Tuesday, August 23, 2005

There and Back Again


A Tale of Two Airlines

You are all aware, I presume, of the overused Internet device (originally and still an overused print media device) where the writer compares two competitors by giving each a grade on various criteria and then picking a winner. While I have certainly embraced many a cliche in my day, I would be remiss not to mention right up front that when one is deciding between two airlines, the airline that stepped up to the plate and got you to your holiday on last-minute notice is going to have a prohibitive advantage over the airline that canceled your flight at the last minute, causing you to have to scramble to find another way to your destination. I am also, on the whole, a fan of organized labor, so the fact that British Airways (hereinafter BA or BritAir) had problems because it was trying to save money on labor costs by outsourcing an important function to a Dallas company that at least appears not to care much about good labor relations costs them even more points.

Still, while acknowledging that Virgin Atlantic (hereinafter VA or Virgin) cannot help but come out on top in this contest, I want to report back on various aspects of the two flights.

Ground personnel. I found the British unfailingly polite throughout my trip, and the check-in people at both Dulles and Heathrow were no exception. I give a narrow edge to Virgin because the attendant went out of her way to reassign V. to an aisle seat and apologized for not being able to seat us next to each other. Also, she was still cheerful and helpful near the end of what had doubtless been a long shift. The BritAir staff were equally cheerful, but we found it less than helpful when several of them went on break at 9 am.

Food. A kinder person than I would cut BritAir some additional slack because they were operating under unusual conditions. But they were conditions at least partially of BA's own making, so tough. I acknowledge, of course, that my experience with them might not be typical.

That said, BA did okay in the food area. The first person to greet us on our arrival at Heathrow for our return flight Monday morning proudly informed us that there would be hot meals on our flight. This was somewhat welcome news. I had not expected there to be much, if anything, available, and I had made a trip to Sainsbury's the previous afternoon to lay in provisions for V. and I, but as visiting supermarkets is one of my favorite holiday diversions (that's the American usage of "diversion"; there were no traffic interruptions between the hotel and the supermarket), I am almost inclined to give BA bonus points for encouraging me to make an extra trip.

For its hot meal, BA offered two choices: chicken casserole and spinach risotto (meatless). I figure that if someone can't be bothered to offer a more appetizing name than "casserole," I can't be bothered to order the dish. Risotto is not, of course, known for its ability to be either kept hot or reheated without losing its essential risottoesqueness, and BA's version was no exception, but it was still tasty, with plenty of cheese and more vegetables (mostly spinach [duh] and red and yellow peppers) than I had expected. The risotto was accompanied by a small salad of tiny mozzarella balls, tomato wedges and some sort of green resembling escarole all in an acceptable vinaigrette; a dinner roll that was extremely lucky to have gotten the gig; a carton of water; a single Twix; and a small wedge of chocolate mousse cake with some raspberry coulis. The raspberry coulis smelled good but lacked conviction. The chocolate mousse looked but did not taste intensely chocolate, and the layer of cake or crust (I'm not sure which it was meant to be) that it sat upon was somewhat mushy and almost entirely flavorless.

Starting backwards, VA's dessert was a wedge of key lime pie that was better than a pre-packaged piece of pie has any reason to expect to be. VA had three options with its hot meal, including a vegetarian option that I cannot remember. The other options were beef stew and salmon. I selected the salmon, expecting that it would be somewhat overcooked, which it was, but it was okay. It was served on a bed of unremarkable rice pilaf, accompanied by some unremarkable green beans. The dinner roll was whole wheat and was decent.

BA had a limited beverage service on board. One of the attendants told us that Monday was the first day they had either ice or hot meals available, but that there was no liquor and a narrower array of beverage choices generally. No snacks.

VA had a full beverage service, which they were very quick to bring around. They also had snacks, but as they were of the too salty sort, I decided to pass them up. No matter how much water I drink (and it's always more than a liter) on an intercontinental flight, I tend to arrive dehydrated, so I avoid anything that will make the situation worse. The VA flight was overnight, and the attendants made sure that we all knew that if we needed water or juice in the middle of the night, it was always available in the galley.

The second meal (aka the cold meal) on the BA flight was tea and was slightly better, and decidedly more filling, than the cold breakfast served on the VA flight. As the English are deservedly famous for their breakfasts, the BA cold meal was a disappointment.

Overall, I'd call the food service on the two airlines a draw. Both were better than what one typically finds on an American carrier. Neither was anything like as good as what I got on Air France.

Eye Candy. There's simply no contest in this category. I believe that on both flights there were four flight attendants. (Not counting the many female flight attendants because, after all, who really remembers or cares what they look like? This isn't 1950.) V., who is generally kinder than I, described the BritAir attendants as "butler types." I would have said that they looked more like civil servants who had been assigned to BritAir when some department in the Home Office had layoffs. While I normally decry the objectification of men (note to the oblivious: the last statement was a big, fat lie), I cannot help mentioning that the BritAir attendants were uniformly in the 45-55 age range, gray-haired, and somewhat paunchy. (This is totally the sort of guy I'd date -- even though V. does not fall into this type as he is rather disgustingly fit -- but since I'm not on the dating market, it is not the sort of man that I especially want to ogle objectify appreciate visually.)

By contrast, none of the Virgin attendants had even heard of 30, and they were, without exception, cute, though it is fair to say that some were exceptionally cute. They were also fit enough that when they wanted some extra supplies from the galley, rather than asking another attendant to fetch the supplies for them, they could actually squeeze between the meal cart and the seats, all the while smiling at the other attendant and calling out "Cheers, darling" as they passed. The Virgin uniforms were clearly superior and fit snugly, making the young men look even more appealing.

In-flight entertainment. Because we're not including the attendants as part of the entertainment, BritAir scores a modest win in this category. I found it easier to adjust the screen on the back of the BA seats so that I could actually enjoy the video, and the controls were easier to use. BA also did a better job of timing its meal service (the flight was also longer) so that passengers could either sleep for longer without being disturbed or watch three movies instead of two. There was nothing that I wanted much to see on the Virgin menu, though to be fair, I did not look all that hard since it was the middle of the night and I had brought along a copy of Light in August. Both airlines had Monster-in-Law and, I believe, Million Dollar Baby and a number of other choices which did nothing for me. BritAir, however, also had The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which I had not seen in a very long time, and which I confess made me content to ignore Faulkner for a while. I have a particular weakness for Hugo Weaving, but let's not go there.

As I mentioned at the top of this entry, the fact that BritAir canceled its flight makes the decision of which airline to take the next time the choice is between BA and VA a no-brainer. Even if you take the elephant out of the room, however, I'd be inclined to give the edge to Virgin.


Blogger Sangroncito said...

OK, Virgin gets my business based on your recommendation that the male flight attendants are cuter!

1:16 AM  

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