Virgin vs BA: The Smackdown.

March 21, 2008

Since Virgin Atlantic’s launch in 1984 there has been a (not so) silent war between Britain’s (and previously the World’s) Favourite airline, and Richard Brandson’s young upstart. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Business Class cabin, where both airlines fight for lucrative business travellers: who provide the much needed seat margins, lacking in the knock-down economy cabins.

What’s interesting is how both airlines have approached the needs of the customer, both opting for radically different design and service solutions – which can be seen clearly in the lounge, cabin layout, seat design, food and service. I’ve recently flown both (using my regular pay coach, fly business principle) and have some thoughts on how they differ that I thought I’d share.

Lounge

Mike tucks in at the BA Lounge

BA’s lacklustre Business Class lounges at Heathrow is set to be radically transformed by their move to T5 soon, for now though it’s a typical, busy euro-style lounge. If you’re smart you’ll track down the one Terraces Lounge that does a hot buffet, sure beats the cold-sandwich treatment.

Clubhouse

Virgin’s Heathrow Clubhouse is a 25,000ft private member’s club, which you can access in less than 10 minutes with Virgin’s new Upper Class Wing, including private check-in and security. I’ve already blogged it previously. For my money, the best Business Class lounge there is.

Verdict: Virgin Wins (until we see what BA deliver withT5)

Cabin

BA Club World Cabin

BA’s new Club World cabin features both forward and rear-facing seats, each of which have aisle access. Lots of things have been upgraded here, since the last refresh of Club World, but what’s most apparent is the high level of privacy afforded to window seats. BA recently introduced a snack bar, called the Club Kitchen, located in the galley, where you can help yourself to drinks and snacks during the flight, a nice touch but something of an afterthought it seems.

Upper Class

Virgin’s cabin is laid out in their patented herringbone formation, with seats angled at 45°. The low-slung, curved partitions make for what feels like a roomy, open cabin – adding to the sense of space it seems Virgin were engineering with the Upper Class product. Virgin pioneered mood lighting, which many have now replicated, that makes relaxing or navigating the cabin in low-light, a much more pleasurable experience. The best feature, however, is he Bar – now standard on all VS flights. Essentially an open galley, designed for up to 8 passengers to congregate, drink and chat, the bar is an excellent innovation, well suited for folks who like to socialise on a long flight. If you’re feeling super-rockstar about the whole thing, ask if you can have dinner at the bar, it’s a gas.

Verdict: Virgin Wins, hands down.

Seat

BA Club World Seat

BA have obviously spent some time re-engineering their flat-bed seat, since they introduced the first, some years ago. The result is an excellent, private (the window seat only), experience, that suffers only from it’s lack of length (only 6’3”). Unlike Virgin, the seat reclines back fully into the bed position, making it easy to go from reclining and watching a movie to being fully flat and snoozing away, my personal favourite combo.

Upper Class Seat

Virgin’s seat is as ingenious as it is long – a fabulous 6’7″ on the Upper Deck. When it’s time for bed the flight attendant will come and turn down your bed, flipping over the seat, to reveal a soft mattress on the underside of the seat. Soft pillows and a down duvet follow, making for the best Business Class sleep I’ve ever had. Beware though, widths and lengths vary between upper and lower decks on the 747 and again on the A340, so check Seat Guru for details before you travel.

Verdict: If you’re tall Virgin Wins, if you’re looking for privacy go for a window seat on BA

Food

BA Club World Dinner

BA really comes into its own with the food. Excellent muli-course menus and delicious wines combine to make for an excellent all-round dining experience. Top marks.

Lamb

Virgin’s food is simply terrible. The above meal was the single exception to the rule, but every other meal I’ve eaten in Upper Class has been below par. Poorly conceived menus and stingy portions are the norm, which is remarkable for an airline that gets so much else right.

Verdict: No contest, BA’s food wins by a country mile.

Service

This is a tricky one, as both airlines tend to focus on very different priorities.

Virgin carry the member’s club theme on from the Clubhouse, opting for younger (typically female) cabin crew. This is great if you’re off on holiday, as the style is more chatty and indulgent – ‘another glass of Scotch Mr Moross?’ But lacks in genuine, attentive service: requests are often forgotten and the overall attitude is more blasé.

BA have opted for super-professional, older crew. Always attentive and happy to entertain most requests, they’re extremely competent and considerably more experienced than their VS counterparts. But overall the BA crew miss the trick of making the experience special in any way.

Verdict: A draw.

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