This weekend sees the end of Virgin Atlantic's link between London Heathrow and Tokyo's Narita airport. In the lead up to the axeing of the route, Virgin made some ad-hoc cancellations. It was one of those that put me in the rare position of departing with Virgin Atlantic and returning with British Airways in their respective better-than-basic cabins.
We had booked the Virgin Premium Economy trip in July, but a month later were informed by the airline that our return leg had been cancelled, and we were re-booked a day earlier. A word with The Independent's travel team led me to EU regulation 261/2004, which includes the stipulation that a carrier is obliged to transfer you to another airline on the intended date if it cancels a flight. Within a few minutes on the phone, Virgin had done just that, switching the inbound to BA.
Virgin Atlantic launched Premium Economy in 1992 (as "Mid Class") eight years before BA took the plunge with its World Traveller Plus equivalent. The differences surprised me.
Food and drink
Virgin welcomes you on board with the choice of a glass of champagne or orange juice. There's no bubbly awaiting you on BA – but that's the only area in this category where Virgin wins. Its food was, to put it politely, hugely disappointing. It seems no different to economy, which is poor given the significant extra cost for the cabin. The "fresh, crunchy salad" on Virgin's menu really wasn't. The main courses on offer were beef casserole, donburi chicken, and baked leek pasta. We sampled the first two but there was little taste in either. A square of spice-apple cake was not enough to make up for the disappointment. BA's main meal was a choice of fillet of beef with herb butter, or chicken in spicy anticucho sauce with hijiki seaweed. Both were tasty. Dessert was a reasonably pleasant apple tart with orange sauce.
BA has recently given its premium economy service a makeover, with bigger screens. BA's headphones and control panel are also both markedly better than their rival's equipment. As someone who can't sleep much on a plane, and with half a day to kill on board, it helps to have a wide choice of film and TV to choose from. While both airlines have many of the latest blockbusters, BA's in-flight entertainment system has a far more extensive range of older movies, plus a secret weapon Virgin cannot compete with: box sets. Virgin has one episode of a handful of series – and, on my flight, just the first episode of The Widower, a three-part thriller. You do wonder what the point is.
Premium Economy accommodates 35 passengers across a two-three-two cabin plan whereas it is two-four-two in World Traveller Plus to fit 44 passengers. We were in the middle set of seats on both legs and felt we had more elbow and leg room with BA – very important if you are 6ft 1in and 5ft 10in as we are. BA's seats and headrests were more flexible and comfortable than Virgin's, with greater recline. My Virgin chair stuck at one point and wouldn't recline, needing the help of the crew to yank it forwards. BA's also had a cleaner feel about it.
The cabin crew were excellent on both flights, with no discernible difference between their abilities to cater for passenger's needs. Neither does there seem any difference between fares; while Virgin ends its Tokyo route this weekend, both airlines still compete to Shanghai – and for travel in October the fare for each is £1,252 return. But flying Virgin to Tokyo felt like travelling on an old plane ready to be retired – which is exactly what is about to happen. When you pay over £1,000 for a ticket you expect better.
Paul travelled with Virgin Atlantic on an Airbus A340-300 and returned on a British Airways Boeing 777-300. We invited Virgin Atlantic to respond to his criticism. The airline says: "We currently have a fleet of 39 aircraft with two of these aircraft being Airbus A340-300s. One is due to retire next month, the other in March. As such they do not have some of the great new product enhancements our latest Boeing 787 and our new Airbus A330 offer. We are aware of the inconsistencies these two aircraft highlight and these will be eliminated when they retire from our fleet."
- More about: