This has not been a good week for Virgin Atlantic and me.
Having spent many years praising their Heathrow Upper Class lounge and cabin crews, it’s all come tumbling down. First, I discovered that the Virgin Atlantic credit card I have is no more and has been replaced by one that no longer gives me my treasured Air Miles for every £ spent (you have to re-apply for their new one, which they’ve already told me I can’t have).
Next, they have magically removed 20,000 Air Miles from my account (swearing that they haven’t, but their absurd website gives them different information from what it tells me). Now, I have discovered, on a forthcoming flight, I have been moved from seat 6A in the middle of the plane to 10A, right next to the bar and the toilet, because the aircraft has been changed.
Listen. I know that in the grand scale of things, these are not major life problems. But I spend a lot of money with the airline and, after my sixth unanswered e-mail addressed to Customer Service about many other matters, am mightily fed up with the time and energy I constantly have to waste trying to get even a modicum of service at ground level.
Let’s look at the seat situation. I actually spend time at the bar on Virgin Atlantic Transatlantic flights; I’ve met some really interesting people there and it breaks up the journey. But I don’t want to be sitting practically on top of it. The only place closer to the bar than 10A is floating in the bottle of vodka. And I bet your bottom dollar that the reason I’ve been dumped there is very simple: I’m by myself.
Travel continues to favour couples, married or otherwise. If you are by yourself, you are top of the list when it comes to being shunted to the bottom of the queue in terms of service. Everyone assumes you’ll go along with it because . . . well . . . who do you have to complain to?
On a recent Delta flight, I was seated in my beloved 1B (front of the plane, aisle seat) and the man next to me asked if I would swap with his girlfriend who was in the row behind next to the window. I said no. Heck, I’d booked it two months previous, I don’t like window seats, don’t want anyone in front of me and if you can’t survive a two-hour flight without your partner, you shouldn’t be allowed on a plane in the first place.
The incredulity from other passengers and his girlfriend was palpable (he actually seemed a bit relieved, to be honest). I was made to feel mean and spent the rest of the flight apologising and explaining about my choice of seats. But why didn’t his girlfriend ask the guy next to her to swap with her boyfriend? Easy. I’m female, and a lone woman is always an easy target.
Virgin’s excuse is that they’ve had to change the plane and that everybody gets re-seated in the process. I know. I travel all the time. But I bet that everyone travelling in pairs has managed to get seats together; in fact, I’m tempted to do a tour of the plane before take-off to prove my theory. The same happened on a recent Eurostar journey – and I did actually check on who was in my seat. Guess what? Man in a suit.
Last year, I started writing a blog, The Solo Pound, about travelling as a single person. I spoke about never being able to have the Chateaubriand or paella in restaurants (because they are always for two); the humiliation of sitting down and having the waiter immediately remove everything in front of you, including the chair for your non-companion; the difficulty of going to the rest room and returning to find all your belongings gone, or taking your belongings with you and returning to find your table has been given away.
I have plans to turn the blog into a website that I hope will be of use to solo travellers and also encourage companies to stop treating singles like second-class citizens.
It saddens me hugely to keep knocking Virgin Atlantic, but their standards have undoubtedly slipped. American Airlines, by comparison, have upped their game so much, I have to be dragged kicking and screaming off their amazing new planes, where the booths in First are bigger than my New York apartment. Their recently added Flagship lounges, at selected airports, are like Five Star restaurants (Bollinger champagne, no less!).
And before anyone starts screaming at me for the privilege of flying Upper or First, I can guarantee I have paid less than anyone travelling Economy. I buy Air Miles when they’re in the sale; I travel on the planes that get me the most miles; I break my journey between LA and New York to double my Tier points on Virgin Atlantic. Not that it’s anyone’s business – but I’m pre-empting the usual hysteria that accompanies my writing about anything that smacks of comfort.
In November, I will be 60 and it feels like a much bigger milestone than any before it, and I am undoubtedly more conscious of how people treat you differently with advancing years. This week, a 33 year-old man, who doubtless thought he was being kind, praised my ability to be texting. When I picked him up on it the following night, he apologised and said that it was only because he was comparing me to his 78 year-old grandmother (Mate! If you’re in a hole, stop digging!).
I’d just come off a Delta flight on which I was treated like an oversized, inconvenient piece of luggage. Delta, by the way, are now part of Virgin and, for the most part, have improved their service no end. However, I’ve learned that some of the smaller internal planes are for people not allowed on other flights – criminals, for example (and even traffic violations can instigate a travel ban) – and that the crews really resent having to man/woman them.
But I’m not a criminal; I’m actually a model passenger. As far as I’m concerned, the second I’m through that gate, I’m in their hands and reliant on staff’s professionalism and skill. I sit down, shut up, eat, drink, read, or watch movies, until landing.
Or sit at the bar.
Or go to investigate who the hell has stolen seat 6A.