No-fly list

Why I’m not flying Virgin Anything ever again.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

19 thoughts on “No-fly list”

  1. I am puzzled. What is a sophisticated traveler such as you doing in JFK ? Has JFK improved in the 20 years since I swore I would never enter JFK again (dead or alive) ?

  2. Robert,

    If you want to go from NYC to CA, it is JFK. Newark is a disaster, and LaGuardia does not do nonstops to the west coast.

  3. This is why I want high speed rail (I don’t travel very far most of the time, just within Cali).

    On my to-do list is to bug a legislator, maybe Feuer ’cause I really like him, to pass a law (well now that I think about it, I guess it would have to be federal) to make airlines be responsible for re-booking you and doing all that cr*p. They know where you were trying to get to and when, they have your phone number already (maybe even your first born), so why can’t they do it? And I’m sure fines would take care of the “the computer is down” shenanigans.

    Does this make me, I don’t know, a mommy-stater?

  4. Dear Mark,
    Sorry it took you so long to see the light. Virgin’s service has always been godawful. And if you were using in-flight Wi-Fi as your consolation, I hate to break it to you–or, depending on your point of view, glad to inform you now that you’ve sworn off Virgin–that it’s widely available on other coast-to-coast flights these days (especially on the JFK-LAX route).

  5. OTOH, Delta/KLM stranded my wife and me in O’Hare for 30 hours because the 747 that was taking us back to the UK had a mechanical fault and the parts are in Amsterdam. There was no rebooking and very little in the way of information. The staff were all quite pleasant under the circumstances however. This would seem to be a good candiadte for resource sharing amongst the airlines. The moral is that flying sucks unless you’re doing it absurd-class on a Middle Eastern or Asian flag carrier.

  6. NCG: You are a Steeley Eyed Mommy-Stater! Like all of we SEMS’s you believe that the law should enforce contracts and make sure comsumer contracts uniformly conform to the spirit of what is reasonably expected when a consumer forks over a considerable chunk of change and makes arangements based on the reasonable expectation of that contract being fulfilled.
    Once we consumers pay for a ticket from A to Z at X time and particularly after the airline gets us to the airport likely somewhere in the great beyond between A and Z the airline should be responsible to get us to Z and back and make sure we are fed, warm, dry, safe and have a place to sleep when things get snagged up that long.
    As to $15 for food: In an airport that will get you a stale danish and a cup of burned coffee.

  7. The problem with swearing never to fly on airline X is that after a while, if you do much traveling, you run out of airlines you are willing to use. So far, Virgin America has been good to us, but we have no expectations. What is it they say about mutual funds? “Past performance is no guarantee of future success.”

  8. NCG, I’m firmly in the “take the train (high speed or not) whenever reasonably possible” camp myself. To explain my preference, simply imagine Mark’s experience with the additional complication of having two small children along. The worst case is just so bad that I want to minimize the likelihood of it occurring (luckily, I have never had a need to convince my husband — at 6’3″, he has always avoided flying even when traveling alone).

    Unfortunately, “reasonably possible” does not include coast-to-coast travel, and “possible” does not include transatlantic travel at all.

  9. High-speed coast-to-coast trains? For that you would need maglev, preferably in tunnels at near-vacuum. Virgin MagTrains announcer: “Due to an unforeseen mechanical problem we regret to announce that your train is stuck 2 miles under the Rocky Mountains and 100 miles from the nearest station. Do not attempt to exit the train, the vacuum will kill you. We are endeavouring to restore electrical power for lighting and the advanced-technology toilets. Meanwhile, stay calm, await rescue, hopefully within the next 24 hours, and enjoy our free WiFi service”.
    What I’m waiting for is the return of airships, with a waiter in a white tux bringing me a G&T to my comfy wicker armchair as the panorama of the prairies rolls by. But what’s this? “Virgin AirShips regrets to announce…”

  10. “… that due to the impossible to anticipate occurrence of extreme thunderstorms over the American Plains in summer, the airship will shortly undergo an ‘involuntary conversion’, as the insurance people put it. Please don’t worry; the pilots had parachutes, and will be safe. As a consolation, please feel free to take as many free drinks from the unattended bar, until the airship crashes.”

  11. James wins the thread! : )

    And Mark, I wonder if what Virgin did was legal. At least it used to be that airlines had no choice but to put you on another airline if they failed to provide the service they promised. Ten years ago, my flight on Iberia Airlines from Barcelona to JFK was cancelled (I was in discount coach) and they put me immediately on Al Italia to Newark, and also gave me a voucher that that paid for a cab from Newark to JFK. I asked how I paid for any difference in costs and the Iberia airline employee said “Don’t worry — We will work it out with Al Italia” and apparently they did, I never heard from either again. Maybe times have changed, or international rules are different, but as a non-lawyer this seems like simple contract law sort of stuff.

  12. Isn’t it a great thing we got rid of airline regulations? The industry has been so much more profitable since those bad old days… Oh, wait. And since consolidation economies of scale have enabled much lower prices — what, they haven’t? And the invisible hand of the marketplace has led to customers being satisfied with the level of service at all price points. You say they’re not? Your data must be wrong, the theory says so.

    Well, at least the top managers and investment bankers and bankruptcy attorneys have made out like bandits.

  13. To be fair to deregulation, it has resulted in lower prices. It has also destroyed the quality of service, and distributes wealth to alert travelers from the less alert. It hasn’t yet destroyed air safety, although it seems to be nibbling around safety at the edges. I’m waiting for the next Republican administration for safety to go south.

  14. A few months back, Southwest had its computer system go down nationally. I had to wait in a very long line at LAX. They had to check each passenger in on paper tickets and reassign seating to the entire plane.

    Expecting the worst, I left a mere 45 minutes after my scheduled flight time, and every single Southwest representative was pleasant and helpful. It made me a huge fan.

  15. Oh the nasty deregulation, now you in the upper class have to deal with time-to-time problems because the rest of us can afford it. Boo Hoo. If you want prices from the 1970s you could just buy 1st class tickets.

    (rant directed at paul, not mark).

  16. Ebenezer: back when I was following this kind of thing more closely, the estimate for average (ahem) price reductions as a result of deregulation were in the range of 5-10%. Which is not peanuts, but also isn’t the kind of thing you trumpet to the skies when it’s accompanied by so many ill effects. Of course, one of the things that deregulation has done is to make travel between major markets (where there’s still something like competition) cheaper while making travel among smaller cities both more expensive and thoroughly hellish.

    Come to think of it, I wonder whether airline hub-and-spoke policies will ultimately be a driver for decent rail. Because a train from A to B can serve a the intervening cities of C,D,E and F at relatively low cost, whereas the existence of air service from A to B still usually implies that flying from C to E can be done only by way of Q on the other side of the country.

  17. Scrooge: “…distributes wealth to alert travelers from the less alert?”
    Rather like, to the people with smart phones from the rest of us? (Yes, I am holding out for a while.) It is an unsightly, chaotic scramble for survival, widows and orphans be darned. It makes me very sad as I read about it in the paper the next day. Are these situations harbingers of what’s to come, or already is? And there are the airlines with all their banks of computers and personnel.

    But people are right, this is just contract law. Mark was induced to fly far away from home by promises.

  18. Mark, your pain threshold is higher than mine. I have to travel to a wedding next month, and I expect to drive (Iowa to California). Because that’s LESS of a pain in the ass than flying, on any airline.

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