This is the second in what might or might not be a series about my August/September 2018 trip to Manchester, England and Scotland. You can read a preview of the trip here.
My flight from DC to Atlanta left at 3pm, but I was at the airport by 1pm. There was no wait at check in and I dropped my bag and was through security pretty quickly. Even though I had Skyclub access due to my Amex Platinum, I headed to the Bracket Room, the restaurant on the United Pier at DCA Terminal B, which is connected to the Delta/Alaska pier behind security. The Bracket Room has recently joined Priority Pass, and cardholders get a $28 food and beverage credit, which covers quite a bit (not tip). This was actually my second time taking advantage of the option, as I grabbed an omelet and coffee a few weeks earlier before a morning work trip. The food is pretty standard bar food, and the service is not very fast (though the kitchen actually is). It’s not as quiet or relaxing as a lounge, and the Skyclub has pretty good free food these days, but at meal times it’s worth a visit. I got a chicken sandwich (which was tiny) that came with fries, and a beer, which came to $26 with tax, so I just paid the tip. I’ve included both meals (and menus) below.
I had about 25 minutes before boarding, so stopped at the newly-renovated Skyclub on the way to the gate. Boy, should American be embarrassed by their pitiful pre-merger US Airways lounge Admirals Club, which not only is dated and lacking in things like power outlets and good seating, but also has a lame food and beverage offering. I didn’t get a lot of pics, but the new Skyclub is stunning, with tons of bar and high-top seating with access to outlets, in addition to more traditional seating. The buffet was better than I’d seen at other Skyclubs, with panini sandwiches, hot tortellini, chicken pho, salads, cheese, and desserts. (A step up from the mac & cheese and chicken salad I’d been used to at Skyclubs.) It was pretty busy, but the staff was all friendly and keeping up, as I had a light graze at the buffet and a Snake Dog IPA. Pics from a later, less busy trip.
My flight to Atlanta only had two notable things. One, I had selected an exit row window “preferred” seat when I booked the flight eight months earlier. Despite schedule changes and re-numbering of the flight and equipment, that had stayed the same…until the day before the flight. At check-in, I saw I had been moved to a regular middle seat. The only non-middle seat available was an aisle seat in the next-to-last row. According to Delta’s twitter team, there was an equipment change, which they “could not control.” Putting aside that an equipment change is not an act of god, there really should be a better computer program for re-seating that doesn’t move elite members into middle seats in regular rows when they are in window seats exit rows.
The second notable thing was how elite heavy the flight was. Two weeks earlier, I had flown from DCA to Atlanta and been upgraded as a Silver Medallion. This time, there were literally 68 people on the upgrade list. Obviously, I didn’t clear.
It’s a good thing I had a long layover, as my arrival and departure gates were almost as far apart as possible at Hartsfield, coming in at the far end of terminal A and departing from the far end of terminal F. I headed to the Skyclub in terminal F, unsure if I’d get access with my Platinum Amex since I was departing on Virgin Atlantic. I used my arrival boarding pass, though, and it was fine. (There’s a Priority Pass lounge nearby, so I would’ve been fine.) I’d never been to this Skyclub before, and although it was pretty new, I did not like the layout. You walk in, and there’s a seating area on the right, which was super crowded, and a staircase leading up to a small lofted seating area. On the left was the sole food area, along with a huge U-shaped bar and a short row of dining-style seating up against the window. On the other side of the window was an outdoor seating area, but it was too humid for me. Past the bar was a narrowish, long seating area.
Although the food station was small and a bit cramped, it had a good variety of offerings: grilled chicken (spicy), Cajun jambalaya pasta, chili, along with mac & cheese, pimiento cheese, hummus, salad fixings, fruit, cookies, and brownie cheesecakes. The bar, like the rest of the club, was pretty crowded with long waits – understandable given just how many transatlantic flights were coming up on Delta, Virgin, Air France. I tried the special featured cocktail, a New England Summer Iced Tea – tequila, rum, ginger ale, pumpkin, and citrus – it was strong! After about an hour in the loud club, I headed towards the gate.
My Virgin Atlantic flight turned out to be very different than expected. Initially, I was booked on a 747. But then a lot of Virgin’s 787 fleet was grounded due to engine issues, and Virgin took on four former Air Berlin A330-200s, which it put on the ATL-MAN (and other) routes. In coach, this was a loss, as the reconfigured Airberlin planes have a full inch less of pitch than the Virgin 747 – and no upper deck seating, obviously. Nonetheless, when I booked as a Delta Gold Medallion, I was entitled to advanced seat assignment for free at the time. (Virgin has changed its whole scheme since and now anyone in my fare class would have been.) Virgin insisted I was wrong, and Delta insisted they couldn’t do anything about it, so I had to email Delta customer service, and finally was assigned an aisle seat towards the front of the plane. Not my ideal, but I wanted to avoid being in the center of the center section on a transatlantic flight.
The day before my flight, I found my seat had been moved to the center section. The only available other seat now was in an aisle in the last two rows of the plane. It seemed odd that the flight was zeroed out in all fare buckets, which in retrospect was a sign I missed. But every few hours I kept checking the light, and was able to get a window towards the middle of the plane eventually.
As I got to the gate, I was surprised to see the gate agents in Virgin uniforms as opposed to Delta ones, but I realized that Virgin had moved its US headquarters to Atlanta (though still only had two daily flights out of ATL). Boarding started a little early, but the gate area seemed very empty for what showed as a completely full A330. It was almost all British families, heading back to Manchester after vacation in the US. Only Delta Gold and higher gets any sort of priority boarding, which seems weird given the relationship between Delta and Virgin, but whatever. Boarding for the rest of us was by row number, starting from the back and moving to the front. It seemed weird that there was no one left in the gate area when I was boarding, in the middle of coach.
My confusion deepened when I boarded and saw a bar– something that doesn’t exist on the former Airberlin A330s– and then there was a huge premium economy section (48 seats) (also not present on the A332). Only then did I reach the 2-4-2 section of economy in the rear starting at row 40, hence why my row 44 was one of the last to board. It appears a true Virgin A333 was swapped in for the Airberlin A332 at the last minute. I’m not sure if folks got opped-up to Premium Economy, but that cabin was mostly empty. That explained why I’d been bounced from my seat. Regular economy, on the other hand, was completely full. They announced 242 passengers on board, which meant there were 22 empty seats, which I’d guess were all in Premium Economy.
At least I got the benefit of better pitch. On boarding, at each seat was a blanket, pillow, and headset. The seats were a bit dated, with small personal TV screens, along with USB power and an old-school AV connection port. Overhead there was colored mood lighting, and plenty of bin space given it was largely a checked-bag crowd. I was a bit worried about the 7-hour 9-minute flight, as there was a very loud bratty kid behind me, but it turned out fine. There was an extensive movie selection and I started with I, Tonya, for take-off, and we were wheels up at 7:31pm.
Menus were distributed right after take-off, listing three choices for dinner- a nice touch in economy: pasta with sausage, dal and rice, or chicken meatballs and mashed potatoes. 30 minutes later, there was a drink cart, with a full bar complimentary in coach. I went with a gin and tonic, with a nip of Bombay Sapphire, forgetting that I do not like gin and tonics. Whoops. There was then a hot towel service, followed by dinner and wine. Unfortunately, the picture didn’t take, but I had the chicken meatballs which were tasty, but a miniscule portion of only two small meatballs. It was served along with cheese and crackers and a small “cakepot” (i.e., cake in a jar). After that was a coffee and tea service.
I slept terribly, unfortunately, though not for any specific reason. About two hours before landing, I was awoken by the noise of service. Breakfast was served much earlier than it needed to be, consisting of a box with a Greek yogurt and a cereal bar, along with coffee.
We landed in the rain, and had to wait quite awhile for a “gate,” which was itself a bus gate. We were at the gate at 8:08am and I didn’t reach the terminal until 8:30am. I had paid about $10 for a Manchester immigration “FastTrack” pass, but it was totally unnecessary, as there were hardly any non-UK citizens arriving. By the time I made it to baggage claim, luggage had already started coming out.
The airport is connected to downtown via train, but it’s a bit of a schlep from Terminal 2 on a long people mover. There was a long queue to get tickets at the train station, but it was pretty easy to use the machine and I used my card no problem for a 4,60 GBP ticket right into town. There are a few different operators, but the next train was a Transpennine Express – which was the same company I’d take up to Edinburgh in a few days – en route to Glasgow. I had to wait about 8 minutes, and then it was just one stop to Manchester Piccadilly – a short walk to my hotel.
In all, Virgin Atlantic economy was fine, but not really significantly different than flying a US-based carrier. For getting to Manchester, it was definitely a better option than connecting on the continent. I’ll be flying Virgin again in January, on their LHR-IAD route, so we’ll see what the reverse experience is.