I figured that I should take a moment to comment on Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Class check-in arrangements at Heathrow, particularly given the popularity of my detailed review about Eos Airlines (which happens to be my most popular blog post, usually receiving a few hundred hits a day).
The new Virgin Experience out of Heathrow really gives Eos a run for its money when it comes to the departure experience out of the London airports. I was happy to see that Virgin finally opened their newly-renovated check-in area in Terminal 3, which is bright, clean and much more efficient. Although some of Terminal 3 is still under construction in this area, the ramshacked checkin area they have been living with for the past couple of years has been greatly improved upon (for example, the heat now works!)
The first stage of check-in is done via kiosk and then you move on to a real person to drop off your bags. The kiosk prints out your boarding pass and e-Ticket receipt, and allows you to make adjustments to seating or to check in other people that you’re traveling with. This may seem like it’s an added step and an inconvenience, but I always found the Upper Class check-in process at Heathrow to be slow, as people always found a way to clog up the lines with seating change requests or other issues. In addition, they have done away with the passport “pre-screening” step, where your passport would be looked at before you actually got into the check-in line. The problem with this step is that they required a printed itinerary in order for you to receive the clearance sticker on your passport – a ridiculous requirement, in my opinion. If you did not have a printed itinerary – which many e-ticket’ers did not – you would have to check in with the agent and hunt the passport screener down in order to get your clearance sticker. What a model of inefficiency this was. Now, the agent at the bag drop checks your passport and clears you while you drop off your bags. The entire check-in and bag drop process took less than 5 minutes. If you have no bags to check, you can proceed directly to security without having to see an agent.
When you have completed your bag drop, you then take an elevator to the first floor. The elevator is located immediately next to the check-in counter, so there’s no need to hobble through the rest of Terminal 3 in order to get to security. When you come off the elevator, you are presented with large wood door and a bar code scanner. Scan your passport to enter and you are now in the new “Upper Class Wing”.
The lobby has two entry ways – the elevator entry, as I just described, and a main exterior entrance, where Upper Class patrons can be dropped off from their car service (Note: Virgin has always offered similar service in London and Johannesburg). You do not have to enter the main Terminal 3 concourse to check-in if you’re dropped off directly to the Upper Class lobby. Virgin claims that you can be “from limo to lounge in 10 minutes” – a claim that is, actually, quite reasonable. The multi-story entrance lobby is beautiful – decked out in wood, leather and glass – and reminds you of a 5-star boutique hotel.
All this aside, the best part is the new security screening – it’s not Fast Pass, it’s now “Fast Pass Plus”, essentially a dedicated, secluded security line for Upper Class passengers. When I arrived, there was only one person in line ahead of me. When you are done, your exit out behind the general security screening area. The Upper Class line also screens your shoes, so there is no need for you to wait in line for the secondary shoe screening, as you must do at most BAA airports these days.
You can read more about the Upper Class Wing on Virgin’s website.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I wasn’t really paying attention to how long all of this took. But I would estimate that the entire duration of check in and security screening was 10 minutes or less. On a busy Saturday morning at Stansted, even Eos has difficulty matching this. Eos typically has only one or two agents checking people in and you can still encounter a few people ahead of you at Fast Track screening. Of course, one could not complain about either scenario, however, but if you’re flying Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, the days of nightmare check-in and screening times can be put behind you – something that often seemed impossible at Heathrow.
Of course, there are other things that Virgin still can’t beat:
Heathrow is still a city in itself and getting in, out and around it can take time. And, of course, at the end of the day, you will never get better service than Eos and their 757s filled with a maximum of only 47 other passengers. The massive seating space at Eos, coupled with the more-attentive service still can’t be surpassed. And when it comes to arrivals, Heathrow usually greets you with a mile-long walk, long baggage claim times and slow lines at passport control (FastPass, of course, helps with the latter).
Prices are getting, competitive, however. I think the last few flight I’ve take on Virgin have cost no more than GBP 1400 and Eos seems to be flooding my Inbox monthly with discounted specials and buy-one-get-one-free offers. As Eos, MaxJet and Silverjet continue to grow and Virgin, themselves, plan to offer all-business-class service in the coming years, the NYC->LON business-class landscape should certainly become interesting.