No-Fly List

Virgin America has now joined mine; I will never fly that airline (or either of its sister Virgins) again.

This post is written from the KLM Lounge at JFK. I’m here as a Delta flyer, though my flight actually has an Alaska Airlines fight number. (Gotta love modern air travel; since it’s a KLM lounge, no, the nice lady at the desk can’t do anything with my boarding pass.) The flight will get me to Los Angeles sometime after midnight.

The flight I was booked on was the Virgin flight scheduled to depart at 1:29 and arrive around 4pm. Unfortunately, the airplane for the previous, 11:30 flight had an electrical problem, so they put the passengers from that flight on what would have been the 1:29 aircraft while they tried to fix the broken plane. When that didn’t work, instead of reassigning the plane due out at 5:15 to the 1:29 flight, they left that one undisturbed and cancelled the 1:29. First Class and “Main Cabin Select” passengers were accomodated; everyone else was S.O.O.L., since the 5:15 was the last flight of the day.

We were all sent back through security to the ticket counter to be taken care of; why the gate clerk couldn’t help us was never made clear, but it turned out that their computers were down, and a single clerk at the ticket counter was stuck trying to manually handle a widebody-full of frustrated, stranded passengers.

The deal was – it emerged after more than an hour – that Virgin was generously offering to waive the cancellation fee for anyone who wanted to try to book a flight on another airline. Or they offered a $15 meal vocher and some sort of hotel voucher for anyone willing to wait for a Virgin flight tomorrow.

Which flight tomorrow? Sorry, they weren’t sure, since their computer system was down, and the one clerk was overwhelmed. (Meanwhile, three clerks were busily checking people in for the remaining flights.)

But – as I discovered by calling the Virgin reservations line – the 7am, the only one early enough to get me to UCLA in time to teach, was booked. And since this counted as a mechanical problem, the airline had no obligation to ask for volunteers to take the bump, allowing those of us who had to get there today to do so. Having waited two hours without actually getting to the clerk, I gave up.

And – this per the reservation-line supervisor – Virgin apparently has a policy against re-booking its stranded victims on other airlines.

With a little help from my friends, I found the Alaska flight, for a mere $550. (There’s a rumor that if I’d moved faster I could have gotten an earlier JetBlue to Burbank. The only consolation is that I didn’t check a bag, so I didn’t have to collect it and then check it back in.) The difference between the last-minute one-way fare and the price of half a booked-a-week-in-advance roundtrip comes out of my hide. They’re “sorry for any inconvenience.”

I’ll say they’re sorry. They’re about the sorriest airline I’ve encountered since Allegheny adopted USAir as an alias. I’ve enjoyed WiFi at 35,000 feet, but never again. Spread the word.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.