I hope you are well and enjoying your kitesurfing somewhere hot and sunny. I’m writing this letter from my blog in the hope that it finds it’s way to you and you can react to the feedback about our recent trip with Virgin Airways.
First of all, well done for having such an amazing baggage policy that supports kitesurfers, windsurfers and other active people. The extra free sports bag up to 23kgs is so refreshing to see from an airline and leads the way in terms of extra luggage for the surfers out there. It was in fact the reason we chose to fly with you to Cape Town, South Africa on the 1st of November on VS 603. As a journalist who travels quite a lot with many different airlines I had also recalled my trip with Virgin to Antigua about 10 years ago where the service from the crew on the ground and in the air was nothing short of phenomenal.
The best baggage policy in the industry for active people?
Our initial experience at check in was fantastic, the ground crew were great and all our bags were checked on smoothly, your outlandish 6 kilo luggage allowance wasn’t too brutally imposed, as a photo journalist the chances of my bag ever weighing less than 10 kilos at a push isn’t achievable. I question why, when British Airways can offer a 23 kilo limit on hand luggage, yours is so stringent, it puts you on par with Ryan Air and Air China, who I have also had the pleasure of flying with. Please make the hand luggage allowance more reasonable, or have a special allowance for photographers, I’m sure you wouldn’t expect me to put my thousands of pounds worth of camera gear at the mercy of the baggage handlers, but more on that later.
Heathrow Terminal 3 is possibly the worst airport terminal I have been to in some time, I think even Paris CDG (my most hated airport) is better than Terminal 3. I appreciate this isn’t your fault, but surely you could have some sway over BAA since you have such a large presence there. A gigantic shopping precinct full of duty free so your passengers can load up and bring on a few kilos more of hand luggage, and just two restaurants and one bar for all those passengers. It seems ridiculous to me, we had to wait for some time to get a seat in the bar, let alone get a waiters attention and then a drink and some food. It makes the whole process of flying far more painful than it should be. Like many other passengers, once the rigour of checking in is over and done with I would like to relax with a drink and eat some food before getting on the plane. I dread to think what the ratio of seats in the restaurants and bar are compared to the total number of passengers in the terminal, but it is totally inadequate.
Thankfully after the horror of the Terminal 3 departure lounge I was safe in the knowledge I could relax on board one of your excellent flights to South Africa. Relax I did, for one hour and forty five minutes before I was even served a drink. And I was in row 42, so not a million miles from the front of the plane. In fact just behind the premium economy passengers. I’m not sure if you are made to wait that long for a drink when you fly on a plane Sir Richard, but frankly I could have gone to Paris and back in that time and the crew on Easy Jet would have served drinks, food and sold a number of crappy gifts and probably done a collection for some charity in the same time. My drink was eventually served, along with my dinner, which arrived on the same trolley, the staff were friendly, although I couldn’t help but wonder what they had been up to for the previous period of time. Obviously not paying attention to the call light, which we had pressed some time before when it became apparent that no drinks were being served anytime soon. Instead of asking if everything was alright, We were told we had mistakenly pressed our call button and could we turn it off. Unimpressed, and being truly British and actually having now got our drink we complied.
Extra legroom in row 42, but beware the death trap tables...
As for the dinner that had taken so long to arrive, frankly appalling, of all the airplane meals I have had the pleasure of eating this year, it ranked up there as the worst. Your food is being surpassed by the likes of Lufthansa, Air China and Easy Jet to name a few. I recall you got into the airline business to turn it on its head and make the entire experience of flying a pleasurable one, sadly I feel you need to address a few issues pretty promptly to ensure you don’t run the risk of losing the good name you have always enjoyed.
With dinner done we pressed the call button again and asked for a drink, it never arrived but the pudding service came around, no matter we thought, we can get a drink from the trolley. Sadly the pudding service was just serving pudding, hot chocolate and tea, not even coffee let alone a beer, much to the disgruntlement of ourselves and our fellow passengers. Anyway, my partner, Mary, plumped for the tea and my brother and I requested a beer each which we were told would be brought to us.
What happened next is nothing short of inexcusable and I fear is in breach of a few health and safety laws. The seats in row 42 enjoy extra legroom, organised very kindly by the fantastic ground crew. But the antiquated table that pulls out of the seat has a very serious flaw which I cannot believe hasn’t been investigated. There is no “lip” to the table, and there isn’t a non slip surface. While the trays you serve dinner on have both, when you put the tray on the table all this is totally negated. My partner Mary had just ordered a hot cup of tea, and as the plane bumped ever so slightly the tea slipped straight off the table unchecked and all over her leg. Obviously the burn was quite serious and being an experienced first aider I administered a bottle of water to the area and we pressed the call button. An air-hostess “happened” to pass a few minutes later and we requested something for the burn, she was most helpful and supplied one of your burns packs. It did take her ten minutes to return with the pack though. I’m sure you have encountered a burn or two in your past Sir Richard and I am sure you will be aware time is of the essence. 10 minutes isn’t acceptable, and the fact an accident book wasn’t filled out is a disgrace for a company of your standing.
No "lip" or non slip surface flies in the face of Health and Safety!
With that debacle over we settled down to enjoy the inflight entertainment, only to realise it isn’t an on-demand service. I racked my brains to think back to when I had last flown on a plane without inflight on demand entertainment. It’s 2012 Sir Richard, not 1990, customers paying so much for their flights expect certain things, on demand movies, TV and games is an absolute must, especially from an airline of your calibre. The screen we were trying to watch the second half of some movie on had less pixels than my 3 year old mobile phone, I did try counting them but got bored. My screen also displayed the “elapsed time” for the movie for the entire duration of the flight, not matter how many times I turned it off and on again. It even showed it on the games, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire became rather tricky with most of one answer covered up by the “Elapsed Time 0.22″ message. I did however get up to £64,000 at one stage, a personal best for me! Time for an upgrade to the whole entertainment system I fear the content is fantastic but the system is so antiquated it lets you down.
I was excited to also score 64,000, but less excited about the service Virgin delivered...
Eventually I just read my book for a bit and went to sleep, giving up on ever getting served that beer I had asked for sometime ago. I am not sure if there is some cost cutting strategy (no doubt dreamt up by an accountant) being employed at Virgin. Serve the passengers less and save more money perhaps. But the fact that the crew of an Easy Jet flight can get up and down the aisle of a plane more times on a round trip to Paris than your crew could on a long haul 13 hour flight to Cape Town it beggars belief. I know they are charging for their food and drinks, but then their flights are quite a bit less than yours, and it is a good example of how quickly air crew can move up and down a cabin when they need to.
Sadly my woes didn’t end there as the baggage crew (out of your hands I know) managed to totally destroy a brand new F-One 5’11″ surfboard that I had decided to bring with me for the trip… It had never even had the pleasure of getting wet before it met its end, I’m hoping I can find a decent board repair shop out here as it seems a total injustice for it to reach the scrap heap having never got wet.
An untimely end for such a great board!
To summarise the staff at the airport were fantastic, the staff on the plane while friendly didn’t seem keen to serve anyone anything (whether this is due to orders from above to save money I don’t know) but the whole experience could have been made far more pleasant. A drink service as soon as is physically possible, drinks again with dinner and pudding, not just tea or hot chocolate. On demand movies and entertainment, and perhaps some staff training on basic first aid, the treatment of burns, filling in of accident books and a serious look at putting a non slip surface on those tables that fold into the arm rest is needed.
I fly back in three weeks time on the 28th, I doubt very much you could make any major changes in that time, but as a fellow businessman I know you will appreciate the feedback as otherwise you would never know what went on.
This year I have travelled with British Airways, Air China, Air Mauritius, Air France, Lufthansa, Easy Jet and I’m loathe to say Ryan Air, I’ve travelled extensively all over the world during the last 11 months, as I do every year with my job and so far British Airways have impressed me the most, Air China were a huge surprise and come highly recommended, despite their questionable hand baggage policy, but a friendly call to the marketing department ensured we were treated with an exception and got all our camera gear onto the plane. Air Mauritius are always a pleasure and Air France are just rude, but then you expect that and it is rather entertaining. I recommend all these airlines to my friends and readers, right now your sports bag policy means I would still have to recommend Virgin, but shouldn’t I be recommending you for your fantastic service too, maybe the team missed a beat on this one, but I certainly feel the service was below sub standard.
IKSURFMAG & IMB Magazine