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.