The two main airlines of the UK have had a heated rivalry over the years, but as times change, so do the attitudes of customers and passengers, and it is very interesting to see which of these airlines has adapted best as we approach the end of the 2010s.
British Airways (BA) is the largest airline in the United Kingdom based on fleet size. It was created in 1974 and is a founding member of the Oneworld airline alliance, along with American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas, among others. BA flies to all inhabited continents on the planet, and as such many international travellers acknowledge the airline as having a certain hallmark of quality.
Virgin Atlantic (VS) was formed in 1984 and is the brainchild of British business Sir Richard Branson (shown in all his inimitably eccentric style in the cover photo above). Preferring to go their own way in business style, VS is one of the major airlines that is not currently part of an airline alliance.
British Airways have their main base at London Heathrow Airport, which is located around a 30 minute train ride outside of central London. BA have Terminal 5 all to itself, and as such the transit of passengers from one BA flight to another is often a seamless affair. It must be said that British Airways fly all over the world, to every inhabited continent, and their main focus is certainly North America. BA also have a smaller base at London Gatwick, although this is mainly used for leisure flights to the Caribbean and Mexico.
Virgin Atlantic, like BA, have their main base at London Heathrow, although while BA has a terminal to itself, Virgin must share Terminal 3 with many other airlines. That said, they do have the famous Club House for Upper Class passengers which provides a much-needed respite from one of LHR’s oldest terminals. Virgin do not have as many destinations as BA, and have in fact cut back drastically from their African and Far East Asian operations (even terminating Hong Kong a few years back). However, VS does focus on transatlantic flights to North America, and has a strong presence in the Caribbean (with these flights being mainly from their second base at Gatwick).
The centrepiece of the British Airways long-haul fleet is the Boeing 777, with 58 in the fleet, and these are used to fly mainly to Asian destinations. BA is also the largest operator of the Boeing 747, with 36 registered to the airline. However, these jumbos are scheduled to be retired by 2024 with the arrival of the new Airbus A350, of which the airline has purchased 18 (6 more than Virgin Atlantic). BA also has an impressive 12 A380s, 25 B787s (with 12 more on order), 7 B767s, and an all-Airbus narrowbody fleet comprising 129 planes.
Virgin Atlantic, like their rivals BA, have a long history of using the B747 for transatlantic flights, although these (along with the airline’s A340s) will be phased out beginning 2019 and replaced with new Airbus A350s. Virgin’s current fleet thus includes 8 Airbus A330s and 15 Boeing 787 Dreamliners (as well as 8 747s and 8 A340s). The 12 new A350s will be split evenly between the main hub at LHR and the leisure hub at London Gatwick. Virgin Atlantic did also order 6 Airbus A380s, but alas this delivery has been postponed indefinitely.
British Airways offer economy class seats all their widebody aircraft with 31″ legroom and a width of 17.5″ for each, which is a little narrow for a long haul flight. Like a few Asian airlines (Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways), BA also have an upper deck economy cabin on its double-decker A380, although they charge an extra fee for these seats.
Virgin Atlantic do not fare any better when it comes to seat width, as their economy class seats on the 787 Dreamliner are also 17.5″ wide and also have 31″ legroom, which is comparable to BA. On the 747, economy class can feel very cramped due to the sheer high density of the cabin configuration (375 economy class seats). On the VS A330, seats are slightly wider at 18″ but have a few inches less legroom, which can hamper taller passengers on long journeys.
British Airways describe Business Class aboard their planes as Club World, and on the A380 there are 97 seats, each with a 180 degree recline. The configuration in the A380 Club World is interesting, as the passengers with window seats will be flying backwards, yet all passengers have direct access to the aisle. However, when compared to Virgin Atlantic’s comparable product, the 20″ seat width in Club World (on all wide-body aircraft) is quite underwhelming.
Virgin Atlantic calls its Business Class “Upper Class”, and on the 787 – its newest aircraft in the fleet – there are 31 lie flat beds in a wishbone formation, which means you are facing away from the windows and towards the aisle. The 22″ seat width is very welcome, however. The A330 has ‘open suites’ that are not in wishbone formation, although this is typically an older product. In general, Upper Class is a very strong premium product from Virgin Atlantic, with the airport lounges (especially at LHR) and catering being extremely impressive compared to British Airways and some other European rivals.
Although first class cabins nowadays are becoming a thing of the past, British Airways do offer first class services on their A380, B777, and B747 aircraft (at least 14 seats on each), although Virgin Atlantic do not, and instead make do with Upper Class.
British Airways’ standards in the cabin have been declining for years. As operating costs rise, it seems BA have started to penny-pinch, especially in the economy class cabins to leisure destinations like Florida and the Caribbean. While some flight attendants can ne very happy to help, more often than not, morale onboard among the team seems to be low, and this can affect service adversely.
Virgin Atlantic pride themselves on adding something different to the airline industry, and over the years this has been evident onboard its flights, with both its female and male cabin crew. However, like BA, standards seem to be slipping as we enter a tougher economic climate. All of a sudden, VS crew look disinterested, and they consider it merely a job, whereas their Asian counterparts perhaps are more service-oriented and it shows in the respective body language.
British Airways’ service standards may be slipping, but one thing that has remained consistently good over the years is their level of catering. In economy class, meal times are always something to look forward to, with cakes and occasional ice cream being an added treat after the main meal. In Club World, even more effort is made to the presentation of the food, with china and real cutlery being used instead of plastic trays.
Virgin Atlantic have never been too impressive with their economy class catering. Much of this comes from the fact they used to appeal to the leisure market who were happy to eat any old rubbish enroute to their ‘holiday of a lifetime’; there was no need to feed them gourmet meals. However, VS have certainly improved in this regard, and now economy class meals are comparable to those from BA. In Upper Class, however, Virgin Atlantic excel. On long haul flights, you can usually expect two meals depending on the arrival time, with local cuisine scuppered in favour of Virgin Atlantic’s origins as a UK airline (British fry up, anyone?) – and VS cabin crew certainly know how to make a good morning coffee!
Overall Flight Experience
As we enter 2018, it is clear now that British Airways have, for the most part, recovered from their malaise in the 2000s, whereas Virgin Atlantic seem to be stuck in a rut; still no alliance joined, and more and more routes being cut to save on costs. The A380 ordered way back in 2009 is still elusive, and will probably never join the VS fleet nowadays, whereas British Airways have made this “whalejet” the staple of their long-haul fleet. Standards onboard, too, are beginning to slip with Virgin Atlantic: disinterested flight attendants and perhaps a dated USP (unique selling point) is really harming the progression of the airline.