When Richard Branson launched Virgin Atlantic in 1984, a cornerstone of the new brand was the limousine service that whisked Upper Class passengers from their home or office to Gatwick airport for the single daily flight to New York Newark.
Each passenger booked in the eight-seat cabin in the “bubble” of the Boeing 747 was entitled to a complimentary transfer from anywhere in Greater London and much of southeast England to the Sussex airport.
Like the “free economy ticket for every business-class passenger” promise, the Virgin initiative proved highly newsworthy. And while the free ticket soon disappeared, 36 years on the courtesy limo continues.
A Mercedes E-Class or similar will take the passenger to and from any address within 75 miles of Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester or Glasgow airport.
”Enjoy the luxury of Upper Class travel from the second we pick you up. And when you arrive back we’ll whisk you back home again,” premium passengers are promised.”No stress, no fuss.”
Now that Virgin’s main base is Heathrow, the service is even better. “We’ll take you directly to our Upper Class Wing and aim to get you straight through security and into the Clubhouse in less than 10 minutes.
More excitingly still, you can opt for the Limobike, slicing through traffic en route to the airport.
“Full protective and wet weather clothing is provided, and the helmet allows you speak to the driver and make phone calls.” But anyone tempted to sample the chauffeur service has just four months to try it.
Virgin Atlantic will end the complimentary limousine era from 1 July. An airline spokesperson said: “As the habits of our Upper Class customers change and the demand for complimentary ground transfer continues to decrease, we’ve made the decision to change how we offer this service.
“For bookings made after 1 July 2020, ground transfers will become an additional option for guests to purchase.”
In reality, fewer and fewer premium passengers were eligible for the limousine. While initially everyone in Upper Class paid much the same fare, today Virgin Atlantic offers a range of fares to fill Upper Class. Many of them are heavily discounted, and ineligible for the chauffeur service.
In addition, the airline is increasingly close to its 49 per cent shareholder, Delta Airlines, which does not offer the same frills.
“We can’t offer the chauffeur service if you’re flying with one of our partner airlines,” Virgin Atlantic tells passengers. “Sorry about that.”
The provision of chauffeur-driven cars looks increasingly questionable with airlines keen to proclaim their environmental initiatives.
Anna Hughes, director of Flight Free UK, said: “Perks such as free cars and roomy airline seats demonstrate how the most privileged tend to be the highest polluters.
“Upper Class passengers each take a much higher share of the plane’s emissions than economy passengers, and an added chauffeur service will drive their emissions even higher.
“Perhaps Sir Richard Branson, who claims to know about climate change, will consider next scrapping the Upper Class service because it’s not environmentally viable?”
Emirates continues to provide limousines for first-class passengers and business-class travellers who pay higher fares.
“We’ll collect you from your door and drive you to the airport,” promises the Dubai-based airline. “When you land, we’ll be there to drive you to your final destination – whether that’s to your home, office or to your favourite restaurant.”
But Emirates passengers who buy or upgrade tickets with frequent-flyer points are no longer eligible, and from 15 April the allowed distance from Heathrow reduces from 70 to 50 miles.