But this one is a little different.
I'm going to stop short of saying I'm fighting a good fight or trying to go on some sort of crusade here, but I've always believed that just as complaining blue murder when things are not good, it is good to give credit when it is due.
The background to this trip is very simple. A close friend of ours celebrates her 40th birthday in a day or so, and a large group of eleven of our very close group of London mates, our Tooting & Wandsworth Buena Vista Social Club if you will, have agreed to fly out somewhere very special for a week of drinking, eating, partying and generally celebrating in true London fashion. Except we're not in London. We're in Las Vegas. Our mates fly out today. They all chose BA from LHR, but because the wife and I flew out a couple of days early to do couply things before the partying began in earnest, the wife chose Virgin out of LGW.
You'll have heard the horror stories, I'm sure. I certainly had. A rather indulgent check of AirlineQuality.com confirmed my worst fears. After a three year spell of nothing but EK, SQ, QR, EY and CX long-haul, I was a bit worried. The comments on there use words like "disgraceful", "shocking", "vile" and "disgusting" to describe the VS operations ex-LGW, and the consensus was that the non-updated LGW-configured birds are the worst of the lot. Several comments have noted how unbelievable it is that an airline of the former glory of VS can have fallen so far. My own father flew to MCO last year with them on one and told me he preferred Monarch in the cheap seats, and that he would never, ever fly VS again. He is not fussy. He goes to sleep on planes and doesn't really care about what IFE the plane has, or what the legroom is like. For him to have such a venomous response to a flight surprised me. So it is safe to say we left Clapham Junction first thing on Monday morning not expecting much.
Arrival at LGW was swift and painless, and the check-in queue was rapid. We were offered an upgrade to Y+ for £320 each, or the bulk of my VS miles and after some discussion we decided not to go for it. That's the thick end of £700 and you can buy some serious champagne and prime rib for that. I mean, how bad can it be? I asked the check-in agent if, as a favour to a long-standing (LHR) VS customer, whether she might consider blocking off the seat next to me for the flight as it was not quite full. She declined. Not a good start.
I still harboured hopes that we might get one of the LHR-configured birds, as LGW has three of them based that have the Odyssey IFE and better seats. I've been on Ruby Tuesday and Tinker Belle and have happy memories of EWR and JFK runs on both back when VS were a very good airline across the Pond.
We arrived at Gate 13 (unlucky for some) to find G-VGAL Jersey Girl waiting for us, and the last vestiges of hope died inside.
Jersey Girl (taken at LAS)
Flight time - 10 hrs 21 mins.
Seat 36J & K
Photo © Orlando G. Rivera Rivera - SJU Aviation Photography
Photo © Gary Claridge-king
Jersey Girl is one of the last of the "new" batch of 747-400s, not taken up by original buyers Alitalia, and along with Barbarella, Hot Lips, Mustang Sally, Virginia Plane and English Rose, forms the backbone of the LGW and MAN operations for VS. A charter plane by any other name should smell so sweet... This was going to be ten and a half hours of pure misery. The stories of blocked toilets, inedible food, drunken lout passengers, surly service, tatty and broken seats and grimy, battered interiors swam through my head.
Not for the first time that day, I was pleasantly surprised.
Greeted warmly by a team of not-at-all surly flight attendants, I found my seat and was very surprised to see that, although the much-maligned Nova IFE was very much in evidence, the seats and carpet had been re-upholstered and Jersey Girl had had something of an internal revamp. Nothing showy, but it smelt nice, looked good and felt good. Good.
Legroom was fine - and I'm 5"10 (in heels!)
Amenity kits were handed out and these were much improved from the last time I flew VS - pen, toothbrush, toothpaste, eyemask, socks and stuff in the usual plastic shoulder bag thing. Nice touch.
The doors closed about ten minutes late and to my immense happiness, the seat next to me was unoccupied. The agent had blocked it off after all! Nice.
We pushed back, started up and taxied to the western end of the runway for a quick departure - two Easyjet A319s in front and behind. We rolled onto the active and did not stop - it was a rolling takeoff. Takeoff was the normal powerful but heavy effort and we turned north over London after departure. I moved to the aisle seat to give the wife more room and shortly afterwards the smiling and very friendly flight attendants began a drinks and Penn State Pretzel run. I chose a whiskey and coke and settled in for the flight with a little bag of mini sour cream and onion flavour pretzels.
Pax load was 381 for the flight so we were very full, and there were no kids on board at all that I could see. Drinks were being drunk and the IFE was started. I don't really go for watching films much on planes and none of the films or TV programmes really appealed, so as I normally do, left the moving map on. Initial climb was FL320 and our route took us up over Northampton, Manchester, Lockerbie, and as the fuel burned off we climbed to 340 over Torshavn. Doing a mile every six seconds, the 747 was quieter than I remember previous 747 flights being, but that might have been because we were over the wing as opposed to sat near the back, where I normally prefer to due to proximity to the galley and loos, and the fact that on most 747s the taper allows for two seats in place of three at the back near the tail.
I ventured to the galley for another whiskey and coke and a gin & tonic. The measures were huge and hugely satisfying - Talisker and Diet Pepsi might sound like a heresy to some, but it is hugely satisfying drink over ice. Strong enough to sip, but not so much that you get headaches. Listening to some driving, melodic progressive trance on my iPod, chilling with a whiskey, I took in the surroundings.
Everyone was happy, everyone was relaxed. The crew were busy but smiling and very much not surly or rude. Special needs passengers in the bulkhead seats were being very professionally looked-after and the rubbish runs were extremely rapid.
Soon the smell of food wafted forward from the galley and lunch was served. Again, this surpassed my expectations. Expecting awful, inedible, nightmarish muck, I was amazed and pleased to find that not only was the food nice, it was amongst the nicest meals I've had in Y. The choices were Shepherd's Pie, roast chicken or vegetable chilli. I'm not a veggie but quite fancied a chilli so went for the chilli.
Starter was a prawn salad mayo thing which was very nice.
My wife had the roast chicken - she said it was delicious.
The chilli was a revelation. The rice was thick arborio rice, beautifully seasoned and with a slight crunch - very well done. The chilli was thick, unctuous and crammed with beans, chopped veggies and done in a really very tasty indeed tomato savoury sauce. Delicious.
For dessert the GU puddings were massively popular - I looked around and saw everyone was loving them.
Spot on. I had a nice Malbec with the chilli which went very well. I enjoy Mexican food, and have always believed that a good chilli should be served 24 hrs after you cook it, because the flavours take a while to fully emerge, and have often wondered why more chilli is not served by airlines - they cook the food 24hrs before you get to eat it. Why not use that time to improve the food? VS seem to have caught on - I'm a foodie and I loved it. Just wish there was more of it! It beats anything I've had on EK or SQ in the cheap seats. It really was that good. Don't you just love it when the reality is so much better than you expected?
The crew did two coffee runs and the trays were cleared very quickly. Down my side of the plane we were looked after by a pair of very charming young VS ladies - Donna, a tall, rangy looking lady with a ready smile took the time to chat to me while pouring the coffee, whilst her aisle-mate was a younger, shorter knockout blonde from Bridgend who literally could not do enough for everyone. They were all smiles and highly efficient - just how it is supposed to be done. Impressive, I have to say.
The woman in front of me was watching 127 Hours on the Nova system and right at the point where the guy cuts his own arm off with a blunt penknife she took her headset off, screwed up her eyes and went green. Some people do not have the right constitution to watch films like that!
A water/juice run followed just half an hour after lunch, and again over Greenland, where we were offered a choc-ice.
I love getting icecream on daytime flights. Always a nice touch. I had a couple more whiskies and caught an hour or so's sleep. My wife got a whole two or three hours sleep...
We climbed to FL360 over the Hudson Straight, and the crew did yet another juice/water run whilst offering warm spinach & ricotta or honey chicken wraps. I chose the chicken, and was yet again, very pleasantly surprised. Packed with deep, rich favour, big hunks of chicken and nice and warm too. Lovely stuff. About that time they announced that the bar was closed - fair enough i guess, but I saw them pouring spirits from half litre bottles on the drinks runs before, so maybe they ran out? Maybe they deliberately dont load much alcohol because of the destination and the likelihood that there will be stag parties etc who will be drinking hard all flight which nobody wants I guess. That was my only gripe - I'd have liked a few more drinks. I can see why they do it, but its not really fair on the rest of us.
I wrote another ten pages of my novel, completed Ratchet & Clank on the PSP and switched to sodas for the rest of the flight.
Note the addition of pirate ships and treasure islands to the moving map! There are also dancing Elvises, flying fish and other stuff. Funny
I'll spare you the toilet shot but they were kept clean - I will show you this though -
All the signs on board were in English and Italian - because Alitalia did not take them up when Boeing had already begun to build them and ordered the parts. Interesting stuff. I have to say, an AZ 744 in the current livery would have been a very handsome bird indeed!
So back to my seat - more Medal of Honour and more sodas. A casual flick through DJ Mag and a listen to the Joachim Garaud CD free with this month's edition followed by Carl Cox Global Underground - top stuff. To my amazement the crew kept doing juice and water runs, (think they did about six or seven in total) and we climbed to FL380 over Winnipeg. Over Northern Minnesota the crew did ANOTHER food run - afternoon tea. Sorry the pic is so dark!
A coronation chicken sandwich on fresh brown bread (again, very tasty and obviously of a high quality) and a thick soft sultana and dark chocolate cookie, with tea and coffee.
Our routing took us down over North Dakota, Colorado, almost overhead Denver, and into Utah.
There was not one single bump as we crossed the Rockies and we began our descent into Las Vegas about an hour before landing, headed down (presumably ATC/traffic related) to FL320, stayed there for half an hour, and then made a very gentle descent into LAS.
We continued to fly lower, taking the northern approach and affording stunning views of the canyons and mountains and then - as a real highlight, Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, so much so that the Captain came on the PA to suggest that the views were well worth a look. Nice touch!
The crew came round offering little miniature packets of Love Hearts to everyone "for landing" - once again, a lovely (very "old VS" I must say!) touch and the wife and I had a lot of fun offering the suitably-titled ones to each other as we skimmed the mountains for a northern approach into LAS. Touchdown was silky smooth as we rolled out past the cargo apron. FX MD10 and UPS 757 sat there, gave way as we exited right to Southwest 737s by the dozen, and some very pretty looking Allegiant MD83s. Sorry - none of the pics I took were any good.
We pulled up to the international terminal to see one of the most stunning planes I've ever seen - the Venetian-owned Tristar sat at a stand, gleaming in the early afternoon sunshine. She was absolutely spotless. I noted also the legendary pair of similarly-liveried 747SPs and their new 767-300ER over by the GA/Biz apron. Sexy! Embarkation was very quick and the crew still smiling, happy and unruffled.
In all, this was one of the most enjoyable long-haul flights I've ever had - simple as that. Honestly could not fault it in any way, other than the fact that they closed the bar four hours early! Even if we had had V-Port, I probably wouldn't have used it - the plane was clean, in good condition, the crew were excellent and the food plentiful, prolific and of a surprisingly high standard. Our friends are, as I write this, on a Speedbird 777-200ER and will be arriving in a few hours. My wife and I were rather worried that we might have a greatly inferior flight experience to theirs, but having taken it all in - BA will do very well indeed to beat that. I've had business class flights that I've not enjoyed as much as VS43 on Monday.
We fly to FLL on WN on Monday and then back to LHR on a VS A346 overnight on Saturday so I'll try to post a TR for those as well, plus the amazing video we took of the sightseeing flight over the Strip we did last night in a Heli-USA Twin Squirrel. Awesome fun.
I'm off to the bar now.
[Edited 2011-02-23 17:11:45]