Playing Musical Chairs at Virgin America?

Virgin America $49 deal

Virgin America $49 deal

On June 1st at approximately 9:30pm PST I booked two flights using my account for my friend Micheal to come visit that weekend. I purchased for 6/4 SAN to SFO flight 953, and returning 6/6 SFO to SAN flight 956. Both of these flights were $49 fare (before taxes and fees). I chose his seats (rows 7 and 15) and completed the booking, adding his email address for the itinerary to be forwarded to.

The next night, on June 2nd, Micheal contacted me asking me to forward the itinerary, as he had not received it yet from Virgin. Having heard Kevin and Coley’s horror story, I was immediately alert to a larger problem. While calling Virgin’s customer care line, I checked the site (my elevate account): no flights reserved, I checked my email: no email confirmation received, I checked my credit card: no charge pending. Meanwhile, customer care verified that this was indeed the case. They also checked the time I said that I had purchased, and told me that the last fare at the $49 price had been sold MUCH earlier that day at 5:32pm (thereby making my fare not possible, my booking erroneous… I don’t know?!).

My first priority was to reserve the ticket at the cost at the time of my purchase–$49 each way. The customer care agent, Aubrey, put the same flights on a 24-hour hold thereby securing seats, but at a much higher price… the flight out had gone from $49 to $139. Almost the cost of the entire original trip! She said that it was company policy, without any verification of my having booked the flight (a credit card charge, the passenger’s name on the manifest list, a confirmation number) there was nothing she could do.

I continued to assert that this was a bug on their website, but to no avail. She did note that there is weirdness with certain settings using the browser Safari (which I, and likely Coley were using), but she would not admit this as being the web site’s fault, but rather a fault of my browser (read: not their problem). To reach the next level supervisor I’d have to wait until the next shift started at 3:30am. I requested that she have that person call me the next day. She also told me that I could email the corporate office via the Contact link on the website, assuring me that those emails are read daily and taken very seriously. (Exactly as Coley was directed to do.)

I emailed via the website, and I sent a tweet to both @virginamerica and @PorterVA, the VP of Marketing at Virgin. (I started following @PorterVA to allow DM communication.) With that, I went to bed exhausted.

The next morning at just after 10am, @PorterVA contacted me via DM, “ang. can you call my assistant to help you regarding @virginamerica? 650 [redacted]”.

I called her assistant, who was pleasant but didn’t really want to hear my story… she wanted me to write it down and email it to her. Honestly, as a visual thinker myself, I can’t keep track of anything audible… it must be in written form. When I asked Coley the night before for her details, I had asked the same of her… could she email her story to me? So, I emailed.

At 12:54pm on June 3rd, Margaret of customer care called me. She had received my email from the marketing group, and was empowered to help me out. She said that the fare had changed in the midst of my booking, and that had caused the snafu. And while that normally doesn’t allow them, according to policy, to help out (your bad luck for not booking fast enough) they could at this time because “I had gone through extra work booking for another person”. (Note that above, Aubrey told me that there were no fares available at $49 when I purchased, but Margaret’s information disagrees with that of Aubrey’s…?)

In any case, Margaret fixed my fare. Now I’m directing my energy into helping Kevin and Coley find resolution, and is to see this website bug, and the ensuing customer experience, fixed.

I believe that there are various factors that contribute to the mysteriously lost reservations…

  1. Both Coley and I use Safari on Mac, which is the oversimplified answer by Virgin America. I’ve flown 17 times, and booked more flights on Virgin America using this same exact setup. It’s not just the browser and javascript.
  2. Both Coley and I used the feature to forward the itinerary to another person/email address.
  3. I was told that the fare changed while I was in the process of booking, causing the error. However, I have had this happen before, and have seen the errors presented in the UI and you simply choose another price point, or a different flight. Incidentally, this was when I was attempting to book two tickets for one flight at the same time.

Perhaps some combination of these variables combine to cause this bug. Perhaps there are additional quirks before it’s reproducible. Either way, I hope to work with the Virgin America web team to figure it out.

Some suggestions for the web team?

  • Treat a flight purchase like that of a Ticketmaster ticket purchase. The seats should be yours for a timed limited duration of time during the purchase process. Buying airline tickets on a web site should not feel like a game of musical chairs where someone might swipe the seat from beneath you (or in this case the seat at specific fare price).
  • Aubrey, the customer care rep, told me that when you book a flight for someone other than yourself, it does not appear in your Elevate account, that only your personal flights show up. I find this strange, because presumably if I’m booking a ticket for someone else, I’ll probably want to continue to assist this person through out the rest of the experience–for instance, checking them in for their flight, and being able to modify the ticket. It’s my credit card, on my account. I should be able to do what I want, and see the booking on my account!

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