Flamboyant entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson took on the staid UK flag carrier British Airways with his youthful Virgin Atlantic in 1984. Its first service was between London Gatwick and Newark with a leased 747 and within a year was turning a profit. All through the 1980-90’s the airline added new destinations to its network, particularly in the US and Caribbean. In 2000 Singapore Airlines bought 49% of the airline. In 2010 BA and American Airlines merged Trans-Atlantic operations and in response Virgin Atlantic commissioned Deutsche Bank to find a buyer or suitor. BA-Iberia (IAG), Etihad, Air France-KLM and Delta are all courting Britain’s number two global carrier. In the 1990’s Virgin Atlantic was the victim of a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign by British Airways to force them from the market. Sir Richard turned the scandal into a media opportunity which tarnished BA’s already dented image. Virgin Atlantic snitched on co-price fixers in 2006 and in 2010 Cathay Pacific snitched on Virgin Atlantic. The airline is currently being investigated and could face a crippling fine of £250 million.
Virgin Atlantic on-board service is supposed to be casual and sexy. Crew announcements are either comical or immature whichever way you look at it. Female flight attendants are beautifully dressed in a bright red uniform and men are dressed more dourly. Crew generally don’t live up to their advertising image, but just give normal service, not unlike their competitors. Favoured passengers are treated warmly and crew can go the extra mile, however most passengers won’t notice much difference. Crew do try to be entertaining, but often come across as just hung over.
Virgin Atlantic has a good network linking the UK to the US and Caribbean. The rest of the world is just serviced in a very general way. Together with its partner airline Virgin Australia, it is possible to circumnavigate the globe on a Virgin airline.
Virgin Atlantic is trying to make money in an industry where profits are scarce and competition intense. Virgin Atlantic is pricey. On routes to Asia, the Middle East and Australia better carriers can be found at a cheaper price while on routes to Africa, the US and Caribbean they are among the better options with prices a bit higher. Frankly they are worth paying a little more for, but not too much more.
Virgin Atlantic sometimes lives up to its reputation for premium passengers by delivering excellent airline dining, however most fare is ordinary airline cuisine. Compared to competitors on US, Caribbean and African routes, Virgin Atlantic’s catering is superior but on routes to the Middle East, Asia and Australia they are no match for the likes of Emirates, Qatar and Asiana. Meals are nicely served and generally tasty in all classes. Premium passengers can help themselves at the Upper Class bar.
Virgin Atlantic have seat back individual entertainment units in all aircraft, however older planes have smaller screens than newer aircraft. The old screens are quite small. Their programme offering has a range of current and classic films and TV shows. There are numerous audio channels and plenty of games. Their in-flight magazine is a good read. If you don’t speak English you’re in trouble. Bring a book or iPod as very little is available for you.
Despite the fanfare on special occasions Virgin Atlantic check in is rather standard. Celebrities will be raved over and businessmen mocked behind their back about their ill fitting suits, but everyone else will just be processed like normal customers. Unfortunately Virgin’s main airports in London are the lousiest in Europe for losing bags, but it generally isn’t the airlines fault. However it’s no conciliation to know this when you arrive in Las Vegas, from London without your baggage.
Virgin Atlantic have the best premium product for Trans Atlantic travellers. Their Upper Class is a combination of First/Business and has spacious seating, excellent entertainment, room to work and has its own on-board bar. If you’re expecting to find James Bond and Kylie Minogue at the bar you’re in for a disappointment as you’re more likely to be sharing a stool with a balding accountant or an overweight stock broker. The airlines Lounges are swish and aimed to resemble a night club but tend to be like a crowded up-market cafe.
Virgin Atlantic promotes itself as a luxurious airline which it certainly is not in Economy. The truth is, its basically like everyone else. A seat, meals, drinks, standard baggage allowance and nice service. The only thing different is the relaxed staff, bright red interiors and comic Britishness of the crew. Premium Economy has basically the same service but with a much more spacious seat which is worth it for long trips, which practically all Virgin Atlantic flights are.
For some inexplicable reason Virgin Atlantic has not joined any of the major airline groupings so its totally independent. They have their own frequent flyer programme called the Flying Club which is partnered to many individual airlines globally and other travel product service providers. Like all schemes, considerable travel is needed before real benefits materialise. Given the possibility of major change in the airline’s ownership structure soon, there seems little reason to join.
Sir Richard Branson likes to portray his airline as staffed with sexy blond bombshells who are anything but virgins. He is a skilled manager of the media which adores his publicity seeking antics. He’s always good for a quote or a photo opportunity. However the reality of making money from this enterprise is harder than it seems and the company has crapped in its own nest over its involvement of price fixing. It’s hard to believe its senior management has not engineered the situation it is currently being investigated for and if the airline is fined, its future will be under a cloud. While Virgin values its staff in many ways and makes them feel good, they are poorly paid and could be out of a job if the airline falters. Virgin Atlantics 2008 profit figures were highly suspect and critics claimed the work of creative accountants rather than money earned. Now the airline is on the market, their miraculous profit in 2008 fits into place when seeking a higher sale price.
In the early days the airline operated dodgy second hand planes, but now has a modern fleet which is well maintained. The airline has never had a fatality and has a smooth flying record.
A pricey British carrier that offers value for money by offering a better flying experience.
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