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June 5, 2012 / Amy Bradney-George

A Cancelled Flight With Virgin Australia

On Thursday, May 31, I happily boarded the first of four planes to go home for a few days. What is normally an enjoyable trip with Virgin Australia turned into a confusing, frustrating, interesting and epic quest.

Bellingen river, viewed from Church Street.

A few weeks before I had decided it was time to get away from the city and recharge on the beautiful mid-north coast of NSW for a couple of days. I love being from Bellingen, a small town just south of Coffs Harbour (and the nearest airport).

But the Coffs Coast is a regional destination and not many airlines fly there during the week. Economy flights from Melbourne to Coffs (often via Sydney) can cost anywhere from $157 (Virgin Saver) to $308 (Qantas Flexi Saver), though you can get cheaper ones if there is a sale. I usually budget around $400 for a return flight and hope for the best.

Since moving to Melbourne I’ve got to know Virgin Australia quite well thanks to their competitive prices and regular flights to Coffs, and I really like flying with them.

I’m actually a big Virgin Family fan – impressed by the value of their airfares, loyalty program, in-flight magazine, credit cards (which I sometimes write about) and the entrepreneurial talents of Richard Branson that have helped the company expand into so many industries.

Generally, though, I have very little personal contact with Virgin. It was a surprise, then, when I landed in Sydney on Thursday after a slightly delayed flight (thanks to Melbourne’s always reliable weather) and had a text message, missed call and two emails from the airline.

After failing to see my connecting flight to Coffs Harbour on the Departures board, I called Virgin back and asked what was going on. The woman I spoke to was lovely, she did as much as she could and tried to find out what was going on, but eventually had to suggest I go to the staff at one of the gates, explaining there were “flight complications”.

Maybe I chose the wrong gate, but the staff I ended up speaking too were not exactly friendly. They did little to explain to me what was going on with my flight and it was only through eavesdropping on them that I ended up piecing together that all the flights to Coffs were cancelled and other airlines had no available seats until the next day.

I suddenly imagined spending the rest of the day at Sydney Airport before security kicked me out when they closed for the night. The Virgin staff member who was “dealing with me”, as she put it (let’s call her “Joanna” because I think that’s what her nametag said), was organising accommodation but I only found that out by listening in.

Cosy comfort: my room at the Mercure Hotel (Sydney Airport).

Eventually, with some hasty directions and notes scribbled on paper, Joanna told me my new flight would be late the next morning and I should get a shuttle to the Mercure where I would be staying the night.

Transport, accommodation, dinner and breakfast was covered by Virgin, and I was really grateful for that. I soon found out from the crowd waiting for a bus that a number of Virgin Australia flights had been cancelled that afternoon, though no one knew exactly why. We moved from the airport to hotels a bus of displaced tourists, speculating on the reason for our travel disruptions (I was later informed by Virgin Australia, via their Twitter account, that it was due to “an issue with [their] check-in and booking systems which affected the network”).

The number of people in the same boat as me made me a bit more sympathetic towards Joanna’s cold efficiency earlier on, and I gave Virgin points for having such a fair alternative set up for us.

Not so impressive, however, was the fact that almost everyone else got gift vouchers for in-flight snacks – an extra that Joanna forgot, perhaps? Never mind, the $8 voucher would have been a small consolation considering I’d lost half a day in my beloved Bellingen.

Far from blaming Virgin, I actually defended them to other displaced passengers, recounting horror stories from friends who had told me about their long flight delays with other airlines. In the end I made the most of the situation, enjoying the Mercure and looking forward to finally landing in Coffs.

But the whole experience made me think about crisis management for airlines. How thorough is the training for situations like this? Why was the incident explained away with phrases like “that unfortunate complication” and “technical difficulties” until I tweeted Virgin Australia?

All the Virgin Australia staff I dealt with after that were so good about it, apologising and telling me they hoped I could enjoy the rest of my few days away, and now it’s become another interesting adventure to write about.

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One Comment

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  1. james / Jun 11 2012 10:47 pm

    I was to take the same plane back from Coffs Harbour and VA response to my need to fly back to Sydney that night, was go talk to Qantas and solve your own problems, no advance notice, no help at Coffs Harbour, all the Qantas seats sold out by the time time I got approval (it was a business trip) to spend $1,000 for 2 return tickets to Sydney. End result 8hr drive to Sydney, $670 in car hire fees. Thanks for nothing VA, no service and still waiting for the tickets cost to be refunded.

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