Without wanting to sound arrogant, I am fortunate enough to travel a lot for business... A LOTTTTT!
I have been fortunate enough to reach well above my projected tier on British Airways this year, without any chance of making further progress. Therefore, when a short notice trip to NYC came up last week, I thought I might as well try getting some extra points somewhere else as my BA Executive Club membership year ends on Wednesday anyway. Having listened to a very dear and old friend of mine, who is a senior manager of one of the largest accountancy firms - I decided to give Virgin Atlantic a go. Therefore I went ahead last Sunday and booked a trip with a hotel in Economy (yes, I know... but that is the reality of people living in a business start up culture where we have to pay for our own tickets until we reach blockbuster revenues) with Virgin Atlantic. A DECISION I AM REGRETTING TO THIS DAY, only a week later!
When I booked the flight everything was looking Hunky Dory. As on British Airways, I tried going into the section where I could manage my booking and was refused. Obviously, there was no proper connection between Virgin Holidays (who handled my booking since I had also booked a hotel - a no brainer considering I saved £600 compared to the flight only cost of a Monday to Wednesday flight; or so I thought...) and Virgin Atlantic. This proved to be my downfall...
Two days later, the Virgin Atlantic web site still wouldn't recognise my booking reference number and this is also the case 13 hours away from the time of travel. I then tried calling the booking line and got 8 minutes of 'muzak' and then 4(!!!!!!!!) minutes of a phone ringing and nobody bothering to pick it up. So much for what Virgin are promising on their web site with regards to a 24 hours a day phone line...
I then thought I'd try and call the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club - and it's while I've (by now) been waiting for 22 minutes... In the end I hung on for 31 minutes before I got anybody on the phone - only to be given the excuse that "Virgin Holidays" are a completely separate company. Hang on a second! Let me get this straight... This is an industry, which has almost obliterated any other form of business travel by being flexible, but still maintains the 1970s Saturday night stay requirement in order to price ANYTHING competitively. Some of us business folks also have social obligations, and obviously the piranhas like to feed off that. I have to admit that the thought of paying £1500 for a flight in M(onkey) class repulsed me, so I was happy to see that by adding on the hotel, I could save £600, but the amount of grief afterwards really did not even begin to justify the cost saving.
Over the course of 2 phone calls, it took me almost an hour to get a valid flight reference to even allow me to check in on the flight. Really not what you want when the clock strikes the Midnight Hour... On top of that I was not able to do an online upgrade, but had to call somebody who was not able to process it - but had to have her supervisor do so and then call me back 15 minutes later in order to confirm it. Also, I was told that I would need to try and phone up again in order to organise an upgrade on the way back. I am getting to the point where I would rather fling myself off a very tall building while I'm in New York as I think my time is more worthwhile than having to spend 2(!) hours on the phone with an inept airline, which lacks complete system integration, and being fobbed off with excuses of "we'll try to find a way to pass that information along". As Manuel said in Fawlty Towers, "Que?" (sorry, my PC doesn't allow me to do the inverted question mark at the start of the sentence...)
I had great service on the phone from 2 (very) unfortunate souls, who had to deal with an irate customer (and quite rightly so). However, the answers I got gave me very little confidence... Also, it didn't help when I was told they were short-staffed and only had a few people in the office dealing with the calls. It still doesn't excuse pulling me off the unbearable 'muzak' and forcing me to the listen to a constant ring tone for almost 5 minutes. Unlike Carlsberg's iconic TVC from the late 80s/early 90s this was not a 'wrong number' call to a dusty old department, which never deals with confused old ladies who can't tell the numbers '1' and '7' apart on their phones*.
Unfortunately for Virgin, we are about to grow Springboard Media massively, with a large amount of staff who are going to be "pond-hopping" extensively. Even worse... I am responsible for the company's travel policy. Therefore, I can say that I gave Virgin Atlantic a fair chance, but I cannot afford to be spending the next years dealing with irate employees so I'll not be recommending them as a carrier going forward. My key thought is that if you're a big organisation and you have people dealing with your travel for you, you might not care as it will be the 'minion' dealing with terrible booking systems, no back-end integration and a depressing amount of time wasted in telephone queues, but for any entrepreneur and business decision maker who has to deal with policy, I'd advise you all to look elsewhere.
* Before you criticise me for this reference, please allow me to say that for 12 years I have been telling people off for dialing a '1' instead of a '7' - and at one point my local council couldn't even figure out their own phone numbers, made exactly the same mistake and forced me to endure YEARS of people dialing my home phone instead of the community hall. Southwark Council, and Pat - you in particular, should be ashamed of this. I have never received an apology and you have never taken the necessary measures to remove my phone number. Shame on you, BUT not nearly as big a shame on you as it's on the carrier that believes it should be Britain's flagship carrier! I have previously posted about their retro campaign looking back at when they started - and when I look at their current service levels, they truly seem to be stuck in a 1980s time warp before Margaret Thatcher broke the unions and made it necessary to actually perform at work. Based on this experience British Airways Executive Club and the On Business programme will be getting a lot more 'traffic' from us over the next few years. This is not an invitation to rest on the laurels. Just because the competition is inept, you still need to improve your service consistency. And as for Virgin Atlantic, please start backing up all of your marketing bravado with a worthwhile product and service! For now, though, it's quite clear that we'll continue to back British Airways.