Random thoughts from an unusual company

Home Finally - Despite Virgin Airlines’ Best Efforts (Never Again!)

Gabriella Davis  1 February 2009 03:00:48
Finally I'm home although at several points in my journey from Orlando it didn't look like I'd make it.

Before I start I want to say that I'm fully aware how amazing it is that the giant metal bird raises in the sky in one city and lands safely in London some hours later together with my bags.  I'm not being ungrateful here, Virgin did their job in that they got me home but that being a given we should expect from any airline, let me review with you how Virgin need to improve their customer service before I'll ever fly with them again

What I Expected

Tim and I had booked return flights last August with Virgin to Orlando in Upper Class, paying for the 2 tickets with actual money.  Not miles.  Not buying economy and using upgrade certificates. Actual money.  Making it to Lotusphere is our end of year celebration each year that our business made it through another year and we're getting ready to start a new one. For the money (which was about the same as a BA Business ticket) I simply expected Virgin to try and fly me on my booked flights in the class I booked.

Our flight was scheduled for 1805 from Orlando with boarding at 1700.  

Mistake No.1

This one was partially mine.  I decided to skip lunch so other than a bagel at 8am I hadn't eaten all day.  Unfortunately when Virgin loaded everyone onto the plane they did so knowing the air conditioning was broken.  It was bad enough at the front of the plane where we were but back in economy it was unbearable and got worse as more people were loaded on.  

If you know the plane isn't working don't allow people to board.  Then, when your mechanics discover a leak, don't keep everyone on the overheated plane for another 45 mins whilst you decide what to do.  Oh and maybe update your planes (ours were still fitted with ashtrays!)

Mistake No.2

Everyone deplaned because of the heat whilst they worked out if the leak and the air con could be fixed, we were told to stand by the gate and wait. We were also told there was a 1940 flight following that was mostly empty and we would all be put on that one if the 1805 plane couldn't be fixed.  Now you have tired and hot children crying at the gate, all the bags loaded on the 1805 plane and the 1940 plane is finishing boarding.

When you're dealing with a plane full of passengers, many of which have small children, keep them updated as to what's going on and, if you know it's going to take a while tell them that.  Sharing random bits of conflicting information just creates confusion and stress.

Mistake No.3

Now it's 1930 and they decide to load everyone onto the 1940 plane and give up on the 1805 completely.  They do this by issuing new boarding passes one at a time and as each boarding pass is issued, that person's bags are found on the original plane and moved to the new plane (which are in adjoining gates).  This takes a l-o-n-g time (about 3hrs) and is done alphabetically by class.  Oh and Upper Class was already full and Premier Economy was more than half full so Upper Class passengers were moved to Premium Economy and some Premium Economy were moved to Economy.

If you have a system, share it.  It took us some while to work out they were re-issuing by class and by name, it would be helpful to people to know that so they can judge how long they are going to have to wait.  Also if you're going to bump people from their paid class to another one, don't try and slip it by them by handing a new boarding pass out without comment.  Then if you're called on it, try not to look happy as you tell the person you've bumped that "you're sorry".  

Oh and try not to smirk when you tell people (in this case not us) that no, they can't have a refund of the difference in class and no, they can't go on another plane on another day in the class they originally booked, but that they had to take the seat that was offered or nothing.

Mistake No.4

At 10.30 we're finally ready to leave but no-one has had anything to eat or drink in economy for about 6hrs.  Meanwhile in Upper Class and Premium Economy, some businessmen with anger issues are being given unlimited champagne to calm them down.  Someone in Economy starts hyperventilating and the guy in front of us, who's a doctor, goes to help.  He comes back and says they guy was basically dehydrated and hungry and claustrophobic but that the paramedics wanted him off the plane.  Fair enough.  We now wait for his bags to be found and removed from the hold.

If you're going to take 4+ hours to board a plane then turn on the air conditioning and distribute water and snacks, or better yet, don't ask everyone to board until all the bags are moved and everyone has a new boarding pass.

Mistake No.5

Then 30 minutes after take off one of the businessmen who had been knocking back Champagne passed out.  Our hardworking Doctor jumps up again and takes his blood pressure, puts him on a heart monitor, oxygen and a drip.  The cabin crew want to turn the plane around obviously because none of them are medically trained but the Doctor is able to treat quickly and before they need do that he starts to recover.  He stays on a drip and oxygen for the rest of the flight

So what was the mistake?  No-one can plan for a medical emergency and I don't expect the crew to be fully medically trained.  The problem here was flight hours.  In their attempts to merge the 2 flights and the previous delays we were almost entering the flying limits for the pilot and crew when we took off, any delay at all would have cancelled the entire flight as the crew couldn't continue.

Why did Virgin spend so many hours attempting to merge 2 planes together and keep everyone milling about for those hours while they did so?  Surely it can't be because they didn't want to put up the passengers on our flight overnight whilst the plane was fixed?  Or that the plane we should have been on (the 1805) would now return to London empty except for crew (and minimal fuel), saving them a ton of money.  The non cynical part of me says that they were doing their best to get people home that day but I heard many families with children saying they would have rather have headed to a hotel hours earlier and tried again the next day.  Options would have been nice.

So I can't fault Virgin in what they actually did, just how they did it and how they treated customers during the process.  Unfortunately for them when several airlines are offering the same flight, it's customer service that makes me choose one over the other.  Next time I won't be choosing Virgin.  

I was sent this link of someone else with Virgin Atlantic issues but a much better way with words than me  http://uk.news.yahoo.com/blog/editors_corner/article/11975/


1Julian Woodward  02/02/2009 10:42:49  Home Finally - Despite Virgin Airlines’ Best Efforts (Never Again!)

"they decide to load everyone onto the 1940 plane"

They flew you home in a Lancaster?! { Link }

2Gab Davis  02/02/2009 14:22:11  Home Finally - Despite Virgin Airlines’ Best Efforts (Never Again!)

Well that explains so much - I thought we flew back a circuitous route !

3Phil Dawson  02/02/2009 22:52:28  Home Finally - Despite Virgin Airlines’ Best Efforts (Never Again!)

But cmon, it just wouldnt be lotusphere if there wasnt at least 1 total ballzup on the flights!

Glad to hear the bulk of it went well over there, sounds like you guys are packing more and more into the week each time - good stuff.