Once upon a time, Virgin Atlantic was my ‘darling airline’ and I would bend over backwards to fly with Virgin. If my office booked me on a non-Virgin flight, then I would cough up the difference and pay from my own pockets so that I could fly with Virgin.
I flew Virgin so often and so much that I had plenty of air miles to burn. Thus, when I was on an extended business trip to Tokyo, I used my miles to fly my partner over from London round-trip on Upper Class.
But sadly, the Virgin Atlantic that I knew and once loved is, in my opinion, no more.
This Opinion-Editorial is written based on my experience with Virgin Atlantic from June 2013 – Jan 2014. The views and opinions expressed here are based on my personal experiences which may or may not be applicable to others. Whilst every effort is made to be factual and honest, I make no claims that the information is representative or accurate. As such, readers must make their own decision about the merits of this blog.
I have found my recent experiences with Virgin to be seriously disappointing on many grounds — but rather than focus on the little annoying things, this OP-ED will focus on two major criticism. First, I thought that their marketing of the limousine service to be very misleading; second, I thought that their failure to deliver (pre-arranged and tripled-confirmed) Special Assistance support at the arrival gate to be shameful and unprofessional.
[ I’m happy to write that this issue has since been ameliorated. In response to my experience with Virgin’s misleading marketing, I’d filed a complaint against Virgin to the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency and the ASA has ruled in my favour. As a consequence, Virgin has amended their website and online booking system. ]
At the time I made my online booking, Virgin heavily marketed their car service as a part of the ‘Upper Class experience’. At no point on primary Upper Class page did Virgin advised the travelling public that this transfer service was restricted to a certain class of Upper Class tickets.
Thus, at the time I made the booking via their website, I had no idea that this service is restricted to just J, D, C or I booking classes.
In addition to not being upfront about their restriction in their web marketing, Virgin was — in my opinion — also not upfront about this restriction in the online booking system.
For this particular trip, my dates were fixed. Thus, I did not need extra flexibility with my tickets. As such, when I booked the flights online, I obviously chosed the flight that was the lowest fare in the class I wanted. I was not aware that the “flexible” fare had perks that the “lowest” fare lacked. I’d assumed that “flexible” meant that the ticket was flexible to future amendments (i.e. date changes). Please note from the screenshot below that there was no mention that ‘lowest’ fare entailed restrictions.
The actual restriction was buried two-layers deep in fine prints. ( The first layer was the general summary and the second layer was the complete fare summary — see below screenshot for more details. ) In truth, I did not look for this restriction because I did not know that it was in place given the very prominent marketing of this service. In other words, it was as surprising to me that the transfer was not included in the ‘Upper Class experience’ as if I was told that access to the lounge, or, that access to the bar on the plane was restricted to just a subset of booking classes on Upper Class.
Furthermore, please note that during the ticket selection, purchase and confirmation phases, the ticket booking class was not published. Thus, assuming that I was aware that the transfer service was only available to J, D, C or I booking classes, it would NOT be possible for me to change my booking class because this information was withheld.
In the selection phase, the ticket was simply describe as either “lowest” or “flexible”.
In the purchase phase, the ticket was simply described as “Upper Class”. There was no mention of ticket class type.
In the web confirmation phase (see below) the ticket was also simply described as “Upper Class”. There was no mention of ticket class type.
That said, it was only at this phase that I saw the first upfront (i.e., not hidden in fine prints) notice that the service transfer was not included. And bizarrely, it was only in the e-tickets that the exact ticket type class is made known to me for the first time. BTW –it was a class “Z” ticket …. pretty pointless to know this information once I have purchased the flights.
On the whole, this was a very disappointing experience. I therefore wrote to Virgin’s Customer Service regarding what I perceived to be misleading advertising (supported by an opaque booking system). I found their response to be disappointing (general apologies and offer of some air miles — I’d declined the air miles because my objective was not compensation but rather an acknowledgement/ acceptance of the issues I’d raised). As a consequence of their insipid response, I took my complaint to the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority.
No-Show Special Assistance
I booked my mother-in-law onto an Upper Class flight and had made arrangements for Special Assistance to provide support (specifically, wheelchair) once she arrived at the gate in Heathrow Airport.
I booked this request by email. I then confirmed the booking by email — twice. In addition to this, at the check-in desk, I’d confirmed that Virgin was aware that she would need assistance once she arrived into London and Virgin assured me that they have the request ‘in the system’ and that Special Assistance will be there to help her at the gate.
Despite the pre-booking, email confirmations and the face-to-face confirmation, Special Assistance was over-booked and as such, she did NOT receive wheelchair assistance. She was advised by the ground crew that she needed to wait until another wheelchair became available and that this was anticipated to be a 30-minute wait. But, as she was travelling by herself and as she had a private car booked to take her home directly, she feared that the driver would interpret her lateness as a no-show and thus leave. She did not want to be left abandoned at the airport by herself. In panic, she decided to not wait for the next available wheelchair. Thus, she followed (by foot and under her own steam) the Special Assistance team wheeling someone else thru the terminal. Although my mother-in-law is mobile, she had hip surgery a few years back and therefore could not walk long distances without experiencing pain.
I __specifically__ purchased an Upper Class ticket for her so that I could be assured that she would be “well looked after”. What happened to her was exactly what I was hoping to avoid. I was completely wrong to expect that ‘Upper Class’ meant good service.
Given that my mother-in-law was travelling by herself, I do not have first-hand experience about what transpired. I have to rely solely on her words and her description of what happened. Based on her testimony, I wrote to Virgin Atlantic to complain.
Virgin’s response to my complaint was disappointing. This was their response:
Thank you for your e-mail, regarding Mrs xxx’s experience at London Heathrow.
It goes without saying that I am genuinely sorry for the discontent felt, about the wait for assistance, which your mother-in-law had when she arrived at London Heathrow. I know you had done all possible to ensure this was provided, to make her journey seamless for her and I do apologise for the upset which transpired.
I would like to assure you we take your comments and Mrs xxx’s experience very seriously, as it’s not our intention to disappoint you or your mother-in-law.
I completely understand your frustration and upset about what happened, particularly as you had booked your mother in Upper Class and understandably expected a more appropriate service for her.
As required by the EU regulation 1107/2006 concerning the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air, it is the responsibility of the managing body of the individual airport to establish and deliver the assistance required by a passenger in the airport, as long as they have received at least 48 hours’ notice from the airline. If notification has not been given the managing body of the airport will make all reasonable efforts to provide the assistance.
I can confirm that notification of the assistance your mother-in-law required was sent to London Heathrow airport and I am sending your e-mail directly to the airport management, and asking them to respond to you. Whilst they use external companies to provide the service they prefer any complaints to be sent directly to them. I have also logged your complaint in our database in order to monitor the on-going performance of the services delivered at the airport.
I do realise how this entire situation reflects very poorly upon us, however I am afraid we have no control over the service contract provided by the airport authority. They do indeed have service level agreements, which are set for them by the airport authority and the delay, which resulted in Mrs xxxx managing independently, is indeed unacceptable.
I want to assure you that we do have regular meetings with the airport management and work closely with them to improve the services provided to our customers, as we know how we are being perceived as a result of poor service.
I do apologise unreservedly for the anxiety this has caused and as a gesture I would like to send your mother-in-law a bouquet of flowers. I would be grateful if you could advise the best address to send this to and I will organise these straight away.
I understand that you also had various other concerns and these have been passed to the appropriate department for them to be addressed directly.
Once again, I am so sorry you feel so let down by us. We truly are committed to providing the best care we can to any customer who needs that extra consideration throughout their journey. If Mrs xxx travels with us again, please do let me know and I will gladly oversee the arrangements and help facilitate a much better service for her throughout the airport.
(I’d declined the offer of flowers. The purpose of my letter was to affect change and not to receive token apologies.)
In short, this issue was punted over to airport management. First, airport management claimed that my mother-in-law arrived at Immigrations via buggy. This was NOT the case. The Special Assistance team at the gate was over-booked. So the Special Assistance person scanned my mother-in-law’s boarding pass so that she was registered in the system. But, she was neither transported via wheelchair nor via buggy. She confirmed that she walked the entire distance from gate to the car by her own steam.
To settle this matter, I’d requested that airport management review the CCTV footage. Unfortunately, airport management has advised that this is protected information under the Data Protection Act. Thus, this issue remained unresolved — airport management system has her in the system as transported by buggie and I have her testimony that she had no assistance at the airport.
The above aside, I am bitterly disappointed with Virgin for not ensuring that my mother-in-law’s wheelchair was not allocated out to someone who didn’t reserve one in advance. What was the point of reserving (and confirming) the Special Assistance request if the Virgin ground crew allocates-out the wheelchair on a first-come, first-served basis?
Overall, a disappointing and shockingly bad experience . . . . .