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My day comparing British Airways domestics with Virgin's new Little Red

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Virgin Atlantic launched its new Little Red domestic flights at the end of March, serving Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. These are operated using Heathrow slots which British Airways was forced to give up when it acquired bmi, and are operated by Aer Lingus on behalf of Virgin.

I flew up to Manchester and back, using British Airways outbound and Little Red on the return. I have Silver status with both airlines, so my experiences are based on that. A non-status member may score the two airlines differently.

So, who wins out?

Pre-departure experience: BA wins

BA sent me an email pre-departure with a direct link to print my boarding pass. I got no email from Virgin and the online check-in process was far more protracted than BA’s. I could not pre-select a seat on Virgin when booking (a BA Silver can do this) and even at check-in I could not have an exit row as I was not a Gold.

(EDIT: a Comment below suggests that I should have been able to pick a seat at booking, even without having Virgin status. I may have been victim of an IT snafu! This would be an improvement on the BA policy which does not allow seat selection without status. However, as I have Silver with both airlines, it would not have impacted my decision to give the point to BA because BA gave me an exit row.)

Heathrow arrival and departure: Draw

Terminal 5 is a 5-minute longer journey on the tube and Heathrow Express than Terminal 1 – although this is offset by the longer walk at Terminal 1 along those depressing corridors. (BA and Virgin both use Terminal 3 at Manchester so there is no difference here.)

Plane to Manchester

Heathrow departure: BA wins

BA operates from the new Terminal 5, Virgin is in Terminal 1 which will be demolished when Terminal 2 opens next year. It took me just 7 minutes to get from the Underground platform and through security to the British Airways lounge in Terminal 5 – and it is a very nice lounge, despite the recent catering issues.

Virgin does not give lounge access in Terminal 1 to Silver card holders. With a Priority Pass, or a Virgin Gold (or if connecting from an Upper Class flight) you can enter the windowless dump that is the Servisair lounge. That said, if you do not have BA status then there is no alternative lounge at all, as Priority Pass does not have a facility in Terminal 5.

To be honest, though, I would rather sit in the main terminal area in Terminal 5 than sit in the Servisair Lounge in Terminal 1 …..!

Manchester departure: BA wins

A BA Silver gets access to the BA lounge, which is terminally dull. A Virgin Silver has no lounge access. A Virgin Gold can access the Escape lounge in Terminal 3 which is very nice indeed. You can also access this with a Priority Pass (as I did) – but then a BA flyer could also use this lounge if they had a Priority Pass! I have therefore awarded the point to BA, on the grounds that a Virgin Silver gets no lounge access, even though I really liked the Escape lounge (photo below).

Escape lounge Manchester

Boarding: Draw

My BA Silver card let me use the Fast Track lane at Heathrow and board immediately with no queueing. At Manchester, my Virgin Silver card got me nothing, but the shockingly light load of 30 passengers meant boarding was easy.

Departure time: Virgin wins

The BA flight to Manchester was 30 minutes late due to a late inbound aircraft. The Virgin flight left exactly on time.

Seating comfort: BA wins

BA allowed me to pre-book an exit row seat. Virgin, despite my Silver status, did not. Laughably, Virgin also blocked off the first 6 rows (36 seats) for Gold and Upper Class passengers – of which there were NONE on my flight. Row 7 was the first occupied row. The Little Red seat pitch in a normal row was a little tight, but the arm rest did come up (unlike BA’s) and the headrest on the ‘space saver’ seating was VERY comfy. Virgin would have won this one if I had got an exit row.

Ambiance: Virgin wins

The Little Red planes have been refurbished with new seating and rather snazzy purple ambient lighting. The ‘space saver’ seats are comfy, but with no in-flight magazines. The pathetic passenger loads (30 on my flight) means that you have all the personal space you want! The BA flight was a lot fuller and was in typical condition for a BA A320.

Virgin flight to London

Catering: BA wins

BA offered me a drink plus a choice of trail mix, luxury chocolate chip cookies or crisps. Virgin offered me a drink and the crew gave out – at random – a less luxurious chocolate chip cookie or a bag of crisps. You were not asked what you wanted, which was very, very odd. A mini-pack of Love Hearts was offered by Virgin before landing!

Transferring at Heathrow: Draw

Virgin has cleverly dealt with the issue of Little Red using Terminal 1 and Virgin Atlantic using Terminal 3. A dedicated bus meets each Little Red flight, and you are driven directly from the airbridge across to Terminal 3. With BA, you have an 85% chance of your connecting service operating from Terminal 5, with no need to transfer.

Earning miles and status: Virgin wins

Virgin Flying Club gives 750 miles per sector, doubled to 1,500 until the end of June. BA gives 500 miles. Virgin gives 1 tier point per sector (2.5% of Gold) whilst BA gives 10 tier points (less than 1% of Gold!).

So … British Airways is the 5-3 winner!

That said, whilst I would avoid Virgin like the plague from Heathrow if you have BA lounge access, the Little Red flight from Manchester was pleasant enough and I would happily use them again.

I have heard numerous reports about Virgin’s low loads on these flights (see photo below of the huge crowd I had to wade through in order to board at Manchester ….). However, Virgin is obliged to operate them for (I think) three years or face losing the slots. Given the $20m price for a pair of Heathrow slots, Virgin has plenty of incentive to see out the three years and then sell the slots or use them for long-haul operations.

Virgin departure gate

(Want to earn more Virgin Flying Club miles? Click here to see recent articles on Virgin Atlantic, Little Red and Flying Club, and click here for the latest news on earning and spending other airline and hotel points.)

Comments (39)

  • Craig says:

    I’ve done a few sectors MAN-LHR-MAN on Virgin now and totally disagree regarding the catering score vs BA. Virgin is handing out ‘giant’ tasty cookies and/or chips versus BAs pitiful bird seeds and small biscuit packets. The sweets for landing also add a nice touch. I also like that VS give you your hot drink in a take out cup thus not forcing you to neck scolding hot coffee before landing.

    I also feel the Virgin crew have so far been a lot more inviting, friendly and down to earth compared to their BA comrades!

    • Rob says:

      BA had crisps as well. And the choc chip biscuits were genuinely ‘luxury style’ – the VS ones were just large. And, as I wrote, VS gave us no choice as to what we got! Cookie or crisps were randomly allocated!

      • Dave says:

        Were they random or based on whether you got a hot or cold drink?

        Before BA switched to the basket and used to give out Dormen’s snacks most BA crew used to give out a biscuit if you ordered a hot drink or the Dormen’s snack if you asked for a cold drink (unless you asked otherwise). The basket is a better way of presenting it.

        Just a shame that the packet of crisps are so small that if they get any smaller they’d be individually wrapped crisps.

        Been a while since I’ve been to MAN, is the Escape lounge where the Flybe lounge used to be (next to BA) or are they still using the ex-bmi lounge but they’ve refurbished it.

        • Rob says:

          It is the lounge on the same level as the BA lounge (opposite doorway) – not sure what it used to be.

          They may have been giving out snack based on drink choice. But even if they were, it is a choice I would prefer to make myself. And, frankly, neither crisps or chocolate chip cookies go well with, for eg, a G’n’T!

          • Ed E says:

            I did ABZ on Saturday, out VS and BA back in my own version of this!
            The biscuit was far too crumbly on VS, I ended up covering the tray table with crumbs and those will all work their way into the seat cracks and be ground into the carpet.

          • Rob says:

            I thought the same! The BA cookies are fully chocolate coated on the bottom, so they don’t crumble ….

  • Dave says:

    One point, the slots that VS use MAN-LHR-MAN have nothing to do with bmi. It’s only the Scottish services that are using the old bmi slots.

    VS announced LHR-MAN around the time they lost the WCML rail franchise, the winners of the Scottish slots hadn’t been announced at this point. They got the slots for the MAN service back from another airline they were previously leasing their slots to.

    It’s thought that they announced the MAN service to show that they were serious about running a domestic operation in order to improve their bid for EDI and ABZ.

  • Tim says:

    Just 1 correction from me. Your last comment about slots is incorrect. The slots that BA were forced to ‘release’ after the bmi purchase are ring-fenced. They have to be used on a select number of routes (predominantly shorthaul) and cannot be coverted to longhaul or sold. So Virgin are running this service because a.) they think they need the feed and can’t get it from other airlines or b.) because Richard Branson made a claim before bmi and doesn’t want to backtrack!

    In response to another post above regarding tactical cancellations, yes these are a pain for customers. However due to the 80-20 use it or lose it slot rule at LHR, airlines will only be able to cancel a maximum of 20% of flights on a particular slot. (obviously still not great!)

    • James Ward says:

      Not great indeed, Tom! If I can only count on four out of five flights likely to make a connection to a long haul from LHR I’m extremely unlikely to switch from KLM via AMS.

    • Rob says:

      The ringfence only applies for a few years though ….

      • London Traveller says:

        No. Virgin has to use the forfeited BA slots for these routes for a period of six IATA seasons (ie three years). After this period has elapsed Virgin can use the slots for either a) other short-haul routes in Europe or b) another former BA/bmi over-lapping route where competition concerns were identified (ie Nice, Cairo, Moscow etc).

        Unless you have found a clever loophole, the guidance on the slot release procedure is very, very clear. Virgin cannot simply convert the slots to long-haul use after a certain period of time has elapsed

        • Rob says:

          Fair enough. However, Cairo and Moscow are long-haul routes (well, Cairo was, it seems to be moving around) with long-haul pricing. Certainly not the £8 plus tax I paid from Manchester … The CAA will also be willing to listen to requests 3 years down the line if Virgin can claim the slots are simply not viable.

          • Tim says:

            The problem with that being that BA can and will either say that the rules were very clear about how the slots were to be used, or that they can make the set of routes work viably. I very much doubt virgin would be able to do much with these slots outside what the rules state. I should know, I spent a lot of time working on it!

  • Max says:

    Off topic and not sure if this AA Promo was covered on this site:

    From AA FB page:
    Limited time offer: Earn up to a 30% bonus for friends and family, when you share miles
    Know someone who needs American Airlines AAdvantage® miles or could you use some extra miles to reach a travel award faster? You can share miles between family, friends or colleagues and the recipient will earn up to 30% in bonus miles. Sharing miles just became more valuable, so make the most of this limited time offer, now through July 1, 2013

    • Rob says:

      Thanks Max. I saw that but, in the scale of AA bonuses, it was not desperately exciting. It is not valid on buying miles outright, either.

      Back in February AA had a 50% bonus on buying miles, for instance.

  • Squillion says:

    Funny old thing – I used to have a job back in the 90s where transatlantic travel was a bit of a bore – but unfortunately whilst I enjoyed business class flights and a chance to booze, snooze, hopefully amuse the trolley dolls & possibly abuse the film offering lol – at the time I didn’t really like the fact all this took away my personal freedom and had to spend so much time in hotels and on flights.

    Now I realise what a privilege it was 😉

  • Dave says:

    Good comparison and I’m sure your results are unbiased. However when reading through all the comments, especially responses, you seem to have a slight bias towards BA. Little Red is still only a few months old and most new route start ups take quite a while to fill so your comments about low passenger numbers seems a little unfair. It implies the loads will always be low and that they only wanted the slots to sell them on. I’m pretty sure they would want to make a success of Little Red.

    • Rob says:

      The low loads are actually a plus point for me!

      The only bias, I think, is the factual bias that I have BA Silver and VS Silver and those distort the service I received.

      I admit that I have not visited the Servisair lounge in T1 for about 3 years, and haven’t used T1 at all for at least 18 months, so I am knocking them without recent experience. In my defence, though, I haven’t heard any news that they have improved! I am also willing to revisit VS when Terminal 2 opens.

  • Chris says:

    The little red services from Edinburgh are very busy! Every time I have flown with them you are talking at least 80% full and as noted Americans and long haul travellers love them. The love hearts are all part of the virgin experience. If you take a hot drink you get a cookie, any softer alcoholic drink its crisps. The flying club points are a BIG winner. Unsure over ABZ loadings. I’ve used little red a good few times now and think its a breath of fresh air compared to BA.

    • Ed says:

      I was just walking along the dock and I looked up to see a Titan 737-300 on approach into LHR and, being the nerd that I am, I fired up Flightradar and lo and behold Titan were subbing for a VS Edinburgh rotations today (Sunday).

      I think this reinforces the reliability issues they are having with EI’s A320s but the loads are obviously substantial enough that it made commercial sense to get Titan in, rather than cancel services and reprotect onto BA.

      They seem to have started off ok this morning on the EDI route but picked up 2 hour delays mid-morning so obviously another aircraft going tech.

      • Chris says:

        This is not the first time they’ve done this. Tartan lassie and Maggie may seem particularly prone to failures. However with only 4 A320s it leaves VA with such a tight schedule and little to no spare, meaning 1 delay and the whole schedule is put off track. This will obvious damage the brand experience and I’m sure is not what VA want or are in any way happy about, especially with the service being so new. EI really need to get the tech problems resolved or get another aircraft in and done up to VA Little Red spec.