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Published on: Blog
I have just received my response from the “Customer Relations” representative at Virgin Atlantic, who, like the “Social Relations” rep, continues to blame the irresponsible decisions that stranded 250 of us at JFK International Airport for 32 hours on the weather. Never mind that the core of my issues were why we were forced to travel to the airport in dangerous blizzard conditions and why the airline failed to accommodate us properly once it was clear we were stranded there.
She completely evades many of my very pointed questions (see the previous post), such as why Virgin Atlantic chose to force us to the airport at the blizzard’s peak despite industry-wide cancellations, why it did not issue waivers to us to rebook without fees, and why many of us were denied even blankets. She does not address whether Upper Class passengers were brought to a hotel.
In fact, she essentially says that I should have taken myself to a hotel if I wanted one so badly. She doesn’t say how that would be possible, given all roads and rail services to the airport were closed during the 4.5 hours we were irresponsibly snowed in on the tarmac. But she does use it as an excuse of granting any compensation whatsoever.
Dear Mr Cochran
I’ve read your post on jason-cochran.com and would like to take this opportunity to respond to some of the concerns you feel Howard did not address in his earlier correspondence.
At the outset I want to offer my apologies to you and all our passengers who were caught up in the weather disruptions both in the UK and the US in December. The inconvenience and upset caused to all travellers, not only airline passengers, was extensive and in airline terms unprecedented.
As Howard has already confirmed the decision to depart VS4 was taken in accordance with advice from ground and air traffic management as well as our own operations control and the operating pilot. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated after the aircraft pushed back and the window of opportunity passed. Many airlines were in effect ‘stuck’ on the taxiways as the conditions worsened and I have seen reports of many other airlines passengers being on board for 7 hours or more. No airline would knowingly place its customers in this type of situation if it could be avoided.
Conditions in the terminal were not good for anybody, due entirely to the high numbers of stranded passengers. The prevailing conditions meant passengers were unable to move away from the airport environment, and as a result of the high demand some food outlets ran out of supplies.
These circumstances also meant we could not secure large numbers of hotel rooms for all passengers. Upper Class customers as well as those with special needs were accommodated in the Virgin Clubhouse but this area has limited capacity and it was not possible to accommodate all passengers there. We advised passengers who were able to leave the terminal and find their own accommodation to send us their receipts for reimbursement, in accordance with our obligations under European regulation 261/2004.
Aviation regulation requires us to rest all operating crew under specific conditions in order to ensure they are fit to fly and accompany the passengers when the flight is subsequently cleared for take off. A handful of rooms are reserved for crew on a permanent basis as part of the crew hotel contract and cannot be redistributed amongst passengers.
In the event of a flight cancellation Virgin Atlantic always offers passengers the opportunity to claim a full refund, or to book them on the next available flight with us or another carrier. We do not charge passengers when they are rebooked to the next available flight and if you were told otherwise by our staff I apologise, it is neither our policy or our intention. In relation to compensation, under certain conditions when European registered airlines cancel a flight within 14 days of departure the EU regulation requires them to pay compensation. However, the regulation makes it clear that airlines are not obliged to pay compensation if the cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. Such circumstances include weather conditions incompatible with the operation of the flight concerned.
Whilst it is clear to see that you are very unhappy with the way in which you were treated I want to assure you that throughout this event everyone at Virgin Atlantic was working very hard to try and minimise the inconvenience being suffered by our customers. As with all experiences of this nature there are learning points as well as achievements and we will certainly be reviewing all our actions and processes over the next few weeks.
Customer Relations Manager
Did you catch some of her contradictions? She admits “the prevailing conditions meant passengers were unable to move away from the airport environment” and yet denies compensation because we didn’t get ourselves to hotels and bring them receipts. She claims “no airline would knowingly place its customers in this type of situation if it could be avoided” and yet nearly every other carrier had canceled its flights, and the fact ours wasn’t canceled despite this plain industry convention (and, in fact, all of Virgin Atlantic’s other flights that same evening were–another point of mine she evaded) is what caused us to be stranded in such inhumane conditions.
How about “everyone at Virgin Atlantic was working very hard to try and minimise the inconvenience being suffered by our customers” when its gate agent, Josie, flatly told me I wasn’t allowed to have a blanket she was holding?
Ms Lynam also admits that our inability to rebook our flight to get out of the way of the blizzard was not policy: “We do not charge passengers when they are rebooked to the next available flight and if you were told otherwise by our staff I apologise, it is neither our policy or our intention.” Yet I am offered nothing in compensation for what she admits was a breach, despite the fact had this admitted mistake not occurred (despite the fact I had pleaded on two different phone calls, plus a tweet), I would have avoided this entire mess.
This is the response of an airline that’s called out in the international media for running a flight that everyone knew should not have been running? (I am still awaiting the response of the airline’s public relations arm.)
This is one of the biggest bungles of social media and customer service that I have seen out of an airline in a decade.
Updated: A Virgin Atlantic public relations representative just wrote me to say that indeed, this response was written jointly with his department, which handles media. This means the airline is now ignoring most of my queries both as a customer and as a journalist. I sent the airline my questions that it has so far refused to answer for. Here is what it is avoiding:
* Why did Virgin Atlantic, unlike nearly every other carrier operating in the Northeast of the United States, refuse to waive the change fee so that I could get out of the way of the blizzard? Your Customer Relations rep admits this was a breach of policy, and that breach put me and many others in this position. What is to be done for us about that?
* Why did Virgin Atlantic, unlike nearly every other carrier operating in the Northeast of the United States, refuse to cancel VS004? That the airline thought it could make the flight, or that the airport initially cleared it to push back, are not satisfactory answers because VA operated diametrically against clearly observable weather realities as well as industry conventions that evening.
* VA canceled all its other flights to London that night, so what made your airline think that this one would not be subject to the same weather conditions? It was scheduled to depart eight hours after the snowfall began, forcing passengers to arrive at the airport in very hazardous road conditions. Even before we pushed back from the gates, weather reports clearly warned that the blizzard was about to double in intensity; I received those reports as a passenger, and I would assume your pilots had access to the same, or better, reports. Does Virgin Atlantic officially decline to admit this was a lapse in judgment?
* Is it true that Upper Class and/or Premium Economy passengers were taken to a hotel? Your response did not deny this.
* If crew could be taken to a hotel, why were passengers not taken to one?
* Your employee Josie denied me a blanket, which she had in stock, as I tried to camp on the floor of a terminal as subfreezing winds rushed through open doors. On what grounds would that be acceptable?
* Many of us could not redeem our food vouchers because of low supplies or interminable lines. What compensation is to be expected there?
* Many of us did not receive luggage for five days despite the fact our was the only Virgin Atlantic flight to leave New York City. What was the cause and what will be done for us about that?
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