Virgin Atlantic blames weather, dodges compensation

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 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.

Yours sincerely

Caroline Lynam

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?

24 Responses to “Virgin Atlantic blames weather, dodges compensation”

  1. mControl

    Wow! My fave airline needs some seriously upgraded training on ‘how to deal’ properly with it’s customer base! THAT is ridiculous what you have described and the very least VA could do would be to send you a chit for your next flight – or at least an apology note from Richard. My goodness.

  2. EstherK

    If only Josie had given you a blanket… 🙂

    We all understand what happens in extreme conditions, and I for one was relieved that they didn’t make us fly in that storm on Sunday night. This does not minimize the considerable emotional trauma to us once we left the aircraft. That business with the hotels – “the buses are coming, we just don’t know when” for a few hours, then finally with the admission that the roads were closed and the hotels are two hours away and it didn’t pay for them to travel two hours there and back – combined with the “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere in the airport in general is not acceptable for an airline with a reputation of good and attentive customer service.

    As for all the other elements – last-minute cancellation, baggage frozen onto the plane, waiting around for buses that weren’t coming, no information from the staff (and in fact, very few staff members present at all during these extreme conditions), plus all the accompanying problems in the airport – from food problems, to voucher problems (VA again), and then all the delays as our 6:05 flight became a 7:30 and ultimately a midnight flight – it was like a psychological experiment in how patient people can be before inciting a riot. And then, some of us who checked baggage arrived at Heathrow to discover that our bags hadn’t. My bag took until Saturday night to arrive, and I left the UK Monday morning. Really unacceptable.

  3. Nomadic Matt

    After a response like this, I would never fly Virgin again. You should write about this somewhere and shame them even more! They shouldn’t get away with this.

  4. Camels & Chocolate

    This is absolute bullshit, Jason! Like Matt says, it makes me never want to fly Virgin again, though sadly none of the other airlines are much better. My husband and I were stranded by American on NYE (not because of weather–it was 69 degrees in Memphis!), and they also refuse to compensate us in any way. When we were finally rebooked and flown out, I tried to get upgraded as I’m gold status and have companion upgrades, too–and plus, usually, when you’re bumped as we were, they upgrade you as a courtesy–and they had the nerve to say in order to do say, we’d each be charged $300! Ridiculous. I hope you get justice…

  5. Matt

    Wow – shocking how you continue to be treated – this is one future customer that Virgin has surely lost!

  6. Anon

    Question, aside from being a very experienced travel writer, do you have any experience of working in travel on the “other side of the fence?”?

  7. flutiefan

    i am not one of your regulars, but after reading everything here, i just gotta say : GET OVER IT.

  8. flutiefan

    um, i didn’t complain. i merely offered my opinion, wrapped in a suggestion.

  9. Bob (Anon)

    I’m not flutiefan . . . I could have used Dave, Sarah, Layla, you name it (excuse the pun). I just put Anon.

    Call me Bob.

    Check email & IP addresses if you like.

    The fact that flutie and myself commente within 3 minutes of each other is purely a coincidence

    Flutie said get over it, I was trying a different tact,

    As a preamble to my take on things, I asked if you had worked in the travel industry on the other side of the fence. Rather than just being a consumer of travel products.

    It is a fair question, once which you still haven’t answered (cue the irony) and further more have made an ill judged assumption. It appears that you are fallable Jason, it just might be that people in the travel industry get things wrong also?

    Anyway, back to my question . . . have you ever worked in the travel industry?

    • Jason Cochran

      I am a regular customer and passenger, a consumer reporter, and someone with millions of miles behind him, which more than qualifies me to appraise shoddy service and practice. I hope you’re not suggesting I need have worked behind an airline gate desk or something like that in order to have a valid criticism about customer service, because that would be ludicrous and unrealistic, not to mention a false standard. But it would serve to take the harsh spotlight off the unnecessary captivity of 250 people last week, which may be what you’d like.

  10. J

    Basically she didn’t say anything. I do hope that VA reads the comments, because with service like this I SURELY will not be flying them again.

  11. Gray

    I have wanted to give Virgin a try for years, because I’d heard such good things about them, but they don’t fly out of my local airport, so I never have. Now, I’m glad I haven’t. Their customer service is even worse than others. I cannot stand when companies won’t accept responsibility for their screw-ups. An apology and attempt to make things right go a long way toward securing positive feelings toward your brand. I guess Virgin doesn’t care about positive feelings toward its brand.

  12. GV

    That’s too bad. I always wanted to try Virgin as well. I’m reading Richard Branson’s book Losing my Virginity. Good read, thought I would want to run a company/be entrepreneurial like this guy. Every company screws up sometimes though…

  13. Taylor

    This is incredible. Your points are extremely valid and it is both shameful and disappointing that Virgin continues to dodge questions that have been asked. After stranding you on the ground in poor weather conditions the least they owe you is full disclosure.

    One thing I must say though, that while Virgin was spectacularly bad at handling this situation, it also seems like the Port Authority wasn’t (a) prepared for a blizzard of this magnitude, which they should have been, and (b) also failed in proper handling of this situation. I was not in NYC, but was caught in the blizzard, and that is just my opinion from the information that I have read.

    Having a mom that’s an ex-AA Special Services rep, she read this and said that this was truly horrible. Her job was to deal with high-profile passengers mainly, but she can still appreciate the fact that this violates all good rules of customer service.

    Virgin needs to stop hiding it and start addressing it, I have also found Virgin Atlantic to be extremely unresponsive to Twitter queries, which is also disappointing.

  14. Karen

    What really makes me mad about these “CYA” responses is that they establish that there is an idiot involved. Either the airline is completely ignorant of what actually happened or they are assuming that the customer is an idiot and will believe their spin on what happened

    Just because the snow storm is “unprecedented” (which it was not), the airports and airlines had tons of warning. They pretend that they never have to deal with weather. Every year.

    Airlines seem to have no contingencies in place for things going wrong. Experienced passengers know that weather happens, that planes cant take off, etc. But we do expect that as loyal customers some one will wake up a manager or a VP and take care of pax when stuff happens.

    Why aren’t there plans and resources for when these INEVITABLE events happen?

    What I have learned after many of these poor management situations is to incur costs, then go after the airline after I have taken car of myself. Then I have actual financial damages, not emotional, stress, or rights/safety violations (last month a planeful of us were locked in an airport hallway with no way to exit for almost an hour after deplaning, with more flights dumping in behind us). Airlines don’t care if their customers suffer stress or physical harm, but fiscal harm is easily actionable.

    I was appalled by your story and know more so by Virgin’s Alice in Wonderland response.

  15. Ericka

    I think the issue now isn’t that they made a mistake– that much is clear– it’s that they seemingly refuse to take any responsibility for said mistake. VA could easily have taken steps to further accommodate its passengers while stranded, but even if we excuse them that much, there is clear improvement to be made in their accommodations post-debaucle. Those passengers surely deserve compensation on some level– even some kind of voucher would certainly ease the blow (and should be quite easy for VA to produce). Instead, VA mumbles out a half-assed “not our fault” and expects we simply begrudgingly drop the matter.

    I was stranded in NY by Virgin America during the same storm for over a week. My ordeal does not compare to Mr. Cochran’s, as I was safe at home for the duration, but VA made glaring mistakes even there.
    1) I was NEVER CONTACTED regarding my canceled flight. Passengers were left the responsibility of confirming their own cancelations and attempting to reschedule on ludicrously congested phone lines. My mother, on SouthWest, was personally contacted regarding her flight a full 7 hours before it was scheduled to depart.
    2) Spent 4+ hours on hold trying to reschedule flight. When my call was finally answered, the rep hung up on me.
    3) 26 hours post-cancelation I was finally able to contact a rep. They offered me a flight a full EIGHT DAYS later, with no offers of compensation or accompdation. Was it assumed I could simply take 8 more days off work, and spend 8 more days in a NYC hotel? I am not Richard Branson.
    4) Though I was ASSURED the 8 day later flight was the ONLY one available, the more I complained and the higher up I went, the sooner flight I was offered. This leads me to believe reps were instructed to put off passengers as long as possible, giving them the absolute worst flight they would accept.
    5) When finally given a flight, I was told it would be the same as my originally booked direct flight. Not until arriving at the airport did I discover I was to make FOUR stop overs on my way to LA– not San Diego, where I live. 2 layovers included 3+ hours at the airport. I had to have a friend pick me up in LA.

    There’s clear room for improvement in VA’s service. I’m not complaining about an act of god, but everything that happened after it.

    • Jason Cochran

      That’s how I feel, Ericka. You don’t go against the rest of the industry and the common sense of the country to put customers in the direct path of an Act of God, and if you irresponsibly do so, you make amends. Virgin Atlantic failed both before and after a predictable weather cancellation but is only interested in dodging responsibility for what everyone else knew was a foolhardy choice. It hides behind the weather excuse.

  16. Amelia Kelly

    Not disputing the fact that they effed up in areas, and royally.

    But she did answer your question about the hotels. She told you they keep rooms for crew use, these are legally required and rightly as she says CANNOT be given up under any circumstance.

    Imagine if the crew gave up their rooms, and the weather had improved. You’d then have an aircraft with no crew to fly it because they are out of legal duty hours. You ask why they could not do the same for passengers. Simple- there were either no rooms or very few rooms available.

    Imagine being the person that has to tell al lthe stranded people that only ten will get rooms. Yeah, starting a stampede is a GREAT idea. Better to get rooms for unaccompanied kids, disabled and so forth, leaving the airport lounges to those who are physically better able to stand it.

    Is it ideal? No. But then again, we don’t live in an ideal world.

    Yes they should compensate, but how?? if you read the T&Cs of many airline tickets, the liability to stranding is limited to say $200 (if you;re lucky) Once you buy a ticket, you agree to those terms. Should they have departed the flight? Honestly, I wasn’t there, I don’t have all of the information and I can’t second guess their decision. Compensation should be given, but then the appropriateness of such will be seen differently by each perosn, depending on their perceived level of inconvenience & stress.

    You seem to think it unreasonable for Virgin Atlantic to accommodate Upper Class passengers and not Economy (if in fact they did). Considering the fare difference paid, do you not think this is fair? People pay 5 or 10 times as much to travel in Upper Class (business or whatever you want to call it), if you had paid the same I am sure you would then be upset if rooms were given to economy passengers instead. Supply and demand. If rooms are limited then of course Upper Class fares should receive them with any others being allocated to the rest. In this situation, I doubt there were any rooms available, especially with the access to the airports blocked.

    The biggest priority for me (as ground staff) in these situations were getting rooms for a) customers with special needs (elderly, unaccompanieds, etc) and b) crew (so they would be rested & ready when the situation deemed them able to depart, without having to wait to fly in another crew – this is what would have to happen in that situation had crew gone out of hours… a further 12 hour delay while they gain the legally required rest period (might be 10 in the UK, rules vary from country to country)

    Would like to hear your thoughts on this, can you perhaps now see why (some) things were done a certain way?