British Airways vs Virgin Atlantic – a comparison that is often made given that they fly similar long haul routes and that they are, more to the point, old rivals (are you old enough to remember the BA dirty tricks court case in 1993?). Let’s take a quick look at the routes, cabins, service, food, loyalty benefits, customer service, and brand.
These opinions are my own based on flying with both airlines over the past twenty years. I’ve flown British Airways on long haul and short haul, for both business and pleasure. I’ve also flown Virgin Atlantic for holiday flights to the Caribbean. In the case of BA I’ve flown in World Traveller, World Traveller Plus, and Club seats. In the case of Virgin I’ve flown in Premium Economy.
I have updated this post post since it was originally written before the 2020/2021 pandemic. Now, as the air travel is increasing again, British Airways have attracted a lot of criticism in view of the fact that they have cancelled flights due to staff shortages at airports and aboard aircraft. Some reports say this is ‘due to Covid’ i.e. staff test positive and isolate at home even though in many cases they’re not showing any symptoms. There have have also been cancellations caused by yet more problems with their IT network.
However, others have pointed out that if British Airways were short of staff in the spring of 2022 then it’s because they failed to re-hire enough people in anticipation of the inevitable growth in air travel as the threat of the virus recedes. Virgin Atlantic on the other hand have not been in the news as much as they’re a much smaller airline so they have proportionally fewer staff.
The Flight Routes
BA have a much bigger fleet and fly to many destinations in Europe, as well as long haul flights to most continents. So in terms of reach Virgin can’t compete, and that does have a bearing on the loyalty program since you can’t use Virgin for short breaks in Europe. That means you can neither earn any rewards nor spend any on short haul flights with Virgin.
British Airways Routes
British Airways offers an extensive global route network, with over 170 destinations in 111 countries. The airline’s main hub is at London Heathrow Airport, but it also has a strong presence at Gatwick, Stansted, and Manchester airports. British Airways’ long-haul routes are particularly well-represented, with direct services to cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Johannesburg.
The airline also offers a comprehensive domestic network, with flights to major cities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Belfast. In addition, British Airways operates a number of seasonal routes to popular holiday destinations such as the Canary Islands and the Greek islands.
Virgin Atlantic Routes
Virgin Atlantic Airways currently flies to over 30 destinations worldwide, most of which are in the USA and the Caribbean. In North America, the airline offers service to major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
In the Caribbean you can fly Virgin Atlantic to places like The Bahamas, Jamaica, St Lucia, Antigua, Barbardos, and Tobago, among others. In Europe, Virgin Atlantic flies to popular destinations like London, Paris, and Berlin.
The airline also serves several destinations in Asia, including Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Other popular routes include Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa.
The Aircraft Fleets
British Airways Fleet
British Airways currently has a diverse aircraft fleet that consists of both Boeing and Airbus aircraft. The airline flies to over 200 destinations across the world, and its fleet is equipped to handle short-haul, long-haul, and ultra-long-haul flights.
- Airbus A319-100 – 30
- Airbus A320-200 – 83
- Airbus A320-200 – 28
- Airbus A350-1000 – 18 (by end of 2023)
- Airbus A80-800 – 12
- Boeing 777-200 – 43
- Boeing 777-300 – 16
- Boeing 787-8 – 12
- Boeing 787-9 – 18
- Embraer 190 – 24
Virgin Atlantic Airways Fleet
Virgin Atlantic currently operates a fleet of 36 aircraft, making it much smaller than that of British Airways. However, Virgin like to give their aircraft some personality by giving them unique names. This isn’t just a twee gimmick. It’s actually a neat little marketing idea.
Virgin Atlantic Airways Airbus A350-1000
|G-VJAM||Queen of Hearts|
|G-VDIA||Lucy in the Sky|
|G-VFAN||Pin up Girl|
|G-VMAP||West End Girl|
Cabins and Seating
As you’re probably aware Virgin have just three cabin types; Economy, Premium Economy, and Upper Class. Although recently they introduced a tiered Economy class. BA on the other hand have four; Economy, Premium Economy, Business, and First. These are known within the airline as World or Euro Traveller, World Traveller Plus, Club World or Europe, and First. So Virgin’s Upper Class is on a par with BA’s Club Class.
I’m not going to into the details of seat and pitch measurements as there are many websites that do just that far better than I can. What I would say is that Club Class on BA has an odd layout. They have seats side by side in opposite directions and this causes a number of complaints from both passengers and cabin crew.
If you’re traveling alone and allocated a window seat in Club you can find yourself facing the tail of the aircraft. You’ll be separated from the person in the adjacent seat (facing forward) by a screen that has to be down for take-off and landing. If that person decides to stretch out and sleep on the flight you’ll have to step over their legs to reach the aisle. Likewise, the cabin crew have to lean over them to pass any food or drink to you.
Premium on both airlines is fine for long haul, except perhaps when it comes to food. BA’s food in Premium is inferior that of Virgin. I don’t understand how they can get something like that wrong after all this time.
Service from the cabin crews on both airlines is mixed. It can’t be easy being a flight attendant, especially when you see the way some passengers behave and their standards of hygiene. They also have to work long hours on low pay, cope with jet lag, and the incessant demands of some very discourteous and ungrateful people.
On the other hand, it seems both airlines employ crew who can be both curt and unhelpful at times. Food on both is, well, airline food. You have to fly Club or First before you’ll get anything of restaurant quality.
In terms of loyalty benefits BA wins because you can earn air miles using an Amex card and then spend them on any flight, short or long haul. On Virgin you can only earn on those occasional long haul flights, and then spend them on long haul flights.
As for customer service, have you ever tried contacting an airline and speaking to a human being? It’s not easy it, is it? I have had reason to complain to both airlines over the years and both have dealt with the complaints but in terms of compensation it was Virgin who were more generous.
Low pay, long hours, jet lag, and badly behaved customers can all take their toll on the mood of the cabin crew, so it’s almost inevitable that if you fly often enough you’ll occasionally see a flight attendant who is having a bad day.
On the other hand, as a fare paying passenger you’re entitle to not only a minimum standard of service but, as every airline knows, the ambassadors who greet you as you board and disembark can mean the difference between a lost customer and a loyal frequent flyer.
Finally, there’s the brand itself. BA flies the UK flag and Virgin is more of the maverick airline. Perhaps you’re old enough to remember Virgin Record stores and you’re loyal to the Virgin brand because you admire Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin group of companies, or you just prefer the adverts and the uniforms of the cabin crew. Or perhaps you’ve bought into the idea that BA represent Great Britain and all that is great about it.
British Airways vs Virgin Atlantic – The Verdict
These days though it’s a relief enough just be aboard and flying somewhere. After the restrictions enforced upon us by the 2020 pandemic it’s enough to be above the clouds, drink in hand, watching the clouds pass by as you head off to a destination full of possibilities.
However, if you have to choose between the two I would fly Virgin again the next time, only because I’ve flown BA on the previous few trips. I can’t decide between the two. Perhaps you can. Let me know your thoughts on either airline. Post a comment below with any feedback or anecdotes of your own.