Arch-rivals British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are banking on Airbus’s new A350 to boost their fortunes – but whose jet flies higher? John Arlidge is first to board
Crippling pilots’ strikes, a fourth IT disaster in two years, and lousy customer service ratings have turned British Airways’ centenary into a disaster. The jokes that the airline’s chief executive, Alex Cruz, had hoped to banish are back: ‘Broken Airways’; ‘I fly ABBA – Anyone But British Airways.’
But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. BA has a new clipper of the skies. No, not Concorde, nor the Airbus A380 superjumbo. The new bird on the block is the Airbus A350. Its lean burn Rolls-Royce engines make it the most economical long-haul airliner and the cabin is more comfortable for passengers, thanks to higher cabin air pressure, high ceilings and big windows.
BA is now flying the first two of the 18 A350s it has ordered. But it’s not alone. Its arch-rival Virgin Atlantic’s hangar-fresh A350s have also just taken to the skies. Each airline is spending billions of pounds on the new jet, which it is using to introduce new cabins and service, to try to convince customers that it flies higher. The new A350 cabins will be retrofitted into all the long-haul jets each airline has, so whichever is best will prosper. Which is nosing ahead?
Virgin has instant wow factor. There’s a stylish lobby-style entrance with bench seats for eight people. The space, called the Loft, also serves as the new bar for Upper Class passengers. Virgin has scrapped its trademark bar with stools (Emirates and Qatar do it better these days on their vast A380s) in favour of lounge seats, making it possible to install seat belts. Passengers enjoying themselves will no longer have to return to their seats when turbulence strikes.
A new ‘bowl food’ menu – citrus seared prawns, Thai vegetable curry – enables passengers to eat in the lounge, too. There’s a 32in TV screen to watch films and, in future, live sports – listening via bluetooth headphones – and a stand-up desk where two people can work using their laptops.
In the Upper Class cabin, the old side-by-side seat-cum-bed suites that face into the cabin in a herringbone pattern are replaced by 44 all-new, separate forward-facing suites arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. The old cappuccino colour palette has gone and in its place is white and coral-pink, boardoff-set with claret leather and almond gold trim. The TV screen is 18.5in, almost twice the size of its predecessor.
The 20in-wide seat slumps down to create a 6ft 8in bed – no more flipping over the seat back – which means a valuable few more minutes’ sleep on the red eye to London. There’s a ‘half privacy’ door – it only half closes – to maintain a link between cabin crew and passengers.
British Airways’ new Club World (business class) suite on its A350 is a huge improvement on the outgoing head-to-toe seat pairs in, usually, a 2-4-2 pattern, which many passengers found cramped and rather too ‘hello stranger’. The 56 new suites, 21in wide and 6ft 6in long in bed mode, are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, which gives every passenger direct aisle access, so there’s no more clambering over your neighbour’s sweaty feet when you want to stretch your legs.
The seats are charcoal cloth, with contrast cream stitching, rather than leather, similar to BA’s current first class. Unlike Virgin’s Upper Class, the suite has a door that fully closes. The TV screen has almost doubled in size to 18.5in and can be viewed from gate to gate, unlike in the outgoing Club World cabin. New menus by caterer Do & Co offer much-improved food. On a recent flight I enjoyed smoked aubergine and chickpeas with yoghurt, grilled marinated king prawns with slow-roasted tomato sauce and basmati rice, and raspberry panna cotta.
On both carriers the suites come with personalised mood lighting, adjustable leather arm-rests and a mattress, duvet, day blanket and large pillow. Each suite also boasts sturdier, larger dining tables, and storage cubby holes. There are ample charging ports, both USB and three-pin. On two recent flights I’ve taken on the new planes the wifi system – gasp! – actually worked. Service on BA is a little more formal – think of it as like going to the theatre. Virgin is more playful and warmer – like going to the movies.
Each airline’s posh cabin is a big step forward. BA’s suite has more lateral space than Virgin, thanks the long shelf down the side of each suite. Storage is better, too. You can stow a small bag under the footrest and the cubby holes have lids and doors, so, unlike on Virgin, you don’t have to pack things up or hold them for take-off and landing. The dining table/desk is bigger and more adjustable, making it easier to relax, eat, work and move around when it’s down. Virgin’s table does not move back and forward.
But what Virgin lacks in hardware it makes up in software. The fabrics and finishes feel more luxurious than BA’s and the colours are warmer. There’s a fitted sheet that wraps around the entire bed, making it easier to sleep. You’ll soon be able to pre-order personalised pyjamas and eventually bedding. BA only offers pyjamas in its first class cabin.
Virgin’s lotions and potions are more comprehensive and come in a recyclable bag. Its toiletries will soon come in large sizes that you’ll be encouraged to keep, so you don’t have to pack a wash bag for a short trip – and can be more eco-friendly. On Virgin’s A350 you can order your food to your seat or to the Loft using the in-flight entertainment system or your phone, and you can eat when you want, unlike on BA. The central paired suites in Upper Class are angled outwards towards the windows, rather than inwards into the middle of the cabin on BA’s jet, which creates a greater sense of space and light. Wifi is unlimited for a fee on Virgin but capped at 150MB on BA.
For those of us who don’t always fly at the pointy end, premium economy on both carriers – called World Traveller Plus on BA and Premium on Virgin – is better than ever. Each airline has increased the size of the cabin to 56 seats in a 2-4-2 configuration and introduced plusher seats, both around 19in wide, bigger TV screens (12in on BA, 13.3in on Virgin), better food and drink, better snack options, swankier amenities, more storage and power points – everything, alas, except more leg room. The seat pitch (measure of legroom) is 38in on both carriers, the same as on their existing jets. BA has sturdier leg rests to help you sleep.
At the very back of the bus, each carrier has the same kind and size of seat, with adjustable wraparound head rests, arranged in groups of three across the cabin, more USB chargers, brighter, more focused lighting that makes it easier to read, and the same kind of drink and food – indeed, BA is shamelessly ripping off Virgin by serving ice creams.
BA has installed two three-pin plugs for every three seats, whereas Virgin only offers USB chargers, but Virgin edges the battle of economy because it has 36 seats at the front of the rear of the two cabins that have a 34in pitch – 3in more than the maximum legroom on BA. Two seats have no seat in front, a rare luxury. These extra legroom seats cost more – but are worth every penny. What’s more, all the Virgin economy seats recline. The last row in the forward economy cabin on BA’s A350 do not. Virgin’s TV screen is larger, too – 11.3in, compared with 10in on BA. And you get a simple amenity kit on Virgin with an eye-shade, bamboo toothbrush with toothpaste, socks, earplugs and a pen. There’s no amenity kit, not even an eye-shade on overnight flights, on BA.
The victor overall? You and me, the traveller. No other country in Europe has two flag carriers, and none has a pair of such great – different – aircraft to fly us into the future. Jet, set, go…
John Arlidge writes for Spear’s