I thought I would make a second attempt at writing a trip report, this time based on my recent week-long trip to the US and Canada as I had a mixed bag of good and not-so-good flying experiences and wanted to share. Hope you enjoy! Apologies for the lack of pics - I know they always make a trip report more interesting, but despite being a keen amateur photographer, sadly I didn't take any photos in flight.
Well, the winter sale offered by Virgin after Christmas had me surfing the net to plan a short break Stateside to cure the post festive season blues. It had been a long time since I'd been to Boston, had never been anywhere in Canada, and had a cousin to visit in NYC, so aimed at combining all into the whirlwind trip. The transatlantic leg had me flying with VS into BOS and out of EWR, with a side trip on AC to Toronto and Niagara Falls.
The entire trip held a number of "firsts" for me. Firstly I had never flown an A340, which was fulfilled on my LHR-BOS leg. Secondly I had never flown AC before, so ended up booking flights with them from BOS-YYZ and YYZ-LGA. The third "first" was that I had never experienced LGA before and wanted to see what it was like.
The trip started with a long Saturday morning ride on the 726 bus from my home in Sutton to LHR, but with a fare of just £1.20 for the hour and a half trip to the airport, I couldn't resist the temptation to forego the cost of a cab (£30) and to save some cash to spend while I was away.
Having checked in online the night before for my flight to BOS, the formalities at the VS desk at LHR were quick and easy. My carry-on was weighed to make sure it was below the 6kg limit (and labelled accordingly) and I was on my way. The queue for security was reasonably long, but within 10 minutes and a pat down I was airside and browsing the duty free shop for Vodka and cigarettes to last me the trip.
Please forgive the grey areas around actual departure and arrival times, but I didn't have a watch on!
February 5th 2005
Flight: VS011 LHR-BOS
Scheduled Departure: 14:30
Actual Departure: Unsure
Scheduled Arrival: 16:55
Actual Arrival: Unsure
Aircraft: A340-311 G-VHOL "Ladybird"
My first disappointment. I had been hoping for an A346 (and had been lead to believe by posting in the Civil Aviation forum that an A346 would be used for the flight that day), but on closer inspection at the gate, realised that the aircraft had been changed to an A343 - oh well, it was still a first for me. I had originally reserved seat 40A when I booked online, but changed to a window seat on the opposite side of the aircraft on check-in in the hope of getting some good views of Greenland enroute. Sadly, our southerly route that day put paid to that! Having been one of the last to board, I took my window seat and tried to put my daypack under the seat in front to allow me easy access to my camera and iRiver without disturbing my neighbour, however the space under the seat was occupied by one of those large boxes that I understand is connected with the IFE, so the cheery F/A persuaded me to store by bag in the overhead bin to give me more legroom.
Pushback was roughly on time (I think!), however we hit a rush hour for takeoffs, so had to queue for a while behind various widebodies before our turn for takeoff came. The flight that day was pretty much fully-loaded, but I have to say that takeoff was fairly uneventful and, as expected, felt quite underpowered. Feb 5 was an overcast day, so once we entered cloud, there wasn't much to be seen. Generally the flight was uneventful, however it had been five years since I had flown VS and I noticed a number of changes which meant that the service onboard didn't live up to my previous experiences.
I do have to say that the F/A's were great - friendly and helpful, and never lost patience with my Lebanese neighbour when he kept making mistakes on the various bits of bumph we're forced to fill in before arrival in the US and had to ask for fresh forms - even eventually taking the time to help him fill out the forms (their patience lasted a lot longer than mine I must say!). However, there were a couple of things that stood out to me as changes since my last VS flights back in 2000. Firstly, they no longer offer printed menus in Y - I remember thinking that was a nice touch, and whilst not really a necessity, made me feel that they valued my custom as a Y class passenger. I do have to say though that the Chicken Korma I chose that day was really good - I even considered asking for seconds! We did get the standard round of free drinks, followed by the meal (plus wine) then ice creams a bit later in the flight, then a snack before arrival in BOS (although not that memorable as I can't remember what we had), but the setup of the trolleys with the VS branded cardboard boxes sitting on top somehow cheapened the experience for me - I felt that they could have at least emptied the contents onto the trolley and binned the boxes. I know it's no big deal in the great scheme of things - but personally I just felt that it created a bad impression. It also struck me that the audio selection offered bore an uncanny resemblance to that offered on the Virgin Pendolino train service - something I use often on my frequent business trips between London and Birmingham - made me wonder if they use the same soundtrack (I remember this as both have one of my favourite songs - 'Why I Came to California' by Leon Ware )
Anyway, the 6 hour 55 minute flight passed by fairly quickly and smoothly, if a little on the uncomfortable side (the legroom isn't great and nowhere near the comfort level of my recent AA and BA transatlantic flights), and due to the spell of good weather in the northeast, we had a cloudless sunset approach into BOS. A nice touch was that even though they had officially ended the IFE service, they showed 'Grease' during approach and landing, playing the soundtrack over the speaker system - a nice diversion should you happen to be disinterested in what was going on outside.
February 7th 2005
Flight: AC369 BOS-YYZ
Scheduled Departure: 20:55
Actual Departure: Unsure
Scheduled Arrival: 22:43
Actual Arrival: Unsure
Aircraft: Airbus A319 C-GKOC
After a couple of excellent days exploring Boston, Cambridge and Salem, MA, it was time to move on to Toronto for my first Canadian experience as well as my first flight ever on Air Canada. I took a shared van from the Hampton Inn in Cambridge, MA to Logan, arriving with about 2.5 hours to spare before my flight to YYZ. Check-in was a breeze - I strode straight up to an empty desk and was checked in quickly and efficiently by the friendly staff. Having taken the time to remove anything metal from my person and to put it either into my jacket pockets or my daypack (my customary procedure), I went off to join the line for security. The line was quite long, and a number of people complained loudly and audibly about the single line when there were a number of flights about to depart. Their appeals were blatantly ignored. I appreciate only too well the need for security, but don't appreciate the need for the TSA reps to be quite as rude and arrogant as those on duty that day in Terminal C at BOS. I took off my outdoor jacket and boots, but was still sent back to remove my zipped sweatshirt as the agent believed it was a "jacket" - despite my protests! Anyway, I was given a clean bill of health and sent on my way - a nice cool glass of Sam Adams being all I needed to recover from my run-in with the TSA!! Having a couple of hours to kill, I wandered the gate area for a few minutes till I'd exhausted that vein of entertainment (nothing to see here!) and went and sat at the designated gate to listen to the CD's I'd bought in Boston and await the flight.
Eventually the A319 arrived and after about 20 minutes, pre-boarding was offered...with no takers. General boarding was next, and as I was sitting right next to the gate, I was first to board the Airbus - again, a first for me! I was greeted by a friendly crew, and asked if I was the only passenger that day. The number of people gathered at the gate indicated that whilst I wasn't the only passenger, there wouldn't be that many far behind me. In fact, there couldn't have been many more than twenty or so passengers on the A319 that night, so after takeoff we were free to move around and choose our preferred seats. I had already reserved seat 18A when I booked online, but later moved into an exit row for the extra legroom.
The flight time that night was one hour and 18 minutes, with the promise of some bumpy air on our descent into YYZ. I have to say that it was one of the most relaxed flights I've ever been on. The three F/A's were very friendly, happily honouring my request for the aircraft registration (I was eventually presented with a piece of card with the reg written by the F/A) which I'd failed to notice on boarding. The plane was very new-looking and clean, and I thought that the green colour scheme used by AC was a nice change from the blue or grey schemes used by a lot of airlines (Aer Lingus excepted!). IFE was via the drop-down screens (the news, followed by The Simpsons), with a reasonable audio selection (those Canadians seem to like their country music!). Snacks (of the packet variety) were free, but alcohol had to be paid for. After what seemed like no time at all, we were on final approach into YYZ. Due to an early arrival, our gate was already occupied, but we were eventually reassigned to a different gate and after a brief taxi we were on blocks and heading for the exit.
I have to congratulate any Canadians reading - you've got a great country there, I can't wait to go back. Hopefully I will be making a trip to BC in September/October time.
After having a look around Toronto and spending time at the Falls, all too soon, it was time to leave and head back to the US.
February 10th 2005
Flight: AC722 YYZ-LGA
Scheduled Departure: 18:15
Actual Departure: Approx. 19:30
Scheduled Arrival: 19:43
Actual Arrival: Approx. 20:30
Aircraft: Airbus A320 - Reg. unknown.
Having arrived in my rented Chevy Impala at Pearson, I made my way to Terminal 2 and to the 'Flights to US' check-in area. I attempted to use one of the automatic check-in points, but it was unable to locate my reservation, so I queued for a few minutes at a manual check-in desk. I must say that things can be a bit confusing if you're not used to using the check-in facility for flights from Canada to the US - it's not immediately obvious that you're about to go through the whole customs and immigration procedure, which only really becomes obvious when they don't actually take your checked baggage from you at check-in. No problems at US immigration, but my suitcase was singled out for a hand search at customs. The two half litre bottles of Vodka that I'd bought at Heathrow attracted their attention. One was still unopened and sealed, but the second was about a third full. At first, they refused to let me take the opened bottle through, but after much complaining on my part (OK, there wasn't much left, but it was the principal of the thing) I was allowed to keep the bottle once I'd proved to them that it contained Vodka by taking a swig! I then received the wand treatment at the security checkpoint, but the agent was very polite and courteous, even thanking me for my time...see, common courtesy costs nothing and creates a good impression rather than leaving a bitter aftertaste. I was treated as a human being rather than a criminal.
Just prior to the advertised departure time, it was announced that there would be a delay of 45 minutes - although at that time no reason was given. We eventually boarded the aircraft (this time very full) and I took my window seat, which I think was 14A. At this time we were told that ATC in the New York area were having problems due to the north-westerly winds that night, so our departure was delayed at their request. We pushed back and held at the end of the runway for a while, waiting for a number of AC aircraft to arrive, and were eventually given takeoff clearance at around 19:30, an hour and a quarter after our scheduled departure time. Due to the delay, it was announced that we could all have one free alcoholic beverage on the one hour flight, and after takeoff the trolley service began. Due to an accent problem (I guess the F/A's at Air Canada don't get to hear a south London accent too often) a number of drinks were presented to me, but it was only after the third attempt that I actually got the vodka and coke that I'd requested!
We experienced some light chop at times on the short flight, which increased as we made a sharp turn over Manhattan to line up for approach into LGA. Landing was, however, routine, and after a short taxi we were at the gate and on our way into Terminal M. It was only then that I appreciated the formalities back in Toronto as the only thing I had to worry about was collecting my suitcase off the carousel, which turned up in a matter of minutes. Around 10 minutes later, my Supershuttle arrived to take me to the Ramada in Manhattan where I was to meet my cousin for two fun-filled days in the Big Apple. I must say that my trip through LGA wasn't really long enough to give me an impression of the place - maybe one day I'll fly out of there which may give me more time to experience New York's "close in" airport.
Two days later, it was sadly time to head back home.
February 12th 2005
Flight: VS002 EWR-LHR
Scheduled Departure: 21:25
Actual Departure: 21:05
Scheduled Arrival: 09:05 +1
Actual Arrival: 08:10 +1
Aircraft: B744 G-VTOP "Virginia Plain"
I was dropped off by my cousin outside Terminal B at Newark Airport. Within ten minutes of her dropping me off, I was sitting at the gate! Check-in was again quick and easy (even though I hadn't checked in online this time), and there was no line at all at security, in fact two of the checkpoints were empty. I did set off the alarm at first, but once they realised that I didn't have anything metal on me they decided I must have "hit the scanner" - on the second pass through the alarm was silent. Boarding for the flight began quite early, and I took my seat in 37A just in front of a bulkhead. While I was waiting for people to move out of the way so I could stow my daypack, one of the F/A's told me that there were 200 empty seats on that night's flight, so once we were airborne we would be free to choose any empty seats we liked.
Pushback began 20 minutes early and we were soon powering down the runway with a short takeoff roll before lifting into the night sky. Flight time to LHR was announced as being 5 hours and 50 minutes. This, however, was probably my most disappointing VS flight. Despite the light load, I have to say that the in flight service was minimal. There was no pre-dinner drinks round, and even though I was fairly near the front of the nearly empty Y cabin, by the time my food was delivered there was only one type of meal left, so I was handed a beef option without being offered any choice. The Beef Bourgignon (sp?) with pasta spirals was nowhere near the standard of the Chicken Korma I had eaten on the outbound flight, but I guess it filled a hole. After the empties had been collected, the F/A's pretty much disappeared until the breakfast of dry, spongy orange and grapefruit segments and a blueberry muffin was brought round an hour or so out of Heathrow. This was to be the third time that I had flown into LHR with VS, and by far the most disappointing of all of those flights.
As far as IFE was concerned, even though they were showing different movies, all other choices were the same as on my flight to BOS a week earlier. Therefore, I was offered the same episodes of Friends, Little Britain, My Wife and Kids etc, etc. Even the audio selection was the same. As much as I like 'Why I Came to California', a different selection would have been nice! Now maybe this is the norm these days, but I always thought that the selection was different on eastbound flights from that offered on westbound flights to avoid just this situation.
In total I think I slept for about an hour or so, and spent the rest of the time tracking our progress on the map. Fortunately the flight passed quickly and after holding for 15 minutes or so, we were heading over my native south London on approach into LHR. The flight was generally smooth, with a few rough spots on the way, but nothing too disturbing. Yet again I arrived at a gate only for it to be already occupied due to an early arrival, which along with a delay waiting to hook up to ground power meant that we sat for maybe 30 minutes before we were able to get off the plane. The B744 was about as uncomfortable as the A340 on my outward flight, so I was glad to be on the ground and free to stretch my legs!
My journey through LHR was probably my fastest ever, and within about 20 minutes of getting off the plane I was heading to the bus station to catch the 726 back home to Sutton.
My overall impression of Virgin: I do believe that the standard of service has declined since my last flight with them 5 years ago. Whilst the F/A's still have much enthusiasm for their jobs, I believe they are held back from providing the service they would like to by the restrictions imposed on them by their management. Next time I fly transatlantic, I will check out BA and AA's fares first before considering VS.
Of Air Canada: Just great! OK, so my flights were only short, but the F/A's were very helpful and friendly and the aircraft were comfortable. Am hoping to try their longhaul product some day.
Well, I have certainly enjoyed writing this report and hope that you enjoyed reading it. If you don't, then I'm sorry, but at least I got something out of it!!