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VS PE LHR-JFK + Gordon Ramsay & Les Halles

VS PE LHR-JFK + Gordon Ramsay & Les Halles

Old Aug 31, 07, 9:22 pm
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Join Date: Mar 2005
Location: London
Programs: BA
Posts: 2,361
VS PE LHR-JFK + Gordon Ramsay & Les Halles

I began to write a TR for my holiday to the Datai 2 years ago in EK J but gave up. Last year we visited 6 cities in the US travelling in J and that TR too remains unfinished. What can I say, EK has a J product that differs from aircraft to aircraft, the Datai is heaven, the Air New Zealand lounge in LA was the site of my ‘Manuka Honey Vodka incident’ and the UCS is nicer than many hotel beds I have stayed in.

This TR is about my recent trip to NY on Virgin travelling in Premium Economy. It is split into a number of sections (i) Preamble (ii) LHR-JFK (iii) Les Halles and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and (iv) JFK-LHR

This was to be our first trip as a family. Mrs Baggage-in-hall and I were taking little Hand-baggage-in-hall (HBiH) on his first holiday, a short trip to New York. Mrs BiH’s parents were coming with us. They had visited NYC last year (briefly, as part of a longer US trip) and were keen to return.

Mrs BiH and I have got accustomed to travelling in J when we fly long-haul. It had been almost 3 years since we last flew Y and with an 8 month old child in tow, we didn’t relish returning.

An evening (and a bottle of wine) later, my fears had been confirmed. The perversely high premium fares between LON and NYC meant that we really couldn’t justify flying in J – close to £2000 pp was just too much. Both VS and BA would later drop their fares so that they were closer to the £1400 mark, but I had booked by then.

Our options came down to BA WT+, VS PE and Maxjet. I have no status on BA or VS, but I do have a BMI Mastercard which takes a fair whacking each month and in turn yields a large number of BMI miles. FT revealed that VS had the best hard product in PE but a widely variable soft, BA’s seats were okay and the service predictably good and Maxjet couldn’t always be trusted to fly their planes over the pond on the advertised day (since remedied it seems).

I finally booked 4 seats (and an infant) on VS. Once processed, I had a look at my booking on their website and saw that I was unable to select my seat. I rang the VS call centre and spent a great deal of time speaking to an agent who ignored almost everything I had to say – especially when it wasn’t the answer he script provided for.

As an aside, I don’t care where the call centre I ring is located, I don’t care what race, colour or creed the employee is; what I want is a properly trained employee who is empowered to solve basic and medium level issues and queries – this is an issue for employers and not the poor sod’s whom we speak to.

The agent I was speaking to had no idea if the A340-600 had a bassinet position in PE. The second thought it did, but did not where. The third told me that I would have a to book a seat for my infant. All three kept telling me to look on the VS website which had all the answers to these questions – it doesn’t, that’s why I was calling them.

A bit of research led me to discover that 18AC or 18HK were the seats that I needed, so I rang back to request them. ‘Sorry, we can’t allocate those, we can only put in a request for a bassinet’ was the reply. A little annoying as other airlines (eg BA) will allow you to pre-book such seats (even after the recent changes), but at least we had reached some sort of conclusion.

I gave up with the call centre and emailed VS Customer Services who appear to be based in the UK. I echo the points above, although located in the same time zone as me, I received replies that indicated once again a woeful lack of training and product knowledge. My query was that since I could only request a basinet, was I better off checking-in online (thereby selecting row 18) or at the airport? Was this essentially an exercise in getting to the airport before anyone else with a baby, or could I do something to improve my chances? Finally, was 18AC / 18HK the correct seat pairings?

Email one told me not to worry, my basinet had been requested. Email two had the OLCI process copied and pasted from the website.

Enough. Lets wait and see what happens.
baggageinhall is offline  
Old Aug 31, 07, 9:23 pm
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(ii) LHR-JFK

After a short cab ride to LHR, we met Mrs BiH’s parents in zone A. The outside of LHR T3 is a building site, this theme is neatly extended inside to Virgin’s zone A which will look great once finished, but currently looks like Jaipur airport circa 2000.

The VS security man checked our passports and put the obligatory sticker on the back. I’m not a fan of my passport being defaced with security stickers, it’s an important document, not a Panini football album.

We were checked in by a lady who looked like she would rather be filleting anchovies with a toothpick than at LHR T3 on this mild Thursday morning. She confirmed that our basinet request had been processed and that we had 18H&K and 19H&K. We checked-in 5 pieces of luggage, most we 15-20kg, one however was 29kg.

‘One of your bags is over 23kg, that normally attracts an excess of £20 but I’ll waive it this time, you have been warned for the way back’. It was said with the warmth an sincerity of a python who had spared it pray because eating it would require more than a modicum of effort. I mentioned that the VS website states that PE and UC passengers can carry two pieces, weighing 32kg each, 23kg was only for economy.
‘You’re wrong, you’re confusing it with the maximum weight for any bag at LHR. Anyway, you’re not travelling Upper Class are you!’.

When you read conversations like this on FT, you always wonder how accurately they are being portrayed. Is the author sanitising themselves? Are they demonising the agent? Is it a mixture of the two? In my defence, (i) I had Mrs BiH and my in-laws standing next to me, now was not the time to be rude (ii) I sold mobile phones for a large retailer in the UK whilst at University so I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end and (iii) I’m a Lawyer, I spend days in front of obnoxious Judges where rudeness is totally unacceptable, but pointed sarcasm is the weapon of choice.

‘How very kind of you’ I replied with gritted teeth and the sort of rictus smile seen on a ventriloquist’s dummy.

The queues at security were bearable and we were through into the T3 shopping centre in under 20 minutes. Hand-baggage-in-hall was feeling hungry and so he was fed before we began the long march to our gate. 20 minutes later and I felt like Chang Kai-shek, except with a McClaren buggy and a slightly crabby 8 month old who wanted his nappy changing.

Our buggy was in the process of being tagged when they began boarding passengers with ‘children under 5’ and those in PE or UC. The queue was about 10 deep by the time we got to the door and so the wait was minimal. The two agents at the door were very firm in their refusal to let those whose rows hadn’t been called onto the aircraft before they should.

We boarded through 2L which is where the UC bar is located. I could see the UCS and immediately reminisced about the beautiful sleep I got last year flying back from LAX. One voice in my head said ‘Fool, you should have flown UC’, the other said ‘turn right, you’re getting in people’s way’.

I made myself promise that I would judge PE on its merits and not against UC or any other J product – my comments are therefore in that vein.

The Seat – wide, spacious, comfortable, little adjustable ears to help you find a comfortable sleeping position. The footrest is built into the seat in front so we were offered a footrest each.

Whilst we waited for the aircraft to fill up, I was given an infant seat belt and strapped HBiH onto me. He is just eight months but likes to flirt with the ladies; he bats his long eyelashes at them and gives them a grin – he’s smooth.

We finally pushed back from the gate approximately 25 minutes after our scheduled departure time. The Captain had informed us that they were trying to squeeze a bit more cargo on board, later they had decided to rearrange some of it.

We taxied out past Terminal 5 close enough to see the interior signage of the secondary building. A number of aircraft had been remotely parked at the T5 gates, it almost looked ready to use.

Shortly after takeoff (about 1hr 15mins behind schedule), the crew set up the basinet and HBiH made himself comfortable. As this was a day flight, the basinet was like a non-bouncy bouncer in a three-quarters recline position. It had a seat belt so he could remain in it if the weather got turbulent.

An announcement told us that there were ‘two dedicated cabin crew in premium economy’ – not so, we saw several different people emerge from the UC gallery at various points during the flight. The loud laughing and giggling was replaced by a sombre non-expression as one of them was sent out to serve us. It was almost like a forfeit. On the one occasion that I went behind the curtain to ask for HBiH’s baby meal, I was told that by the flight attendant that he was ‘busy preparing the Upper Class cabin and couldn’t help me at this time’.

Breakfast was served (along with the baby meal) followed shortly by orange juice and water top-ups. The meal choice was sausages and rosti – meat or vegetarian.

The crew made a few more visits to the PE cabin, once with ice cream and a second time to offer us something to drink. I opted for gin and tonic which was of course, made with Virgin tonic water. I closed my eyes for a second and took a sip, I could have been on a Virgin Voyager tilting my way to Birmingham New Street – I digress.

The PE cabin is very small and is curtained off at the front and back. Just before the curtain is a lavatory on each side of the aircraft. I assumed that as the curtain was shut, these were for PE passengers only; either I was wrong or the crew simply weren’t bothered about enforcing such rules. The queues grew longer as the flight went on and those in the last few rows of PE were subjected to people constantly milling around them.

The couple in the back row however, didn’t seem to mind. They were upgraded as the doors were closing and had a certain member of the cabin crew with them for a large part of the flight. They had an endless supply of drinks brought to the them from the UC bar (including a bottle of champagne for later) and a decent snack before landing which looked suspiciously like something served closer to the front of the plane. Cabin crew : if your friends are on the flight, nobody minds if you treat them well, just be a little more discreet.

We landed at JFK around 40 minutes late and taxied quickly over to Terminal 4. The last time I used this terminal was in its previous incarnation some 16 years ago. Then it was old and worn, now it looks and feels like a modern terminal building.

Immigration and baggage reclaim were a breeze compared to last year when we landed at T1 behind a full Korean Airways flight, the terminal baking hot and all the while England were on their way to losing to Portugal on penalties….

Took the Airtrain to station C and picked up our rental car. We were driving out to Woodbury Common the following day and the extra half-day rental was cheaper than a limo. Driving in New York was, erm, interesting….
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Old Aug 31, 07, 9:24 pm
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(iii) Les Halles and Gordon Ramsay

Les Halles
Visited the downtown Les Halles (Anthony Bourdain of Kitchen Confidential fame) twice whilst in New York. The food here was superb and very well priced. Everyone raved about the excellent raw materials and chefs skills that culminated in fantastic food. I really can’t praise this place enough.

I had the steak tartare for lunch before heading off to JFK. It was so good, I was tempted to stay in NY for another day and eat it all over again.

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at the London NYC
I booked a table at 8pm on a Saturday night in August with relative ease. I had heard some pretty poor reviews but as a GR fans we decided to ignore them. With HBiH being looked after by the in-laws, we headed uptown to the London NYC.

The London NYC is a bizarre hotel if you are from London. You step out of Manhattan and into, well, a London hotel where just about everyone has a generic South-East English accent. We took a seat at the bar and ordered two glasses of Nicolas Feuillatte Rosé; it’s a beautiful glass and a great way to start a meal. Shortly before 8pm we were led into the main dining room which was about two-thirds full and sat down at our table located near the left hand wall.

There was only every going to be one choice when it came to food and so with no hesitation we ordered the Menu Prestige. Mrs BiH isn’t a fan of Foie Gras, but that posed no problem as we were told that anything we didn’t like could be substituted.

What was the meal like? It was very good and up to the Ramsay standard. It wasn’t as good as Per Se (Thomas Keller’s NY restaurant at Columbus Circle) and was probably on a par with my current favourite in London – not telling you its name, it’s hard enough to get a table; but lets just say that Hardens raved about its food.

Dinner was accompanied by a smooth bottle of Burgundy (Chassagne-Montrachet), which grew during the course of the meal without overpowering the food.

The service was excellent and we had a great evening.
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Old Aug 31, 07, 9:24 pm
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(iv) JFK-LHR

Arrived at JFK around 3.30 for the 6.45 departure to LHR. There was already a small queue of about 6 people and 4-5 desks checking people in. There was an Economy and Upper Class Passport checker on duty, but the Premium Economy podium was unmanned. As the queue was short, we strolled up to the Economy agent and then proceeded on to the queue.

It took just over 10 minutes to check the five of us in. The agent got a little confused over my question as to whether we had 18A&C and therefore the basinet, he thought that we had a seat for HBiH and began the entire process again before asking me what I meant by ‘a basinet’. Once we got to the bottom of that, it was fairly plain sailing except for the ‘your bags are over 23kg and I am going to have to charge you’ – when I reminded him that we were in PE, he smiled and said, ‘my mistake, that’s fine’. Take note VS, Swissport employees at JFK know what the baggage allowances are, but your own ‘Redcoats’ at LHR don’t!

We stopped in the food court for a coffee and an opportunity to feed HBiH who chomped through his dinner with his usual gusto. We proceeded through to the B gate security area where Mrs BiH, HBiH and I were directed to a separate lane. The TSA agent checked our passports and as we entered the screening area, we were directed again to a separate queue at the far end. The net result was that we got through security 10 minutes quicker than the in-laws who were in the main queue.

As we sat waiting, I took another look at our boarding passes. There was no dreaded SSSS, nor any other distinguishing mark even when compared to the in-law’s boarding passes. I can only assume that the TSA agent at the head of the queue randomly selected us. If anyone reading knows how it works and is in a position to tell, I would be interested to know. Was it the baby? Was it me?

After a short stop so that HBiH could be changed into his sleep suit, we walked the length of the terminal down to B30 passing a VS 744 being prepared to follow us around 90 minutes later. Boarding had already begun and the queue looked pretty large but we spotted the separate UC, PE Flying Club Gold line which was empty and were quickly on board.

The crew seemed far more friendly on this leg and my view was quickly confirmed when the FSM came an introduced himself. He told us that we should ask for the baby meal whenever we wanted it, that the skycot / basinet would be set up as soon after take-off as possible and that they always had a selection of baby stuff on board if we ran out of anything. It’s amazing how a two minute chat can colour one’s opinion so vividly. In 90 seconds, I had already decided that this crew were far more professional and friendly than the outbound crew. This was borne out by the service throughout the rest of the flight.

I drank my glass of sparkling wine and had a look at the menu. Tonight’s choices were (i) sausage and mash, (ii) sautéed chicken or (iii) vegetable stir-fry. Shortly after take-off the crew took drinks orders and I had an obligatory gin and tonic.

HBiH had his skycot fitted and we noticed how small it was. He is a big chap for 8 months and had he been a little taller, it would have been too small for him. Can I suggest that all parents travelling with their munchkins for the first time, ring the airline concerned and get cold hard facts such as the size of a skycot, before booking.

Dinner was served quickly, we all went for sausage and mash which was distinctly average. The lights were dimmed a good hour before the economy cabin, a distinct advantage on an east coast crossing and most of the cabin went to sleep. I watched ‘Hot Fuzz’ before getting just under an hours rest.

I woke after the breakfast muffins had been served and noticed that we were a mere hour from London. HBiH had had a good sleep and I took him out of his skycot so that he could be strapped to me in preparation for landing.

We landed without much delay and were on stand within 5 minutes. As we exited the plane (collecting HBiH’s stroller), I noticed that we had arrived at the new A380 capable gates at T3. Looking below at the departure area, I noticed that each gate had an ‘A’ and ‘B’ section.

The EU passport queue was quite long but we got through in under 15 minutes. Whilst I appreciate that being an Entry Clearance Officer is dull, they really are a humourless bunch.

On reaching the baggage hall, I spied our luggage and collected it just as the belt stopped suddenly as it appeared to have jammed. We walked through an empty green channel and found our cab driver for the short drive back to South West London.

1. Whilst Premium Economy has a place in the market and may appeal to some, it’s not for me.
2. Les Halles is a ‘must-eat’ when in NY
3. I enjoy NY more every time I visit
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Old Sep 1, 07, 9:52 am
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Good report - your experiences with VS are similar to mine i.e from the excellent to poor with no predictability.

Just one pedantic point..Mao Zedong went on the Long March, not Chiang.
Swanhunter is offline  
Old Sep 1, 07, 10:01 am
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Enjoyed your report.

I typically eat the the downtown Les Halles about four times a year, as it's two blocks from one of my company's offices. Find it inconsistent food-wise. One meal will be great, than three days later it's mediocre (never bad, though).

Now having said that, I still continue to visit, as I love the space and their prices are reasonable.
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Old Sep 4, 07, 8:50 pm
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I used to live down in the Financial District, and ate many a meal at Les Halles. It was one of my faves in the area, and got to know the staff there quite well. Sadly since I've migrated northward, I don't make it down there much anymore. Glad to hear that others still find a good meal to be had there.
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Old Sep 5, 07, 4:43 am
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Nice report!

VS indeed do not allow the bassinet positions to be pre-booked, they'll only accept requests for those seats. Similarly, frequent flyers cannot pre-request those seats either. It makes a bit of a free for all when check-in opens up.

The PE toilets are also a point of contention. Some Crew will stop Y passengers from using the W toilets, others do not. The A343's do not even have a toilet in the PE cabin (you have to walk back to Y).

As others have said, you seem to have experienced the often inconsistent service that VS offer. When its good its brilliant, but every now and then its a let down, and its usually down to the crew and how interactive they are.

I think the PE product is quite good. Its enhanced economy at the end of the day, but with some nice added touches like meals served on crockery and with real cutlery, but its still Y+.

Nice report on the Ramsay eatery too!
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Old Sep 5, 07, 9:32 pm
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Great Report!
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