Jeremy Clarkson on Virgin

Credit - Sunday Times 02 Oct 05

The job of a newspaper columnist is to find something wrong with everything. To find discord where there is harmony. To sprinkle a little bit of hay fever dust all over the perfect summer’s day.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find fault with something you love. And, strangely, one of the things I’ve loved most of all over the years is club class on British Airways. I love the way that when you’ve finished working in some godforsaken Third World fleapit you’re welcomed on board by a homosexual in grey flannel trousers and you think: “Aaaah. We haven’t even taken off but I’m home already.”

I love their scones and clotted cream. I love the way they have back-up planes for when yours goes wrong. And I love the calmness of their pilots, all of whom have abbreviated Christian names and reassuring three-syllable surnames. “Welcome on board, ladies and gentlemen. Mike Richardson here on the flight deck . . .”

Oh, they’ve done their best over the years to shoo me away, ditching the elegant grey and blue livery in favour of that terrible pre-Tony multiworld design on the tailfins, and then by buying the tedious and slothful 777 to replace the brilliant jumbos.

Even when I stopped flying quite so much and they demoted me from a card that entitled me to sit on the captain’s lap to a card that didn’t even get me into the economy class bogs, I still stayed loyal. And what happened when they ditched Concorde? Did I work myself into a frenzy of righteous indignation. Did I rant and rave? No. I blamed the French.

I chose to fly BA the other day even though I knew the catering staff were on a roundabout in Slough and there’d be no scones. To give you an idea of how devoted I am, the only request I made when negotiating my BBC contract was that I should fly BA whenever possible.

Last week, however, it wasn’t possible and I was sent upper-class tickets for a flight to San Francisco with the enemy. Virgin.

I’d flown once before with Beardy Airways and, having been told to put on the “funky phones” so I could hear the safety demonstration, I seriously considered opening the door and jumping out. It’s an airline, for crying out loud, not a playgroup.

Still, this time they offered to send a car to pick me up, which is something BA has never done. Of course it wasn’t the limo in which Helen Mirren luxuriates in the television commercials; it was more a sort of Volvo, in fact.

But even so, it took me to a check-in zone at Heathrow where, without even getting out of the car, my bag was checked in and my boarding card issued. That was impressive. And then I was escorted by a pretty, slim girl, which is what airline employees should be like, to the Virgin lounge.

My God. It was like walking into the Design Museum. The whole place was dripping with the sort of style that means you can neither open nor close the lavatory doors, and the wine’s Norwegian. It was fabulous.

In the BA lounge you get a cup of coffee and a biscuit and you help yourself. Here, there was a restaurant, bar staff, a smoking area that wasn’t just a glass box like you get at a zoo, a hairdresser’s, several massage parlours, some steam rooms, and a businessman on a mobile phone in a Jacuzzi.

He was unusual. When you fly with BA everyone has a laptop and models themselves on those idiots you see in airport poster advertisements for American banks. But with Virgin most of the passengers looked like the sort of people you might have round for dinner. One was the lighting director for the Eagles. Several were women.

I had a massage, which the girl said was like trying to ease the tension in a fridge door — this is because I’d been unable to get into the lavatory and was in agony — and then I rang the office to find out how much it was all costing. “Oh,” said the girl, “it’s about the same as BA business.”

That’s weird. Normally two similarly priced products designed to do the same sort of thing are roughly the same. A Ford is much the same as a Vauxhall. Evian is pretty much the same as what comes out of your tap. But the gap between Virgin and BA is planetary. And we hadn’t even got on the plane yet.

Superficially, it was the same as BA. They even had a homosexual man to welcome us on board, and scones, and seats that move around electrically. But on Virgin you have a girl in stockings and a suspender belt to give you another massage, and there’s a bar. And I mean a proper bar, on which you can loll.

What’s more, on BA you watch the films when they come on. On Virgin you are the master of your own destiny, thanks to technology that’s bound to break all the time. It certainly did on the way home, but because we were on a 747 the flight took less than nine hours. I therefore didn’t really mind.

So there we are. Finally I’ve found something wrong with British Airways. They’re not good enough. And now it’s time to put a superbug in Beardy’s omelette with a question. If you can make your airline even better than the best airline in the world, how come your trains are such rubbish?


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