The mains (as copied from the website):
• Grilled filet of beef with grain mustard sauce, served with redskin mashed potatoes, baby carrots and sautéed Belgian endives
• Fettuccini Alfredo with Broccolini garnished with roasted tomatoes and hazelnuts
• Cold plate of roast beef and gravlax with a deviled egg and heart of palm
Grilled chicken Ras el Hanout with yogurt sauce, accompanied by sautéed zucchini and leek medley and olive couscous

When the friendly FA came around I placed my order for the chicken. They used to let you choose 2 of 3 starters but gave up on that and just give you all 3 now—which is good because they catered all 3 the other times and usually threw the extra away.

We pushed back on time and were #1 for takeoff.-Another big surprise coming from JFK! The pilot announced that with the 100 mph headwinds we’d most likely arrive at LHR about 1hr early. Once in the air nuts (not hot) and drinks were offered. I decided on one last glass of champagne and then water with my meal as I’ve drank way too much this weekend! I turned on my Delta On Demand unit and started playing around- decided to watch the new Bond film again as since I had seen it once I could afford to fall asleep during it. No need though as my unit kept resetting after like 20 minutes while tuned into any movie (and I overheard others so it seems I wasn’t alone here). I took it as a sign to get some sleep instead.

The meal was served quite promptly. I know I’ve complained about Delta service in some reports last year (they seemed short staffed up front to me) but either I’ve had good crews recently or things really have improved as this flight was awesome in terms of service. I did have my own “dedicated” FA come around often with water refills and extra bread. And others were doing the same all during the service. One of my complaints with CO is the time it takes to serve the meal… this wasn’t the case here. Starters were on our table about 10 minutes after the nuts were offered, and the meal followed directly after the starter. The starters were okay- although the soup was quite good as mentioned before. The chicken was actually very nicely cooked and tasted relatively healthy (At least that’s what I told myself)—so much so that I decided to do the ice cream for dessert. Delta’s sundaes aren’t quite as good as CO as the topping choices are a bit more limited, but it was a nice end to the meal. After finishing my sundae and some peppermint tea I decided to try and get some sleep.

However it never fails, I really can’t sleep on overnight flights. I probably dozed off and on for about the next 3 ½ hours while listening to my Ipod. It wasn’t that I wasn’t comfortable, I just can’t sleep (something about being overwater on an overnight flight just keeps my body from being “trusting” enough to shut down for a few hours- if that makes sense?… I’ve done about 20 of these over the past 2 years and it’s still an issue!). About 1 ½ hrs before landing they started with breakfast service. Unlike CO they didn’t turn on the overhead lights, which allowed people to keep sleeping until the very end (A nice move!). I passed on breakfast since dinner was only about 3 hours ago but did notice how diligent the FAs were to check with everyone within about 30 seconds of them showing signs of waking up. Another sign of a great crew!

As we got closer to LHR we were placed in a short hold giving us a nice circle around the London/Westminster area. We still ended up landing about 1:15 early- making this 4 for 4 flights with early arrival this trip—average early arrival time of approx 1hr. Customs was quite empty and by the time I went to change in the bathroom (no arrival lounge yet…) my bag was on the belt. Luckily my driver checked the flight info and was waiting for me at the other end of immigration. I was actually at my office (40 miles away) within 10 minutes of my scheduled landing time.

I must say I’m very impressed with Delta. The only thing keeping me to Continental is the 2x EQMs they offer EU residents- otherwise I’d probably choose Delta more often as I’d say they are at least on par with CO. When taking a short 4 day weekend break being on time is of great concern and I was a bit worried flying through JFK but Delta (and luck) delivered. And service was great on all 4 flights. As business class flights continue to be dirt cheap (Flights in Nov are pricing at $1,600 round trip) I would highly recommend giving Delta a shot- if you get the luck with JFK traffic and weather you won’t be disappointed. If you don’t get so lucky- don’t blame me. Thanks for reading.