Over the last few months I’ve found myself traveling to London a few times, either as my final destination or en route to another country in Europe. On these trips I purposefully selected different airlines and classes of service to see the differences between the airlines and to determine which I think is the best one for traveling to, from or through Great Britain. I expected some differences between British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, but what I never expected to find was the stark divide between the two when it came time to appraise and evaluate the flights to London.
Let’s set the stage
I’m a luxury traveler and as such find myself upgrading whenever I can. That doesn’t always happen though, which is why I routinely find myself flying in a variety of different classes wherever I go. Also, for the purposes of this post you should know that I flew between Washington Dulles International Airport to London Heathrow. For one trip I was booked on Virgin Atlantic and the other trip on British Airways. I had flown Virgin several times in the past, but this was the first time with BA in probably a decade or more. That all being said, these were my observations.
Virgin Atlantic – Virgin whimsically calls their Business class section Upper Class, and the experience starts well before you ever reach your seat. Their lounges are famous for their design, made to order food and fun touches like pool tables and even Jacuzzis. But of course the onboard experience is what we’re all after, and from my experience it’s one of the best out there. Set up in a herringbone pattern, the lay-flat beds and seating areas may be compact, but retain a high level of privacy and comfort. From the service to the food and ultimately the ability to relax, I couldn’t find anything wrong with my flying experience in Upper Class. For overnight flights they also offer sleep suits, an amenity usually only reserved for top-tier First Class products. Upon arrival into London Heathrow, passengers are given fast track through immigration and there’s even an arrivals lounge where you can get a quick shower and a bite to eat before heading out.
British Airways – Flying in the BA Business Class section on a massive A380, maybe my expectations were too high. Because it was a newer plane, I thought that the products onboard would be state of the art, but what I found was seriously lacking. The first thing I noticed was how the Business Class section itself is set up, with seating areas arranged so that you’re facing the passenger next to you. Yes, there are privacy screens but the set up is still awkward and makes it impossible to have it feel like a luxurious experience. I also felt like a number and not a valued guest, BA exhibiting the sad character trait of taking premium passengers for granted rather than offering amazing service. Dinner was ok, but not great and rather than asking, the flight attendant assumed I’d just want an express meal given the late hour of the flight, which was in fact not what I wanted and led to an awkward and annoying meal service. They also forgot to wake me for breakfast, so I didn’t have time to eat before landing. Add to that the fact that two very young children were in the Business Class seats near mine, and the trip was one of the worst Trans-Atlantic Business Class flights I’ve ever experienced.
Virgin Atlantic – It’s tough to compare and contrast Economy Class sections on any airline because so many are so very similar. Cramped seats and bad food are cramped seats and bad food on every airline. But, there were enough differences between VA and BA to warrant at least a little analysis. The one thing I noticed on all of my Virgin Atlantic flights was the attitude of the flight crew themselves. There were happy, pleasant and nice to the passengers, a sad rarity nowadays. It must be thanks to the corporate culture, which speaks volumes and means that the end line passengers receive an experience found on few other airlines. The meals were fine, snacks adequate and whimsical and the small amenity kits a nice surprise in a world where Economy passengers are used to getting little or nothing except a chair to sit on. I also particularly like the Virgin Atlantic entertainment system. It has a large selection and enabled me to avoid doing work for a solid eight hours.
British Airways – I hate to keep picking on them, but their Economy Class experience was amongst the worst I’ve experienced in a very long time. Even though I flew on a 777, my favorite aircraft, the seats weren’t just narrow, they were hard and uncomfortable. I’m used to that though, that’s not uncommon, but once again I was presented with in-flight service that was well below my even modest expectations. Meal service was slow, staggered and confused. The crew ran out of meals, went back to the galley to get more but when they returned they forgot my row. Getting them to come back and actually serve me dinner took far too much effort than it should have. Nothing clicked and for the first time in a long time I wondered whether or not it was the flight attendant’s first day on the job. The entertainment system was pathetically bad with international titles I had never heard of much less had interest in watching. The flight experience was not a positive one, and rather than point to something like a chair or the poor quality of the food, I have to place a lot of blame on the crew. The bad food and lousy chairs would have been forgotten had I received better service. I did not, and that had the effect of greatly accentuating all of the other negative aspects of the flight.
By now you can probably guess that I much prefer Virgin Atlantic for traveling from the US to or through the UK in any class of service. From the back of the plane to the front, they maintain a level of service and quality that’s frankly hard to find in modern aviation. Plus it was just fun to be onboard, to joke with the flight crew, enjoy a surprise popsicle midflight and catch a quick nap en route to my destination. British Airways is an institution, however, their age, name and size guarantees that more people will fly with them than Virgin. But, if given the choice, I think when booking flights to London you should eschew modern convention, avoid the legacy airline in this instance and instead go for the upstart, for the airline who dares to have a personality and to be different. It’s not often we can enjoy our flying experiences from start to finish, so when given that chance why not take it?
What do you think? What are your experiences with these airlines?
21 thoughts on “Flights To London: Which Is Better – British Airways or Virgin Atlantic?”
Thanks for the comparison between the two airlines, Matt. I typically fly Business or First Class on Star Alliance carriers, but recently flew BA from LHR to SEA and loved it! The Business Class cabin on the 777 wasn’t full, and the service was fabulous. I had a rear facing window seat and an empty seat beside me, so it felt very private. I like to snack and appreciated the treats available in the BA Club Kitchen. I would love to see this amenity offered in more Business Class cabins.
It’s actually available in most Business Class section and in the case of Virgin, it’s even in the Premium Economy areas.
I’ve only flown Virgin on domestic UK flights but BA several times between the US and UK. As a price sensitive, economy flyer, Virgin was nothing special IMO (that could be different though if I flew international with them). BA offers me free wine though so they get my vote.
I’ve flown BA for over ten years mostly in business for work and like the privacy of a window seat in club world. I found First not worth it on BA. I order special meals generally, utilize the club kitchens, catch up on international/independent movies I’ve missed and have redeemed for both Biz and Coach + (world Traveller +). I’ve found stellar crews in/out of Philly but not so happy out of JFK (they forgot me and my 11 yo niece and our FA was rude). I’ve not had opportunity to try Virgin as they don’t direct out of PHL and cost to Newark not worth it.
I’ve just returned today from London via Manchester on the AA (formerly US planes) biz class 1-2-1 config using BA points for codeshare. I like the seating, crews were mixed attitudes.
With a BA credit card and AARP discount hack, I’m loyal to BA but have flown them long enough to know what’s good and bad for me.
Virgin won me over with their goodie bag on economy flights to London years ago, so I was happy to get to book with them cross-country as well when they started up their US service. While they didn’t have all the international amenities, they did have fun (paid) mixed drink and snack choices. My one and only BA flight wasn’t bad, but was nothing out of the ordinary.
Totally off topic here – just had the worst experience with BA .
Flew with them last September , had to fly urgently from Canada to the UK to be with my granddaughter who had just been admitted to the the ICU at Great Ormond Street Hospital. I booked the ticket in the same day that I got the terrible news and ended up paying $3006.00 – yes $3000+ – for an world traveller seat second row from the galley.
In that hour of despair when all you want is a little bit of privacy I got the worst service imaginable , dirty chairs , very rude cabin crew -one Asian- looking air hostess in particular- I could go on forever .
Worse was to come however, I called customer services whilst in London and got the usual ” Sorry to hear about your experience we will pass on your complaint to our corporate office” type of response. Hearing nothing back several years later I emailed them again this year and in addition to the above “sorry to hear…..” I was told I should have planned my journey well in advance to get a competitive fare!!!! Who plans in advance for a totally unexpected life threatening and subsequently life altering situation?
Matt can you call them out on this and shame them into being more sensitive to the people who actually help them meet their bottom line whether they are flying ” cattle class” or First. My fare that fateful day in September 2015 could have bought me a club world ticket actually.
Matt could do all he likes but BA wont give a dam. Its run now by a CEO from Vuelling (a budget airline) who is determined to make BA a budget airline also. Me? I would fly anybody rather than BA. Their corporate attitude of shareholder first customer last-same as they treat their staff, is very evident. Dont believe me? goggle BA and see just how many complaints go unanswered. Recently a review by Skytrax,on the top best 10 airlines- BA came nowhere.
As an added note, if you really think BA is the best, then try Singapore, Qatar, Emirates, Turkish, ANA, Cathay etc etc etc and then tell me BA is best!!!!
I am really sorry to hear of your ordeal. I used to be loyal to BA because of the flight timing (even though their service was sometimes great, sometimes questionable), but what you describe is unpardonable from any crew or airline. My sympathies are with you.
I don’t like the interiors of the VA cabin, harsh on eyes and not great when flying with children. Staff can be judgemental and patronising, even when you ask to transfer from next to toilet seat on a half-empty aircraft.
Love Norwegian, Scandinavian quality throughout!
Meant to write several months not years
I actually prefer BA (British Airways)
I fly from Dulles to London all the time -family stuff, usually with kids, so always economy. Sometimes Virgin, usually United. It’s always a bit of a schlep, so I don’t expect luxury. But I just got back from a kidless trip on BA which I stupidly thought would be a treat, trying out the new Dreamliner of which I’d read good things. No doubt the air quality and cabin conditions are much nicer than anything I’ve experienced before. But no. 7 hours each way on a 17-inch wide Dreamliner 3x3x3 non-reclining seat was the worst airline experience ever – and that includes childhood transatlantic red-eye flights on Braniff and sleepovers on the airport floor in Atlanta, Dubai and Bankok in the 70s. Even getting my feet under the forward seat proved impossible, because of a large metal entertainment box – so my handbag containing my iPad and Kindle had to be stowed illegally under my knees. Anything in the overhead locker might as well be on the moon, because you need to stand on your neighbor’s lap to access it. An aisle seat offers better access but also the joy of doing The Bump with every person trying to get to the two loos down the unfeasibly narrow aisles. The tray table is too small to accommodate the discarded packaging from the tiny pret-a-manger style meals so there is a constant flutter of trash onto the floor (which is inaccessible for anyone adult size). But by the time you have this problem, frankly you don’t care any more; the Broken Window Effect has gripped your respect for your surroundings. If they care so little about your comfort or convenience, you find yourself thinking, why should I care about theirs? This may explain why the service was distant and perfunctory. I actually felt nostalgic for the United cabin staff joshing with passengers and tossing cans of soda to each other over the central seats. At least they gave you coffee in a real cup and milk that you don’t have to squeeze for yourself out of a tube, and you felt that they might actually get you to the emergency exit or a defibrillator should the need arise. (They need to fire whoever made their creepy Bratz safety video, by the way.) The limited range of entertainment was not assisted by the minuscule screen (I noticed most of my fellow cattle were watching and reading their own laptops). If BA sees no problem running its economy section like a slumlord, why would I want to pay them even more to fly Business or even Premium economy? Do business with people you respect, with employees that seem happy and enjoying their jobs.
I really enjoyed reading your comment. I could relate to it as have had many similar experiences myself, having been for the most part restricted to economy whilst travelling with the kids. Shall look forward to leaving the ‘cattle’ behind (hopefully!!) and moving up in the world to business class in due course……
Couldn’t agree more. I frequently fly BA business long haul to HK, India, the US and occasionally China as my employer has a deal with BA and the seats are usually the cheapest. However, if I am lucky, Virgin comes up cheapest and I really feel like I’ve gone up a class. Seats are genuinely lie flat, food is better, lounge is much better and the staff are outstanding. I have never flown long haul BA economy, but their short haul economy and business in Europe is terrible. They are now worse than EasyJet, not least as Economy passengers have to buy food just like the cheaper, budget airlines. So sad that our flag carrier is now so poor.
Re BA premium Econ. Goodness, I have never flown BA except over 15 yrs ago. Primarily on annual trips to Israel to visit family I have flown Continental (remember them) and then United (after they merged). United on Econ+. Nothing much except extra legroom which I appreciated on that long flight. But now I’m worried about the experience I’m about to receive on BA’s Econ+. It sounds dismal. Well, at least I will board with such low expectations it might not seem so bad. Will report once I’m back home.
Just think slums-you wont be disappointed! Cant you change and fly with someone else?
I actually completely agree with you. VA is so much better than BA, even on the A380 or the 777. I flew on the VA 787, 747, A330, and A340, and I loved all of them, as for BA, on the A380 and even on the 787, one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had.
I also have done the Dulles-to-Heathrow flight several times. The BA one had the worst seats in Economy, double-decker airbus. In fact, the seats were so bad that when the person in front of me reclined their seat, I could easily do dental work on their wisdom teeth. To give myself some space, I reclined into the lap of the person behind me, but the seats are so awkward, I ended up putting pressure on my neck discs and having vertigo for 2 months after the fact!
United was fine. Staff was friendly, baggage check forgiving (of a few extra pounds in luggage), and the flight was reasonable.
I’ve flown VA nationally and it’s cute, but I kind of hate the mood-lighting and “hipster” vibe, even though I’m in my mid-30s.
I’m making this international trip again soon and am going with UA.
I’ve just spent a year travelling all over the place in business class.(Its not as great as it might sound!) Because it has been short notice travel, I’ve been given an airline, rather than chose one. So far, Singapore, Virgin, Cathay, BA, Qatar, Emirates, Royal Bunei, Malaysian, China Air, EVA, JAL, KLM, Finnair.
There is no doubt, no doubt at all, that BA is the worst. By some distance. A lot is due to the awful design of the cabin and the limited space. But the crew know it’s second rate and you are most certainly not special. They have so much capacity because of the cabin design that BA business can be cheaper than other airline’s premium economy. That’s the only good thing. It’s just poor. If they were’nt a national carrier with protected slots flying direct, they would go out of business.
Getting ready to fly SFO to London any updated comments which airline to take?
Untiled’s 777 screens are tiny – if you want to watch something on an IFE take BA or VA
Curious what’s best economy miami-heathrow ? My options are ba, Virgin , finnair and American.
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