Saturday, May 19, 2012

Virgin Australia - A brand damaging event

I fly a lot so that I can fulfill my client commitments. For the past year I have flown consistently with Virgin Australia and to be fair their overall service delivery has been very good. Most importantly my flights have been for the best part on time and I have felt safe on every flight.

Except for one of my flights late last week.

A return flight from Brisbane to Melbourne. The first 100 minutes of the flight had been effectively uneventful, which is what you actually want on a flight. I was sitting in a window seat in row 7, with another passenger in the aisle so we had a spare seat between us.

After the Captain had announced that we had commenced our decent and the Seatbelt sign had been switched on, a crew member approached the gentleman in the aisle seat in my row and asked him if he could move so that another passenger could be moved up toward the front of the plane from the rear of the plane. He stated that he didn't want to move and would it be okay for the passenger to seat in the spare seat between the two of us. The crew member agreed and headed toward the back of the place.

Moments later she returned with a female passenger appearing to be in her early 30s. It became immediately clear that at the very minimum this women was extremely intoxicated and possibly under the influence of other substances as she literally fell into the seat bumping hard into my left side. She then proceeded to repeatedly swear at the top of her voice using swear words that start with the letters 'f' and 'c' in most sentences that she spoke. She was rude and obnoxious to both myself and the other gentleman and the other passengers in the rows around us.

She refused to put her seatbelt on and tried to make a phone call but was unable to punch out the number on her phone and gave up.

My peaceful trip had well and truly been interrupted.

It was quite an unusual experience as the woman's behavior was unpredictable and dangerous from my perspective. It really felt as if she had been placed between the two of us by the crew and she had then effectively become our problem to deal with. Only once did a crew member check on her and he continued down the aisle after she gave him a 'verbal spray'.

On more than one occasion when were were deep in our decent she attempted to stand up which is clearly dangerous behavior. Throughout this ordeal I kept telling myself to remain calm and not to do anything that could provoke further dangerous behavior. I also kept thinking that it would only be 25-30 minutes before we would be at the gate and she would be arrested and she would have to deal with the law for her unacceptable behavior.

After landing we had a long taxi back to the terminal. She got up out of her seat, climbed over the gentleman in the aisle seat and stood up. The crew called to her to sit back down, an instruction that she partially followed by choosing to sit in the lap of the gentleman in the aisle seat. He didn't look as if he was happy about what was happening.

Again I thought to myself, "Well at least she will be arrested and have to explain her actions."

Upon stopping at the gate and the seat belt sign went off she rushed toward the front of the plane. As we stood to collect our own bags from the overhead lockers the agreement from the passengers around me was that, "At least she will be arrested.".

To our complete shock and disappointment this did not happen. Instead she was allowed to alight the plane just like the rest of us. We simply couldn't believe our eyes!

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the passengers who had to sit next to her for 100 minutes.

From my perspective safety is the No.1 service issue for plane travel. This woman for whatever reason had chosen to put hers and the safety of other passengers, including myself at risk and there was no consequence for that behavior.

Frustrated by Virgin Australia's inaction I called their frequent flyer program to register my concern. I was informed that if I wanted my feedback to be actioned then I needed to go online and type in my feedback. I asked the staff member handling my call if he could see all of my details on the screen in front of him. He informed that he could.

Despite having validated my membership number I was again told that my feedback would only be registered if I went online and typed it in. I was again frustrated, "Why would I go online to type in my feedback when I am already telling you and you have my details in front of you?".

It seemed that Virgin Australia was making it hard for me to have my issue properly heard.

Due to the safety nature of this issue I did go online to report my experience. Have a guess how long the automatic reply informed me that it would take for someone to contact me regarding my issue?

I quote, "...we aim to contact all guests within 21 days where possible." 21 days!

Surely Richard Branson would be shocked to hear such a period. I really was astonished. It seemed that Virgin Ausytalia really did fail us both at the gate and beyond.

The key service issues for me were that the Virgin Australia staff on board the plane did not provide any assistance to myself nor the genetleman in the aisle seat with regarding to managing this woman's behaviour. Whether we liked it or not she had become 'our problem'.

With regard to the lack of consequences for her behaviour I am concerned about Virgin Australia's saftey procedures with regard to passenger behaviour. Was 'turning the plane around' more important than passenger saftey?

Thirdly, it is extremely frustrating when you verbally contact an organisation to provide feedback about their organisation, (feedback that could help it improve) and you are requested to 'go online and type in your feedback'. Great service organisations make providing feedback easy. Why couldn't the call centre staff member record my feedback and offer to have it followed up? Why couldn't my call even be recorded (which is something that I requested).

Finally, a response time of 21 days simply provides the message that Virgin Australia really isn't serious with regard to hearing feedback from it's customers. In the year 2012 does anyone actually think a response time of 21 days is acceptable?

Service organisations are tested when things go wrong. How they recover is what really sets service organisations apart from each other.

I'll keep you informed with regard to what eventually happens.

Learn about the OTM Service Strategy® here.


  1. Virgin have contacted me and have apologised for my experience, highlighting that passenger safety is their number one priority.
    Thankfully they have contacted me well within the 21 days their automated system suggested, however they haven't yet fully answered my question regarding why the woman wasn't arrested/escorted off the plane.
    Hopefully we'll find out the answer to that question soon enough.
    Gary Ryan

  2. Virgin Australia have contacted me again.
    I have been informed (quote)

    "I am able to confirm that authority is granted to the air crew during a flight to make an arrest on board. The arrest or restraint of a passenger is a serious outcome and must only be used as a very last resort. Issues that could result in such actions include, but are not limited to: tampering with an aircraft, aircraft component or item of equipment, committing an act that threatens the safety of the aircraft or passengers on board, suspected or known possession of unauthorised weapons or threatening violence to the extent of possible damage or is a hazard to the aircraft. On this occasion, the cabin crew had not deemed this issue appropriate to take this action and call the Federal Police and Virgin Australia fully supports their decision."(unquote)

    I struggle to see how the woman's behaviour did not align with, "...committing an act that threatens the safety of the aircraft or passengers on board." but apparently it didn't. At this point in time this woman's behaviour was within the limits of what is considered tolerable by Virgin Australia which astounds me.

    I have requested that a telephone conversation take place as I am concerned that I am not being properly understood by the written communications that are currently taking place.

    So we'll continue to see how this issue unfolds.

  3. Last Friday evening (25th May) I responded to the person from Virgin Australia who had been emailing me and requested that we have a chat on the phone to discuss my issue. By late yesterday afternoon I had not had a reply so I forwarded the email that I had sent on Friday evening to this person, just in case they hadn't received it.
    To my surprise I received an automated response thanking me for my feedback and informing me again, that someone would respond to me within 21 days.
    It seems that the person responsible for managing my case, or the Virgin Australia system itself had decided that my issue was resolved, even though it isn't resolved from my perspective.
    My request to speak with someone is based on my thinking that I don't believe my feedback nor my issue is being properly understood. Therefore I believe I should use a different communication channel to convey my message. You may recall that I initially spoke with Virgin Australia over the phone, but was then referred to their online system, which I have since used.
    So now it is time to talk again. At least from my perspective.
    So we'll see what happens next.

  4. The final update.

    I have spoken with a Virgin Australia team member. She was genuinely apologetic for my in flight experience.

    I have been informed that my concerns have been forwarded to flight crew management. I have no reason to believe that they haven't been.

    I was also informed that I should have never been requested to enter my story online as the velocity team member with whom I first spoke should have referred my experience to Guest Relations who would have then followed up with me.

    I also suggested that while these events are hopefully very rare, if an unruly passenger is on a plane then the airline should be pro-active in contacting the passengers who had to sit immediately next to the unruly passenger to check on their experience.

    I still disagree with the decision not to have the authorities speak with this woman u[pon landing. I still can't see how her behaviour was not of a serious enough nature for that action to be taken and I certainly would not want that woman doing the same behaviour on another flight.

    I do believe that I have now been heard and it is now in the airline's hands with regard to how they use this feedback to improve their service.

    I was offered a credit for my experience which i did accept however it is yet to be received.

  5. A couple of intersting updates. When I was informed that I was to be provided a credit I was told that i would be sent an email that would include the details of how to use that credit. It is now 6 days since that telephone conversation and I have not received the email.

    It seems that with every step of this process something happens to reduce the customer experience. As I have said, it is how organisations manage 'service at the edges' that really sets them apart.

    In addition an interesting article was posted in The Age based on a similar (but it must be noted there are aspects of the story that are 'different') of how QANTAS handled a similar situation.

    You can read that article here:

  6. Virgin Australia, despite their systemic 'hiccups' described in this post has just shown that they really are 'Fair Dinkum' about the issue that I have raised with them.

    I have just been contacted by a senior member of Virgin Australia's Office of the CEO, John Borghetti. I was informed that John himself had requested that I be contacted.

    Virgin Australia have guaranteed that they will further investigate the event and refer the outcome to cabin crew training. I was also provided an opportunity to explain my experience as it related to the systemic hiccups that I experienced when trying to provide my feedback to Virgin Australia.

    I believe that I was heard and that Virgin Australia will be genuinely using my feedback to help to improve their systems and for that I am appreciative.

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