Sunday saw the arrival of the first new UK based airline in a while. Taking over some of the slots that BA were forced to relinquish when they acquired bmi, Virgin Atlantic decided to start operating UK domestic flights from Heathrow to Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. There is no replacement yet for London Heathow to Glasgow flights where BA has a monopoly.
To provide the service Virgin has leased some aircraft from Aer Lingus, repainted them and recovered the seats and Sunday saw the start of the flights to and from Manchester. The actual first flight was an early departure from Manchester and a lot of people from the v-flyer board were there.
I booked the return, which with a short 45 minute stop in Manchester, got me back to London before noon.
Online check-in worked fine on the outbound segment, in fact giving me a better seat than I had booked. The return boarding pass, however, would not print. When I arrived at the check-in desk (which are located where bmi used to be near the lifts that bring you from the Tube and Heathrow Connect/Express), it turned out that I was the first customer. After the obligatory picture with the team, they had no problem producing the return boarding pass – which proudly showed Sequence 1!
There were lots of staff around, and they told me that they had been specifically employed to operate the Little Red services, rather than being transferred from Terminal 3, where Virgin’s long-haul flights leave.
The staff checked my ID, although the web site says that they won’t do this unless you are checking bags, and sent me on my way. Just before I left the check-in a Virgin Manager came over and explained that The Bridge Bar was doing 10% off food for Little Red passengers, which was a genuinely nice thing for him to do.
The boarding pass check now seems to be automated with gates that capture your picture as well as read the boarding pass. (The photo is required to check that it is you that boards the flight as no ID is required for flights within the UK.)
The X-ray lines were reasonably long and seemed to be moving slowly. This was because of the Mum, Dad and two year old in front of me who seemed to have about 15 bags between them, and didn’t seem to grasp how to put them on the belt. I was not subject to a second check, and was quickly off to the terminal.
I no longer have status with Virgin and so used a lounge membership to obtain access to the Servisair Lounge above The Bridge bar in Terminal 1. (A separate report will follow on this!).
Unsurprisingly the domestic gates at Terminal 1 are at the opposite end of the terminal from the Lounge and so took about 10 minutes to get there. As I walked past one of the coffee shops I noticed my aircraft pulling in and parking just behind a BA plane.
Having gone through the domestic ID check where they compare the image taken before Security to your face, I was on the way to Gate 8. The old bmi gates were being used by Virgin.
There were people still deplaning when I arrived and again, lots of VS Management about – but no sign of Mr. Branson himself!
They had a priority line set up for Gold Card Holders and Premium passengers connecting from their International flights.
Members of staff went around the waiting passengers offering doughnuts – although I am not sure quite why!
Boarding commenced fairly fast with a disproportionate number of middle-aged white men represented – all talking aviation!
The flight was pretty empty, maybe 1/3rd full in my guess and my seat mate in 2F quickly moved back to continue filming. The seats are covered with the same deep purple leather that I recall from the Virgin Upper Class suite flight I took a couple of years ago. About 10 minutes before departure it became clear that there was a weight-and-balance issue (who knew an A320 could have one!), and some passengers were moved to the empty seats in the back of the plane. In addition, passengers were selected to fill up the exit rows (12 and 13) as it appears that these must be occupied during take-off and landing.
There was a mechanic on and off most of the time during boarding which we all felt was a bad sign, but in the end caused no delay. In fact the dispatchers actually ran on to the aircraft with the last of the paperwork to make sure we could close the door on time. A short taxi, and by slipping in front of a BA aircraft on the runway and we were off – 28 minutes flying to Manchester. The staff were friendly and as efficient as they could be in the circumstances. The offered tea, coffee and juices, Pepsi products as well as Gin, Vodka, Brandy, Scotch but no Rum. It was a bit of a rush to get everything out before landing. On the way back they just left us with our drinks during landing. There is a choice of a small bag of crisps or a large cookie.
We landed without problem and were at the gate a little ahead of schedule. Disembarking at the old bmi gate (at the back of the old bmi Lounge), I stayed in the gate area for my return. This flight seemed busier with real passengers rather than just aviation specialists with a good number of kids off to the US with their parents, connecting at Terminal 1 for Virgin’s Transatlantic flights.
Whilst in the Gate area, all passengers in rows 1 to 6 were paged and reseated at the back of the plane – with a suitable apology – weight and balance issues again! I was moved from row 5 to row 17. Once on board the same crew took us back to Heathrow in about 35 minutes. The service was the same as the way down. No delays at Heathrow and a short taxi meant we were on time at the gate. I offered to move to Row 13 and so enjoyed the substantially better legroom in the exit row:
Half was up the ramp in to the Terminal there was a Virgin employee directing passengers down the stairs to the coach waiting to take them to Terminal 3.
A good service that may have some problems winning over BA passengers. Although Virgin’s passengers will be happy with the one airline advantages, and extra miles. 15 Tier Points gets you VS Silver, and 40 gets you VS Gold with Lounge Access. Each Little Red flight earns 1 Tier Point. BA does a proper breakfast on their early morning flights (Little Red offers a bacon roll), BA has proper lounges and usually does not require an inter-terminal change for flights. Plus BA has slightly better leg room.