Divided by a common language. Separated by a mere pond. Other than the strange eccentricities displayed on both sides, it appears the United Kingdom and the United States are quite similar. Stark differences, however, exist. To start the new term with a healthy dose of American pride, I want to draw attention to the distinct contrast between service on Virgin’s distinctly ‘cool Britannia’ offering, Virgin Atlantic, and ‘cool Americana’ service, Virgin America.
After an inhospitably cold finals season, I raced out of my last exam to catch a nasty Airbus from New York to my home in London. It took a grand total of 17 hours to make it from airport to airport, the second of which was not the original Heathrow, but London Stansted Airport, the hub of Europe’s infamous low-price airlines likeRyanair and EasyJet.
Virgin Atlantic’s treatment of its passengers on my flight home didn’t beat them by much. I also highly doubt that fines-conscious budget airlines would have stranded 308 passengers in a strange airport — unstaffed — for six hours. Luggage was nowhere to be seen, never mind Virgin’s staff.
In contrast, you’re a guest on Virgin America — not a customer, not marginal variable revenue, but a guest. That sounds quite nice in this day and age, especially considering the gruff treatment you’ll suffer on its big brother international airline. There were cool blue and purple lights, a new plane smell — literally, these little Airbuses (again, nicer than the big, older Airbuses Virgin Atlantic flies) rolled off the line fresh for Virgin America — along with the finest in-flight entertainment in the world: a touch screen that commands everything from drinks to movies to duty-free jewelry. And somewhere along the way the hosts and hostesses learned to smile. Some even juggle.
All Virgin Atlantic juggles are marginal variable costs in its disappointing effort to minimize them. Recently, Virgin Atlantic announced it will withhold its payment of airport fees in Britain because the airports’ authority could not handle five inches of snow falling in an hour. Admittedly, the Norwegians, Canadians and so on would fare very well. But even New York City froze! And blame lies not only at the feet of the airports but at the airlines too — service has been shed across the board in favor of that elusive pound sterling.
Seats in a 4-year-old A340-600 should not feel 25 years old, nor should one have to pay $50 extra in economy to save knees. People have grown; the car industry has noticed this and so makes gargantuan vehicles. The airline industry seems to think shaving inches will result in big cost reductions. But after a decade of red ink and multiple bankruptcy filings by all but the sovereign-wealth-fund-backed Singaporean and Emirates airlines and their ilk; clearly a rethink might be worthwhile.
Which leads us right back to Virgin America. A secret for the others: We’ll pay to be treated decently again. Let this be yet another rallying call following the bellows of The New York Times’ travel section and The Wall Street Journal’s “Middle Seat Terminal”: We will pay to fly well. Virgin America undercut many airlines with its initial offering; now its prices rise steadily: A case no longer flies for free, but the quality persists. It has come to a point where when I look for flights to California I dread Delta Air Lines and the abysmal US Airways and pay whatever restaurant-dinner sized price difference it is to be Virgin’s guest.
After a miserable three hours on New York’s George Washington Bridge, two hours at the jet bridge waiting aboard Virgin 10 for Madonna and her entourage, two hours at Stansted for no apparent reason whatsoever with no communication from Virgin staff either onboard or at the terminal and six more hours waiting for bags, I was very much overjoyed to see my father. The sun had set and the snow was now slush, but we refugees of Virgin Atlantic’s bizarre treatment moved on into London to a warm Christmas and a happy New Year. And as I return to Washington, D.C., this week I am happy to announce I shall begin booking my Virgin America spring break flight. As for my flight back to London in the summer, it won’t be on Atlantic until it learns a thing or two from its American cousin.