Published 13 January 2008 News Review 756th article
Richard Branson is my hero. British Airways senior personnel are toilet fodder at best. For years I travelled to Barbados on BA. Because I like its ground crew and cabin staff, I wrote articles complimenting the company.
But each year when I asked my travel agent in January to book my return flights, leaving 11 months later, it was told the plane was full. How, you may ask, could a plane be fully booked 11 months ahead? I believe because nice Geoff Moss, chairman of Elegant Resorts, and various other Caribbean tour specialists, grab seats ahead of the public. We're left with zilch.
I put this to Theresa Sabin, PA to BA's current chief executive, Willie Walsh. "I don't think that's what happens, Mr Winner," she said in a voice snooty enough to remove entrails from a rabbit.
The bosses of British Airways have often behaved like tacky gangsters. They succeeded in putting Sir Freddie Laker out of business when he dared to start a new airline. The same idiots tried every dirty trick possible to sink Branson's Virgin airline.
They were rightly and successfully sued by Branson, who won substantial damages, which were upheld on appeal. Whereupon Lord King, then BA's chairman, uttered the immortal words, "I'd have taken Richard Branson more seriously had he been clean shaven and worn a suit." My case against British Airways rests.
This year I turned to Virgin. Not only considerably better, but £2,737 less per person for a top-class Barbados return. Thus I saved £5,474.
I'd only flown Virgin once, to St Lucia. When I arrived at Gatwick there was a personally signed letter from Richard Branson welcoming me, thanking me for flying with his company and giving me his phone number on Necker Island, where he was, "in case you need anything". I thought of ringing up and saying, "I'm in the lounge, Richard, my coffee hasn't arrived." But everything was vastly efficient so I didn't have to.
This time Virgin flew from Heathrow.
Much better. No letter from his Richardship, but we were chauffered to the airport in a lovely Mercedes.
In its superb lounge, Virgin offers massage, beauty treatments, a hairdressing salon, shoe polishers and a menu (all free) including slow-cooked duck leg, seared sea bass and shepherd's pie.
The only discordant note was a line of American Airlines planes outside the windows. Sir Richard should nip down one night and paint Virgin on them.
Geraldine had creamy scrambled eggs on a toasted brioche served with smoked salmon and micro cress. She loved it. By special request I was squeezed fresh orange juice. My warm waffles with maple syrup and fresh seasonal berries were fantastic.
Waffles are not easy. These were near perfect. I look forward to Sir Dickie's Waffle Shops springing up everywhere.
On the plane Virgin's upper class layout knocks British Airways first class into the proverbial cocked hat. There are fewer seats, more space, and the best cabin crew I've ever come across. Our waitress (okay, stewardess), Ashleigh Fisher, was speedy, charming, polite, elegant, smiley. She'd grace any hotel or restaurant.
The menu recited the usual airline twaddle: "The wealth and quality of British food today has prompted us to devote the next month to celebrating the great tastes of British cuisine." Come off it, this is an aeroplane. The days when Trans World Airlines had lashings of beluga caviar followed by great vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and nuts are over. Although, as a main course, TWA once offered a duck covered in green mould.
The Virgin food was fine. I had broccoli and stilton soup, then wild mushroom fricassee with coriander, pilaf rice, buttered leeks and carrots, followed by rhubarb crumble and warm custard. Geraldine thought it was well above British Airways standards.
For my return journey (leave 10.30pm, arrive 10.30am the next day) Lady Carol Bamford kindly gave me a sleeping pill which promised 7½ hours snoozing. As the flight was only six hours I took half (two hours' sleep), then another half (a further two hours). Somewhere along the line I had an excellent breakfast. Virgins forever I say. Even though in my younger days I never used to.
PS: At Sandy Lane I put on a full stone. In the week since returning I've reread and followed Michael Winner's Fat Pig Diet book. I'm down 8lb already. Don't forget I lost 3½ stone and (almost) kept it off.
Accept no other diets. Mine is painless, effective and supreme. I nearly recommended it to Amy Winehouse, the troubled but brilliant singer, who flew back with me. But she needs a bit of weight added. I can't deal with that.
I don't remember the chef when my wife and friends visited Michael Parkinson's Royal Oak pub, but the food and service were very average. Anyway, who wants to sit for two hours surrounded by photos of Parkinson with various celebrities? The ego of the man!
Bob Smitherman, Berkshire
We know you're the greatest name-dropper in the business, but enough is enough. Sir Michael and Lady Parkinson, Sir Michael and Lady Caine, Sir Roger and Lady Moore. What happened to Lord Andrew and Lady Lloyd-Webber? Fallen out with them, have you?
Derek da Costa, Antibes, France
In last week's photo I couldn't tell you and Parky apart. I'm not sure which of you should be more worried.
Deb Atkinson, Merseyside
One wonders if Parkinson's PA Autumn Kelly changes her name seasonally, do you alter your name annually from Winner to Loser?
John Finegan, Bailieborough, Ireland
On our regular walks from the property owners' beach, we were glad to see you'd decided to return to Sandy Lane. You were always there relaxing under your numerous umbrellas. On Christmas Day we went to see Father Christmas being pedalled along in his sleigh. He looked remarkably like you. Coincidentally you were notably absent from your usual beach spot. It was you, wasn't it?
Elizabeth Taylor, Barbados
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday times.co.uk