When Richard Branson says he is developing Virgin hotels, you somehow know that it will be a concept like no other. Although the first Virgin luxury hotel in London is still two years from opening, at a recent hotel conference Branson let slip that he wants his Virgin hotels to be based on the same concept as his Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse lounge at London’s Heathrow Airport.
If you have ever had the pleasure of spending time in the high-class VA lounge, you will know it is like no other airport lounge anywhere in the world. Set out on two levels, small areas are separated by chest-high dividers providing cozy corners for working, small bistro tables for dining or comfortable home-from-home armchairs for enjoying the vast array of magazines and newspapers. There’s even a full-size billiards table provided.
All the latest facilities are available for those wanting to check their emails, but that’s pretty standard these days. What’s different in Branson’s Clubhouse lounge is that there are freebies at every turn, from notepads to shoeshine. Giant jars of candy invite you to dip in and even gourmet meals are served without charge from breakfast through dinner at the deli or a la carte restaurant. Waiters are on hand to bring you a drink from the full-service bar.
The stylishly modern and spacious lounge is a virtual playground with hanging chairs to swing in, phones on hand, office supplies, showers and even a Bumble and Bumble hairdresser standing by for a quick trim or blow-dry. However you feel when you arrive at the Clubhouse Lounge, you will leave feeling refreshed and invigorated. I guess it’s the only place in Heathrow where passengers are reluctant to leave.
No doubt that is exactly how Branson intends his Virgin hotel guests to feel after a stay, and whatever the price, you can be sure there will be plenty of inclusive benefits thrown in. We’ll keep you posted.
by Gillian at Luxique Luxury Hotels
British Airways are not having a great year (financial problems, cabin crew strikes, ash cloud paralysis etc.) and I hear they’ve been caught short again – or rather some of their customers have.
The 169 passengers on a flight from Heathrow to the Cayman Islands via the Bahamas were reportedly asked not to drink for two hours because none of the plane’s lavatories was working.
The passengers had been forced to share two loos – including one in the exclusive Club World section – for most of the 12-hour flight after four others had been closed because of blockages.
It was when both of those also packed up that the captain asked everyone to try to hold out until they reached Nassau.
British Airways admitted that the lavatories on the Boeing 767 had become blocked because they hadn’t been serviced at Heathrow, where the tanks should have been emptied. BA apologised. Said a spokesman: “If we had known of the situation, we wouldn’t have taken off.”
by Andy Moreton
As an excuse for a delayed flight, it took some beating – a mouse was loose in the cabin.
Nearly 150 passengers on the Delta Airlines Boeing 767 from JFK New York to London Heathrow last Sunday were transferred to another plane after the mouse was spotted. Airport officials told them that the stowaway could create a safety hazard by chewing through electrical wire and hydraulic lines.
Amazingly, Delta confirmed that the same plane on the same scheduled flight had been evacuated three weeks earlier for the same reason. The airline said it was now “working with pest control experts in case remedial action is needed.”
The New York Times had a bit of an eye-witness exclusive on this one – their Deputy Managing Editor, William E Schmidt, was on board. “People were amused,” he said.
by Andy Moreton
The dust has settled on the UK government’s decision to allow a third runway at Heathrow Airport – but only for the moment.
Battle lines have been drawn – with the government, business and the airline industry on one side and, on the other, a conglomeration including environmentalists, local residents and celebrities.
Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson is one of the celebs who have joined with Greenpeace to buy a strip of land near the condemned village of Sipson in an attempt to stall the construction of the runway.
It promises to be a lengthy process with much legal action. The new runway (plus a sixth terminal) is not likely to be ready until 2015 at the earliest, and more likely 2020 or later.
There’s also a real possibility that it will never be built at all – if the opposition Conservative party win the next election, the whole project is likely to be scrapped.
by Andy Moreton
Luxique can offer some of the finest luxury London hotels as well as a London guide to getting around.
An Italian airline pilot has given a first-hand account of a near-miss with a UFO while approaching London’s Heathrow Airport in 1991.
Captain Achille Zaghetti’s experience was one of the most vivid of the close encounters reported to the authorities in the UK between 1986 and 1992. They’re contained in 19 files recently made public by the country’s National Archives.
Captain Zaghetti was flying an Alitalia airliner from Milan to Heathrow when he and his co-pilot saw an object streaking across the sky over Kent in south-east England. The 10-foot long object came so close that he shouted to his co-pilot “look out, look out!”
“It was shaped like a cigar and passed very close – about 1,000 feet on the right,” he told Italian newspapers, who tracked him down at his home in Tuscany. “It was military beige in colour.”
Captain Zaghetti asked the control tower if they could see something behind him and they confirmed that there was an object. He said he was glad his co-pilot had seen it too because he didn’t want to be accused of being a fantasist.
The 1,500-page batch of documents from the National Archives contains stories from the plausible to the preposterous.
In August 1989, worried callers in the London area told the Ministry of Defence about “two to three lights, green, red and orange, oscillating and moving left and right and around each other.” They turned out to be lasers from a Tina Turner concert.
by Andy Moreton
Figures recently released here in the UK show that air travel is declining for the first time in twenty years.
The number of passengers at eighteen leading British airports dropped by more than four per cent in September from 20.8 million to 19.9 million.
Large airports fared worst, with Heathrow down 3.6 per cent, Gatwick 6.8 and Manchester 6.7.
The figures suggest that the continuous growth in air travel since 1991 – encouraged by the popularity of low cost carriers – is coming to an end, along with cheap flights.
Any number of factors are driving leisure airline traffic down, not least the economic situation that’s beginning to affect family budgets. There are also environmental concerns and the well-publicised and off-putting problems with baggage handling and queues caused by extra security measures.
Companies are also re-evaluating business travel in light of the global downturn. According to Rebecca Ruiz of Forbes.com in New York, travel managers are considering everything from curtailing trips that aren’t revenue-generating to renegotiating contracts with hotels to include free Internet or gym access to asking employees of the same sex to share hotel rooms.
Environmental campaigners here in the UK say it all adds up to the government needing to look again at airport expansion, particularly a proposed new runway at Heathrow.
But the British Airports Authority says the outlook for aviation remains strong. “Historically, air traffic growth recovers from short-term shocks such as those currently being played out in the financial markets,” a spokesman said.
by Andy Moreton
Passengers driving to Heathrow will have been used to seeing the mini Concorde that’s graced the roundabout at one of the main approaches to the airport for the past 16 years.
Now, however, it’s been replaced by what’s thought to be the largest model aircraft in the world – a scaled-down version of the Airbus A380 superjumbo – itself the biggest passenger plane in service.
At 45 metric tons and with a wingspan of 85 feet, it’s a third of the size of the A380. The model was built by Penwal Industries of California from glass-reinforced plastic over a steel frame.
It was flown from the States to Heathrow by a huge chartered Russian cargo plane. Once in London, a mechanical ramp - brought in specially from Germany - was used to unload the ten components.
The model bears the livery of Emirates airline, based in the UAE, which will be using the superjumbo on the London-Dubai route from December. It’s thought the rent for the prime Heathrow advertising site is around £1.5 million ($3 million) a year.
The old Concorde model has been re-housed in a museum near London, joining one of the remaining full-sized supersonic planes.
by Andy Moreton
The major UK-based consumer group, Which? has just voted Singapore Airlines the best in the world.
What is it about Singapore Airlines that makes it a consistent favourite among passengers and the industry alike? Well, Which? researchers gave it top marks for the helpfulness and efficiency of its cabin crew, its check-in arrangements, the cleanliness of its aircraft, its in-flight entertainment and general comfort. And if all that wasn’t enough, its food was rated second to none.
Singapore Airlines has had an exceptional year, becoming the first to use the new Airbus 380 superjumbo. The airliner began flying from Heathrow to Singapore in March and the A380 fleet should be up to five by the end of June.
Air New Zealand and India’s Jet Airways also reached the final shortlist, but the most remarkable achievement in the top four was that of the tiny British airline, Palmair European. The airline has just one plane – a Boeing 737 - and flies only about 60,000 passengers a year (compared with Singapore’s 18 million). The flights go from Bournemouth on the south coast of England to fourteen European destinations, mainly in the Mediterranean.
Palmair’s clients receive a very individual service. An airline employee draws up a seating plan on her kitchen table every night using special notes she has made for each passenger. Later, she’ll greet them all personally. Flight attendants place fresh flowers on the plane - including the toilets - every day and a row of seats has been removed to give more leg-room. There are no night flights because the airline’s founder deemed them ‘anti-social.’
The managing director of Palmair European, David Skillicorn, said he was delighted. “We are just little Palmair with a little Boeing 737, yet we beat the likes of Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. It’s an amazing achievement.”
by Andy Moreton
The airline industry met recently in Istanbul, Turkey, and what emerged was gloomy for carriers and passengers alike.
Senior figures warned that with airlines struggling to cope with the soaring cost of oil, ticket prices were likely to rise significantly and a range of additional charges could be introduced. The Director General of the International Air Transport Association, Giovanni Bisignani, summed it up: “When you add $50billion to the bill, somebody has to pay.”
It was predicted that major European carriers could follow the example of their United States counterparts, which charge for food and, in the case of American Airlines, luggage on domestic flights.
The options for additional charging are considerable as I’ve just discovered to my cost while booking a flight to Italy in August. The no-frills airline, Ryanair, charges for each bag checked in, for boarding the plane first and for checking in at the airport rather than online. On board, all food and drink must be paid for, including bottled water.
British Airways says it has no plans to start charging for food, although it recently announced its biggest rise in fuel surcharges, adding £60 ($115) to the cost of its long-distance return flights.
Mr Bisignani said the industry was struggling for survival, with 24 airlines folding since January. One of the latest casualties was the British company, Silverjet, which offered a business-class only service from the UK’s Luton Airport to Newark and Dubai. (It has been reported that a Swiss investment firm has made an offer for Silverjet and plans to relaunch the business).
by Andy Moreton
There’s been a fair bit of publicity here in London about the damning verdict on Heathrow Airport by a senior executive of American Airlines.
Don Langford, AA’s head of Customer Services, Europe, called it “a bit of a dump,” and said it was suffering from a lack of investment. “If you look at the fabric of the building, if you look at where customers check in - missing light bulbs, duct tape on the floor - I would have to say that Heathrow is in many ways the worst of all the airports that my company flies to in Europe,” he told the BBC.
Heathrow’s operator, the British Airports Authority - already reeling from the Terminal 5 fiasco - has hit back, saying it has a $4 billion ($7.9 billion) investment programme lined up over the next five years.
Being one of the most expensive capitals in Europe and having a much-maligned airport, not to mention dodgy weather, it’s sometimes a wonder anyone wants to come to London. A delight, therefore, to read Alexis Glick of Fox Business Network give the city a five-star blog write-up after a recent visit with her husband, Oren, but without their children:
“We were in London almost 10 years ago before we got married and a lot has changed. The city is as beautiful as ever, particularly at this time of year. Everything was blooming! The gardens and squares and narrow streets with unimaginably beautiful architecture were even more spectacular than normal because, believe it or not, the weather was excellent. It was in the mid to high 60s and sunny. Yes, we did experience some of the traditional London rain, but it wasn’t bad at all. We stayed in a beautiful intimate hotel called the Blakes Hotel in the Kensington neighborhood. It was unbelievably charming! We forgot what it was like to stay in an intimate hotel.”
Thanks, Alexis, come back any time!
* If you’re thinking of a UK trip, Luxique can offer you the intimacy of Blakes as well as many other London luxury hotels and boutique hotels.
by Andy Moreton