I took my first flight since 2020 two weeks ago. I got to fly to Austin, TX on Virgin Atlantic. To say I was excited about this trip would be an understatement given how long it had been since I’d been on a plane. I thought i’d document some of the experience here.
The pre-departure COVID test was about as slick as the experience could be now given how normalised it has become. Rather annoyingly, the USA dropped this requirement the day after I arrived. I expect most countries will have done away with this in the next 12 months. The airline was obliged to check my COVID testing and vaccination details and this worked in the same way as a visa check works. You won’t even get checked in if your documents aren’t in order, at least that’s the way it is for the USA.
The rest of the departure experience was about as normal as I can remember. The Virgin Atlantic Upper-Class wing at Heathrow terminal 3 handled me in style. You simply cannot beat this experience at LHR. You get driven up to the upper level of T3 away from the usual crowds, before being personally met by your check-in agent and having your bags unloaded. Followed by a quick chat which hardly constitutes check-in then you’re straight into the private security lane. It all happens in the blink of an eye. This was how check-in was designed to be! Security was busy – but that’s normal for the morning and unavoidable really.
The Clubhouse has also returned entirely to normal with a full-service menu on offer. All of the seating areas were open and I even did something I hadn’t done before by using the outside deck to enjoy the smell of jet fuel in the morning.
Boarding was the best confirmation that COVID measures were well and truly over as we departed from the dreaded Gate 24 at T3. Which for anybody that doesn’t know, is a bus gate. I think it’s the only bus gate that Virgin use actually. Having everyone crammed onto the busses feels somewhat unhygienic after what we went through during the pandemic. It’s also a fantastic way to have your large ego forcibly removed. It really doesn’t matter which seat you’re in… you are getting on that damn bus.
Onboard felt heavenly compared to the bus!
The entire meal service has returned. On the whole, the flight felt “normal”. Some people chose to wear masks, others did not. Which is the same as being on the ground. The amenity kits have returned but are no longer the nice Hershel bags you used to get. The bag itself is now a recycled piece of paper and the contents such as toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion etc are all environmentally friendly versions. The changes to the kit would have likely happened regardless of COVID due to the push for greener alternatives.
I think one of the major things I forgot having not flown for so long was how dry the air is onboard. Within half an hour of departure, I had to put moisturiser and lip balm on because of the dryness. I’m not known for my skincare routine, so it was quite bad! Given the technological advantages of the 787 Dreamliner, I dread to experience what it’s like on the older aircraft.
I won’t talk about the experience of arriving/departing a regional US airport on an international flight because anybody that has done it know’s what I’ll say.
Getting back to London Heathrow was pretty painless in terms of the COVID testing etc now that the UK has zero interest in testing or vaccination status. Zero checks to be done, just like the old days. On arrival, T3 immigration was the usual farce that it is in the morning. A lot of international flights arrive in T3 before midday which creates a horrible clash of business and leisure travellers. Add that to the fact that Border Force should be renamed Useless Force and half of the E-passport gates we’re out of order, it was not a pleasant experience.
The Virgin arrivals lounge made up for the border experience though. It was quiet in there, despite the morning chaos. It was refreshing to take a shower, change clothes and get breakfast before venturing into London. I think one of the key things that have always made Virgin stand out from its larger rival in BA, is the extra services around the main flight. The Upper-Class wing on departure and the arrivals lounge make the whole trip extra special and it becomes an experience that cannot really be rivalled by any other UK airline.
So in summary, flying is largely normal again. Whether it’s fun or not depends on how close to the front of the plane you are. But we’re here to help with that!