Arrived at Manchester Airport at around 9am for a scheduled 12:05pm takeoff, having caught a couple of hours sleep in bed the night before and an hour and a bit on the train; not bad, considering I'm still always excited to fly overseas, helped by the very exciting young lady waiting for me at the other end. Happily, all the moving walkways on the quarter-mile or so walk from the railway station to the terminal were working. Queues inside the terminal were already on the hairy side; I ended up queueing for 35 minutes in what was perhaps a 25-party check-in queue dealt with by five agents and two BusinessElite agents. I was surprised to have to fill in details of my accommodation in the US on a separate form before check-in; however, I got a helpful and cheerful check-in agent (from a very variable line-up - though the most annoyed-looking one was clearly having problems with her contact lenses). No problems with getting my CO OnePass registered for the flight.
By VS standards, I would rate check-in as 50%, but that includes some degree of generosity accounting for the fact that most of the delays were really out of the airline's control. I was a bit irked to be told to be at the gate 75 minutes before boarding, though - albeit a figure that was later revised down to 65 minutes. Could this be the practical implication of continuing developments in US security regulations?
Grabbed some food at Boots, noting that their previously complicated red-dots-and-green-dots two-price-point scheme has been simplified to a flat rate of £2.99, good news for people like me who like to maximise purported value from their meals. I also picked up some fashion magazines for my girlfriend plus a poker magazine and a book for me. (Or was it the other way around?)
Manchester Airport terminal two is best described as "functional" airside - at least, for those of us who idly dream inspired by your descriptions of lounge luxury. The provision of arcade games is better than most, but points are lost for not having a terribly well-defined alcove at gate 208 and letting the seating area rather spill over into the body of the corridor. Boarding eventually commenced at around 11:25 or so. There were problems loading all the cargo onto the plane and eventually we took off at about 12:50, not 12:05. Not fun, but at least there are eight - count 'em, eight! - audio channels available even before take-off. Now there's a novelty.
I had selected seat 24E online; the aeroplane was a bijou 767-200 set up with a 2-3-2 configuration, so this got me an aisle seat. The seat wasn't very comfortable, particularly lower down my back. I managed to get possibly an hour's sleep soon after take-off - which, to be fair, is about average for me Westbound. Legroom was acceptable for a 6' frame and width was pretty good. This was a poor seat by Delta's standards; by VS standards, I would award it 50%.
The economy class menu was as follows:
Salad: Seasonal Garden Greens with Tomato and Carrots served with Dressing. Note the mention of tomato singular, which was accurate. A cherry tomato, at that. This was a small portion at best.
Entree, one of: Chicken Breast Medallions: Roasted Chicken on a bed of Orzo with Corn and Sweet Peppers, topped with Asparagus, Marinara Sauce and a Cheese Sauce or Cheese Tortellini: with mushrooms in Red Pepper Tomato Sauce, topped with Cream Sauce and a Tricolor Bell Pepper Julienne. Hope you like cheese, really; I'm less of a fan than most. I went for the chicken. The meat was two lumps, but not bad as nuggets go. Orzo is rice, apparently, and marinara translates to tomato. The cheese sauce was happily mild. All told, I would go as far as "fair-to-OK" - rather better than expected.
Bread and Butter, Cheese and Crackers, Chocolate Mousse Cake. The roll was a positive standout - better than most. The chocolate mousse cake was, akin to the salad, almost insultingly small.
Drinks were served fairly frequently, with occasional additional watercups; all alcoholic beverages were $5/€3/£3, all softies were free. Drinks were accompanied by sachets of peanuts. I was definitely ready for the snack, served slightly under an hour before arrival: vegetarian pizza topped with mozzarella cheese, eggplant, zucchini and peppers. Lots more cheese, but this was really decent. My only complaint was that it filled up the box so much that it was hard to remove and eat; I certainly wouldn't advocate lowering the portion size, but a larger box wouldn't go amiss... (though I doubt it would be possible, given the requirement to store so many boxes abreast per trolley. Perhaps reshaping the pizza to make it thicker but smaller might do the trick? Would this require more heating?)
By Virgin standards, I award 50% for food and drink - but note that this is probably really a 55% in disguise, compared to the first two which were more like 40%.
I once described Delta's entertainment to a friend as being "state of the art, for 1984"; he joyfully said "What! Does everyone have their own Spectrum?" Sadly not. Communal screens all the way, and not huge ones, but at least an improvement from the rather fuzzy projection TV they have had broadcasting onto the bulkhead cabin in the past. Headphones are provided for free and you are encouraged to keep them; they are the clip-over-the-ear style that Virgin used to provide in white, and the headphone converter jack has recently been redesigned for the better so they now reliably plug into my laptop without me worrying that the connection is poor. The free headphones to keep are probably the highlight of the Delta experience, which may sound pejorative, but they really are decent little headphones :-)
Movies were Kicking and Screaming (Will Farrell coaches a kids' association football team - meant to watch this, but slept through the start and couldn't find the will to catch up), Madagascar (another silly modern kids' cartoon, but lovingly made and some good giggles) and something with lots of martial arts, lots of guns and Bob Hoskins. This third film caught me by surprise; it seemed to replace at least some part of a block of TV shows. The radio channels were collectively far from my taste. Net result? 25% sounds a little stingy when you consider the free headphones, but only a little. I did enjoy reading Are you Dave Gorman? by Danny Wallace and the eponymous Mr. Gorman. Gently funny, with two or three wonderful wordplays which made me laugh rather louder than you would like to be seen laughing in a confined space.
Cabin crew were competent, attentive and pleasant, though far less funky than Virgin's. Full marks for not appearing to let the challenging circumstances affect them, slight dings for not going (well, not being needed to go) above and beyond the call of duty, plus some fraction of the blame for the late start. We took off about 40 minutes late and made up a little of that time, but I have a gut feeling that the engines weren't being spanked nearly as much as a Virgin pilot might have done.
So, running the scores, we're looking at a low 50%, a low 50%, a high 50%, a high 25% and a 75%. To me, that adds up to "adequate". The fare was a little over £400 plus taxes - not good, but probably typical for a fare from Manchester at this time of year.
Summarising, this was slightly less satisfactory than most Delta flights I have taken. I'm pretty sure that I've had at least 3 or 4 return flights on Delta and at least 3 or 4 on Virgin as well. Virgin are clearly far superior on entertainment, somewhat superior on food and drink and slightly superior on check-in. Not much to choose between them on cabin crew and I think Delta actually get the nod as far as seats are concerned - I'm pretty sure I've slept better on eastbound Delta in the past than I have on eastbound Virgin. That said, Virgin also have a considerable victory in terms of style, amenities, aesthetics and other intangibles. I'm not sure if there are many routes where DL and VS compete head-to-head. (Gurus?) I also suspect that Delta would be likely to be slightly cheaper than Virgin were the two to compete, but Virgin are clearly better value.
The real question is to pick between a direct Delta flight and an indirect flight where the transatlantic sector is on Virgin. So far Delta have been winning for convenience, but perhaps it's time to think again!
(Also on the airline front, interesting to see EU plans to include aviation within emissions trading. Not sure that they have thought through all the consequences of such a move - or, perhaps, they are prepared to accept some of the less immediately obvious consequences as worthwhile side-effects for the intended benefits, which is probable. I look forward to developments here with interest because analysis would just be speculation at this point.)
It has been a quiet week, mostly with trips out to Athens' many restaurants. America has remarkable food; many restaurants which are terribly unremarkable in the US would qualify as minor wonders of the world in the UK. Bagel bars and buffet restaurants with remarkable choice, and masses and masses of seating, are absolutely nothing special whatsoever in Athens. I do miss Anna's, the incredibly efficient assembly-line Mexican take-out restaurant in Somerville, though. The cost of these restaurants is extremely variable - some which qualify as extreme bargains due to the strength of the pound against the dollar, some rather less so. We also saw petrol prices rise about 9% in 24 hours - from $2.88 to $3.15 per gallon. UK petrol prices may have been on a roller-coaster recently but never quite to that extent.
Much of my time has been spent watching Firefly (all but three episodes so far) and then the Serenity movie on its day of release. I do admire the way US movie audiences dress up - Meg even bought herself a Shiny Shirt and other folk wore the trademark brown coats - and the extent to which American movie audiences aren't afraid to react openly during the movie itself. One unwelcome thing was that a trailer for a horror movie beforehand - where the trailer alone had an R rating - flashed the trailer's rating card on-screen for less than a second, so when the trailer crashed unexpected jarring images on-screen, we had had no time to prepare ourselves beforehand. Incidentally, you do occasionally seem to get blipverts (possibly not quite blipverts as such, but still advertising images faded out within a second) at the end of a TV ad-break as well. I'm convinced I saw five two-second blipverts separating the real ads in a break on UK Channel Four once, maybe in about 1990 or so, but have never found any record or mention of this.
The show and the movie were good fun, which is what they set out to be, with some excellent lines. The movie was unexpectedly violent, though - rather heavier on the sci-fi and lighter on the "western in space" roots of the original. Some of the actors and actresses have also aged rather visibly in the three years between filming. I probably would have given this a miss had Meg not been so much into it, but I've certainly enjoyed getting into the show. :-)
It has been delightful to learn the purpose of the flag on the US mailbox, which is an iconic part of the familiar-to-overseas-eyes US mailbox design; I had never previously properly understood what it was there for. If you put outgoing mail in the mailbox and raise the flag, the mailman will collect it from your mailbox and include it in the system. (Thus the mailman will check every postbox for a possible flag and mail to collect, even if there is no mail to deliver there.) How wonderful! I guess it is sensible - possibly, inevitable? - when there are people who live miles from their nearest postbox. I wonder whether many rural inhabitants in the UK take advantage of the counterpart collection service; it is possible to get daily collections from your door in the UK, but I think the fee is about £50/year or thereabouts.
One pleasantly surprising public transport innovation in Athens that I hadn't seen before: each bus - though there aren't many buses about in the first place - has a little fold-down rack on the front of it, and a bicycle rider can (after hailing a bus) fold down the rack and hook their bike onto the front. It's surprisingly simple and secure, plus a good way to extend the convenient bicycling radius. Why doesn't the rest of the world do that?