Living in the southern New Jersey near Philadelphia, our usual first choice for air travel is to fly out of PHL. But two things persuaded us to go elsewhere. One, the PHL flights to London on both US and BA were heavily booked and available fares for this short-notice trip were pretty high. Second, we had a desire to try and avoid the dreaded eastbound jetlag and take a daytime flight to the UK. Neither of us sleeps particularly well on planes and that first day in London after a short, sleepless night can be miserable. A daytime flight leaving early morning and arriving early evening seemed like a possible way to more easily shift to GMT. But, there are no daytime flights to London out of PHL, so we looked 75 miles north and found what we wanted with Virgin Atlantic Flight 18 out of Newark (NJ). Both the timing and price were right.
We booked the trip on December 4 on the Virgin website. Within 15 minutes our air arrangements (VS 18 to LHR 18 Dec. and VS 1 return to EWR on 22 Dec.) were confirmed. The booking process on the Virgin website was quick and easy. The inability to initially pick seats from a seat map was a bit disconcerting, but the seats that were auto-assigned were OK. With our booking complete, all that remained was waiting two weeks until our departure.
The day before the trip I completed the Virgin DIY web check in for VS18 and was able to move our seats from the back of the 343, 64A&C, to 51A&C: nice window aisle seats, shady side of the plane, well back of the wing. Web check in on Virgin does not include boarding passes, but it does fulfill most of the documentation formalities making the airport work quicker.
Newark (EWR) to London Heathrow (LHR)
Virgin Atlantic (VS) Flight 18
18 December 2004
Scheduled EWR 0820 LHR 2000
A340-311 G-VBUS “Lady in Red”
Photo © Martin Aves
We drove up to Newark, arrived about 6am, parked in lot P3, and took the AirTrain monorail to Terminal B. The aerial monorail provided a nice view of the waiting 343 as we approached the Terminal B stop. In the early morning darkness, the aircraft, illuminated by the ramp lighting, was an impressive sight. We found the VS DIY counter and bag drop area. The DIY check in at EWR is a bit confusing. It is basically just the far end of the regular check in counter and the queue is something of a free-for-all. But, it still went reasonably well. The counter person cheerfully approved both of our small, light weight bags for cabin baggage (we travel VERY light) thus eliminating any checked baggage and speeding our later passage through Heathrow enroute to Central London. We then received our boarding passes. TSA security was not crowded and screening was uneventful. We arrived at the Gate 54 about 6:45am.
The weather in Newark was clear and cold. The sky was just brightening to start one of the shortest days we would ever experience. Besides being just about the shortest daylight period of the year (for those of us north of the equator), we would by flying east into the sunset. In just about six hours it would be night again. My wife spotted the slogan on the back of “Lady in Red”: “More experience than our name suggests”: very amusing! It kind of sets the tone for the tongue-in-cheek humor of Virgin Atlantic.
Boarding commenced at 7:35am with pre-boards, Upper Class and Premium Economy. Virgin puts out a red carpet for the EWR departure: a nice touch reminiscent of the old days of rail travel. With the strict Virgin carry-on limits (one bag each, 6 kg maximum), the boarding process was quick and smooth (US domestic carriers: are you listening?). Economy was called by rows and we were settled into our seats at 7:45am. The Virgin economy seats are comfortable and the seat pitch is not bad (my wife and I are both short so seat pitch is not a big issue with us: we are both nicely sized for air travel). There was a pillow, blanket, and amenity pack at each seat. The aircraft appeared full. The flight closed at about 8:10am.
We pushed back at 0830 (10 minutes late). As we taxied to the runway we were delayed by a “paperwork discrepancy”. We were put over into one of the penalty box areas while things were worked on. The discrepancy, whatever it was, was cleared in about ten minutes. We positioned on runway 4L, rolled to take-off, and wheels up occurred at 0855. We climbed out to the north, passed west of Manhattan and turned to the northeast over West Chester County (NY) with a nice view of the Hudson River and the Tappan Zee Bridge to the north. Our route took us over Connecticut and Massachusetts and we headed out over the ocean just south of Boston. The clear view of Boston and Logan International (BOS) was great.
After some open ocean we rejoined land in southern Nova Scotia, Canada and flew the length of the Province to the northeast. Cloud cover started to obscure the view as we passed over Cape Breton Island. Some more open water brought us to white and mountainous Newfoundland. Finally, we headed back over North Atlantic and due east toward Ireland. We flew into darkness well before the coast of Ireland (the equal of a sunset at about 1pm USA eastern time). Cloud cover now blocked any land sightings. The IFE Skymap showed us passing over Cork and soon we began decent to Heathrow. Touchdown was at 1955GMT (flight time 6hr, 0min) and we parked at the “stand” just 5 minutes late at 2005 (gate to gate time 6hr, 40min). Rain was falling at LHR.
Onboard food service consisted of a beverage and pretzel service; a hot breakfast (choice of two: a sausage omelet or a vegetable burrito) with coffee or tea; another drink service; an ice cream crunch bar; and finally a turkey wrap with a small bottled water delivered about an hour before landing. There is certainly no excuse for coming off that flight hungry.
The in-flight entertainment was the older Arcadia system with the smallish screen, but it still included several movies, TV channels, games, audio channels, and, of course, the beloved Skymap. “Bad Santa” was my favorite of the movies. It is a crude, vulgar, and absolutely hilarious flick. And, the movies are shown unedited: a treat for us Americans used to sanitized entertainment on our domestic carriers. Loved it!
Upon arrival, the strict limits on cabin baggage proved beneficial again with a very rapid unloading of the aircraft. The LHR immigration hall was a mob scene, but fortunately the line for “Other Passports” was not too bad and we cleared in about 20 minutes. With no need to wait for checked luggage, we simply walked through the customs area and out to the "meet and greet" public area of Terminal 3 arrivals. We felt like arriving celebrities. The waiting crowd on this last Saturday before Christmas was immense. They were lined several deep on either side of the arrivals outflow. We headed straight for the Piccadilly Line of the London Underground and a nice, inexpensive ride to central London.
This was my first time on Virgin Atlantic (you never forget your first time!) and they were very impressive. Virgin delivered a high quality product even in low fare economy. The cabin service crew was efficient and friendly. The food was much better than average (although breakfast is not my favorite airline meal). And I have to comment on the animated pre-flight safety video. It was the most entertaining safety announcement I have ever experienced. It was a done with a droll style of humor and a “cool cat” type of atmosphere that both fit the Virgin image and also effectively conveyed the key safety points. They should offer internet downloads of that short. It was the only safety video I have seen that ended with credits.
Using the daytime flight to London worked out perfectly. To get to EWR for the early flight we got up at 4:10am (USA Eastern Time). This set us up well for the five hour shift ahead to London time. We arrived at LHR just after 8pm and got to our hotel just before 10pm. Hotel check in was quick and our room was waiting (not always the case with an early AM arrival). We freshened up, went out for a late dinner, lingered over a drink or two, and called it a night about 1:00am. The next morning, following a good night’s sleep, we were solidly on London time with no jetlag whatsoever. I highly recommend a daytime flight for the eastbound trip to London.
London Heathrow (LHR) to Newark (EWR)
Virgin Atlantic (VS) Flight 1
22 December 2004
Scheduled LHR 1600 EWR 1840
B747-41R G-VXLG “Ruby Tuesday”
Photo © Kjc Photography
After four days of doing our very best to help the economy of the United Kingdom, it was time to head back to the States. We once again took the Tube to Heathrow. On the way to the airport I began to consider the pleasure of Premium Economy seating for the longer (time-wise) flight home. So, upon arrival at LHR Terminal 3, I headed for the Virgin Ticket Desk to ask the upgrade price. Ouch! It would be about $900 each (almost tripling the entire cost of the round trip). Suddenly staying in regular economy did not seem so bad (and it really is not bad at all).
LHR check in was quick. Since we were now carrying a few extra pounds of gifts, and not wanting to lug two bags around Heathrow for a couple of hours prior to the flight, we checked our larger bag through to EWR. We stayed with our original Virgin assigned seats of 61F&G (aisle and middle in the four-across middle section near the rear of the 744). It would be a night flight so a window would be of little use.
Following a quick stop at the VAT refund desk, we went through passport control. Security screening was a breeze, and we were soon in the tax-free shopping mega-mall that is the departures area at LHR Terminal 3. The actual departure gates are not posted until about an hour or so before flight time, so we browsed and sat in the shopping and waiting area for about an hour or so. I know we were at an airport. I had seen all the signs. But inside the departures waiting area at Terminal 3 you could as well have been anywhere. There is not one window or any hint that there are airplanes in the vicinity. You can’t even tell the weather or if it is even daylight. But if you are looking for a last minute gift or a bottle or two of wine, it is the place to be. That must be a gold mine for BAA. When your flight’s gate is finally posted, you head for the gate area (Wow: there ARE planes out there!) and board straight away. For VS 1, that call came at about 3:10pm for Gate 23.
After boarding the 744, we took the long march back to row 61 near the rear of the plane and settled into our seats. Pushback was at 1605 (5 minutes late). It was raining so things on the airfield were a bit sluggish. After a wait behind about eight aircraft, we took off at 1639. The rear of the aircraft noticeably wagged back and forth during the runway roll. We climbed out, turned to the west, passed Lands End, and headed over water on a southerly, all ocean route toward the States.
The newer Odyssey IFE system had been installed on this aircraft with larger screens with some additional movies, TV and game choices. Sadly, one of my game buttons was stuck, but the Skymap was alive and well. The meal service included a beverage service; dinner (choice of three: beef, Christmas turkey, and vegetarian) with wine; coffee and tea; and a pre-landing “tea” service with a sandwich, a small pie, and tea or coffee. For dinner, my wife had the turkey Christmas meal and thought it was pretty good although not all the items were things she would normally desire. I had the beef and it was excellent. The wine with dinner was served in an actual wine GLASS! To have a real wine glass in economy is amazing.
After traveling over open ocean all the way from England, we came back over land at Boston. Roughly retracing our eastbound route, we began our decent as we passed over eastern Massachusetts and northern Connecticut. Newark being Newark, we were put through some delaying maneuvers coming in due to traffic, but we finally touched-down on EWR 22L at 1918 (USA Eastern): flight time 7hr, 40min. Arrival at the gate was 1932: gate to gate time 8hr, 28min. Arrival was 48 minutes behind schedule. Our checked bag was quickly delivered to the belt, and exiting from the modern Immigration and Customs area at EWR was fast.
In summary: Virgin Atlantic provided a high quality and entertaining travel experience. That combined with the desirable daytime departure eastbound will almost certainly make us repeat customers: hopefully in the near future. And, yes, we loved London at Christmas time!