Virgin America’s Web Site Meltdown: Four Weeks and Counting

By  |  Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 2:04 am

Virgin America LogoI can’t think of many companies, in any line of business, which I like as much as I like Virgin America. I’ve often said that if I could only fly to destinations served by this airline–with its mellow and helpful people, universal in-flight Wi-Fi, and many 0ther attractions–I would.

But in the past two and a half weeks, I’ve taken four Virgin America flights, and found its Web site completely crippled. Everything I want to do on an airline site, I can’t do.

  • Most of my flights haven’t shown up in my account;
  • Even with a confirmation number, I sometimes haven’t been able to check in online (or using the machines at the airport);
  • I tried to buy a ticket for another trip online, and got a message saying it didn’t go through–and then an e-mail confirmation saying I had bought a ticket;
  • When I tried to cancel that ticket on the Virgin Web site, it told me I had to click a button on the bottom of the page–and there was no button;
  • When I try–repeatedly–to make a change to yet another trip, all seems well until the very end–when I get bounced back to the home page without the change having been made;
  • The points I’ve been theoretically accruing for recent trips aren’t appearing in my account.

At the moment, the Virgin America site is so broken that its press section has an error message where the press releases should be.

The Twitter chatter about Virgin America is rife with tweets from unhappy campers, some of who are crabbier than I am…

Many of the complainers refer to interminable wait times on Virgin’s phone line; presumably, it’s being flooded with calls from people who are currently unable to get anything done online.

The woes stem from Virgin’s switchover from its old reservation system, iFly, to the industry’s 800-pound gorilla, Sabre. The change happened on October 28th, and the company knew it wouldn’t be silky-smooth: It suspended ticket sales that weekend, beefed up its phone staff, and warned customers about potential snafus. But it apparently expected things to be largely back to normal after the first weekend.

Instead, almost four weeks later, the glitches persist. The more things I try to do on the site, the more I discover that’s busted.

Virgin isn’t trying to cover up the problems. There’s a large announcement of them on its home page, as well as a detailed accounting of what’s not working. Nor is the airline discounting the inconvenience they present to travelers. In fact, the @virginamerica Twitter feed is currently dominated by apologies and attempts to resolve issues.

And after a flight earlier this month–which was trouble-free–both my wife and I received unsolicited form e-mails signed by Virgin America President/CEO David Cush in which he acknowledged problems, apologized, and said we’d get 5000 complimentary points apiece in our frequent-flyer accounts. (That’s enough for a free short-haul round trip.)

Then again, the e-mail from Cush, which was dated on November 9th, almost two weeks after the switchover, also said “Over the next week, we expect to work through and address the final website-related issues associated with the transition.” That didn’t happen: Most of the problems I’ve encountered happened starting on November 18th, when I took a trip to Chicago and found I couldn’t check myself in at home or at the airport.

So what’s going on?

Virgin ErrorTo find out, I contacted Virgin America, which sent my inquiry right to the top. I ended up speaking with President/CEO Cush, who’s been in the airline business for more than two decades.

He pointed out that other airlines such as WestJet and JetBlue, have struggled with system migrations. (Here’s an interesting article with lots of details about just why they’re so painful.) But he didn’t mince words, describing the aftershocks of the switchover as “extremely irritating” for Virgin America customers.

“These are difficult transitions,” he said, “but this has been more difficult than we expected.”

Cush told me that he pushed to move to Sabre quickly because the existing reservations system, iFly, couldn’t keep up with Virgin’s rate of expansion. The airline has grown by 50 percent over the past 18 months and expects to grow another 30 percent in the next year. It needs to be able to deal with big-airline complications such as bookings through third-party sites, code-share flights, and reciprocal frequent-flyer program agreements with airlines in other countries.

“I went into this with my eyes wide open…We were in a race against time,” he explained. “I was willing to change on this accelerated schedule because staying with the old system might have been catastrophic–it would go down for days at a time.”

(I knew that already–in fact, I wrote about an extended breakdown last May.)

The new system, Cush said, powers far more than the Virgin site and airport self-service terminals, including flight planning and crew scheduling. Most of the behind-the-scenes functions are already working well, he told me. And he said there are signs that the situation for customers is improving: Web check-ins, which had fallen to about 20 percent of all check-ins, are now in the high thirties, close to their typical 40 percent. The average hold time for phone callers is now under 30 minutes; that doesn’t sound so spectacular, but it’s an improvement over the recent figure.

Virgin continues to work on ironing out the new system’s remaining kinks, and plans to give its site a major update on December 1st. “I’m confident–and crossing my fingers–that it will solve most of our remaining problems,” Cush told me. Another update is scheduled for December 8th.

I’m crossing my fingers, too. The site’s woes have made clear to me, in a way I didn’t quite understand, that modern businesses, of all sorts, don’t have Web sites. To a remarkable degree, they are Web sites.

Virgin says that the system failure hasn’t affected the flights themselves, and once I’ve gotten airborne, the four trips I’ve taken in November have been just as pleasant as usual. But it can’t go back to being a great airline until it has a Web site that doesn’t require any apologies or explanations.

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27 Comments For This Post

  1. Yash Says:

    poor virgin!! i liked richard branson!!

  2. @colincrook Says:

    Thanks for digging into this Harry. I just booked my flights for CES on Virgin American. It started off really slow, but the site jumped into gear once I refreshed and got my "dates" filled in. The site's been struggling, big time, but yesterday afternoon it performed better.

    I'd like to tip my cap to Virgin America. They are being so proactive about addressing this. Things that are broken make for good discussion, and it's certainly newsworthy, but I'm really interested in how businesses handle these problems. Virgin America will keep my business in the end. Just one reader's thoughts…

  3. Harry McCracken Says:

    They're working hard to deal with a very difficult situation,

  4. Christian Goetze Says:

    I can only imagine…

  5. Steven Bordovo Says:

    I think they were sabotaged by one of the other airlines like United. I guess it was done through Sabre to screw up Virgin's business. I would have to say that if I was that loser airline United, that's what I would try to do (Actually I would try to emulate Virgin, but I guess United or some other sore loser is trying to hurt them). Business is business and all of those that think I am some paranoid man, I refer you to Intel's CEO quote, "only the paranoid survive." I can think it up, it is plausible that it might happen. There is definitely motive and for God's sake, could you imaging it taking this long for real in the real world to integrate over to a new system like Sabre. Please, it had to have been done before the switchover and this is a glitch that takes 4 weeks to cure?! That smells fishy to me.

  6. ranndino Says:

    Don't let the facts get in the way of a good rant based purely on baseless speculation, right?

    You obviously don't work in tech if you think that a major switch from reservations system to the next can't go wrong & take 4 weeks to fix. I hope they sort if out soon because it's without a doubt the best airline I've ever flown on.

  7. The_Heraclitus Says:

    My favorite is Air Tahiti Nui. Fortunately I can take them from LA to Paris. They write your reservation in the sand. 😉

  8. Digital Fruit Says:

    Amazing to see a company actually admit their errors, and honestly, I think that will help to keep them from losing as many customers as they might have. Sony pissed off a lot of people when they tried to cover up and ignore their PSN scandal, and they are still feeling the repercussions.



  10. legos82 Says:

    @PATRICIA EPP go back to school. Did u not just read this article? Big whoop the website is crippled because at the end they still will be the best domestic airline.

  11. ranndino Says:

    One obvious question that you didn't ask is how did this happen? Why wasn't the old system run in parallel while the new system was being tested in the background. The old system should've been kept running as a backup in case the new one fails. It sounds like they tried to cut corners and do it quickly, on the cheap, which is the fault of upper management so it wouldn't have been a good question to ask of the CEO.

    To give an analogy what they did is kind of like this. This parachute we've been using works well. We just got this new one. We have a pretty good idea that it may not open. OK, screw it, let's jump with a new one and hope for the best.

    I hope they fix it soon because I do like them a lot as an airline, but I'm disappointed with the softball questions you've asked. It was almost like you were so grateful and impressed to get access to the CEO that you forgot to actually do your job as a reporter and ask hard questions.

  12. Sky Challenger Says:

    @ ranndino – you have completly no idea what you are talking about, it shows you have never been educated about airline business and how reservation systems work. It is virtually impossible to run two RSV systems in the same time, it is not a video game. Those systems are connected to ATC, FAA, dispatch and ultimately responsible for running entire airline. To make you think a bit I will use more drastic example – when you have a heart transplant do you run new heart and old heart in the same time? No, you have to stop the old one in order to replace with new one. The same is with RSV systems in the airline, it is virtually the heart of the airline, it can not run withought it. I work for their competition, but I understand their problems because my airline went throe the same in the recent past. Also the reason why the had to go with the change is the fact they grew a lot recently and considering approaching holiday season the had a vision of the old system crashing for days with amount of reservations they expected – it would practically shut down the airline completly and forever… So as you see MR – it is not as simple as you may think, but what can you expect if you are sitting at home in your armchair in the front of the fire place and think that all is a s simple as changing your sweater for a jacket…

  13. skyhostess Says:

    One error in your article – a much larger airline- went through a conversion to Sabre and it made nearly a blip on the Customer Service screen. Save a few small occasional technical glitches, the airlines reservation system, custmoer service kiosks, reservation systems and airport counters and gates continued to operate as usual. Pointing the finger at Westjet and JetBlue to make Virgin's failures look normal is a gross exaggeration of the facts.

  14. skyhostess Says:

    I meant to add that airline was JetBlue, whose transition to Sabre was the gold standard for such a transition.

  15. david Says:

    Yes, I concer with "Skyhostess." Jetblue's transition to Sabre was virtually flawless, so it can be done. Having flown both airlines, both good airlines, I think that VA has a lot of catching up to do. Jetblue, in just 11+ years has grown from a "mom and pop," into one of the major US players, and they still haven't lost their humility. VA is an airline that has tried, in some ways, to emulate Jetblue, but in the end, they're still "small potatoes."

  16. deysofsummer Says:

    @david VX best airline in the nation 4 years in a row. Small potatoes? Learn your airline codes.

  17. blue Says:

    No offense folks, but I beg to differ with those who say JetBlue's transition was 'flawless'. Two years later I still want to bang my head against the wall over Sabre.

  18. marta Says:

    Simply put, bad service from a business , no excuses after 4 weeks. Hand writing boarding passes and making people at the airport stand in a line 20 people long forever. Bad service from a business, stop making excuses. Good bye Virgin America.

  19. SF Biz Traveler Says:

    Harry- thanks for the great piece, it calmed me down for a few days – that was until tonight, on hold with two different phones, for 3 hours each! Just trying to get on an earlier flight. The website is broken and there's not enough seats on the earlier flight that I should risk heading to the airport just in case I can still get a seat. Probably worth mentioning i've got over 100,000 miles on VA and was a founding member of their membership program. Doesn't seem to matter much though, I'm suffering the same as everyone else – that's one way to build loyalty. Anyway, if you talk to the CEO again – maybe suggest rather than flying in row 4 to get the "customer" experience, he tries changing a flight online and on the phone – that's the real customer experience.

  20. Harry McCracken Says:

    Interesting! They did say that they don’t plan to fix most of the problems until December 1st, so it’s not surprising you still encountered glitches. For what it’s worth, my most recent encounter with the site went OK. But some of my points are still missing.

    And yes, it would be great if the CEOs of airlines were required to make their own reservations over the Web and via phone so they can experience it all for themselves.


  21. Marc Says:

    Well a lot of people like(d) Virgin America and I understand why since I fly with them frequently. Well at least until this happened. The amount of problems with the website are not accounted for by switching the back-end. It is funny how I have been able to book flights successfully through this transition, however it seems like most of the site functionality relating to emails, customer contact, elevate, managing flights, viewing itinerary, getting receipts, etc have been and are still broken after 4 1/2 weeks. Also if one airline was able to make the transition appear almost seem-less (haha) to their customers then it follows that others should be able to do the same. Evidently, no lessons were learned. Also there is no valid reason the back-end couldn't have been provided and applied to a testing front-end website until it passed at least minimal quality checks. A large portion of the failure to provide quality service to their customers does and has to lie with Virgin. The question is how much and how soon will it be fixed. I am sure a lot more questions are being asked inside of Virgin. Funny point being made about the 5000 points being added to your elevate account. I am wondering how you verified it or how Virgin would? 🙂

  22. Tga Says:

    Business is business. You may or may not get second chances, but excuses are not the same as prevention of substantial mitigation / contingency plans (e.g. hiring an extra outside call center at any cost, perhaps; or free flight vouchers, etc.). Let Virgin face the consequences and hope it is a lesson to other businesses.

  23. john Says:

    It's December 27, 2011 and the Customer Experience has not improved. I've been on phone hold for 30 minutes – greeted by a warning stating Res. Agents can not currently not see future flight bookings on their system. Wow! Enough with the stories and excuses. Simply put, if the CEO and CTO are still employed, Richard Branson is drinking his own Kool-aid.

  24. Matthew W. Says:

    This article made it sound that 6 weeks ago Virgin America was doing everything in its power to try to make good to its customers. I disagree. The customer support representatives have resorted to hanging up when you mention that your 'booked' flight disappeared from your account and that you need to rebook. I had to book with JetBlue because Virgin wouldn't even help me rebook on the flight i was trying to take home for Christmas. No apologies. No explanations. Just dial tone. And before some smartass accuses me of being an idiot or makes another smart remark, I am always very polite on the phone and i LOVED Virgin America before all of this. However, if a company cannot even offer decent customer service to help get customers booked, I say "goodbye".

  25. Peter B Says:

    Wow, Virgin America has REALLY messed up?! Are they going bust? They refuse to change, cancel or refund flights and THEY WONT ANSWER THEIR PHONE!!! Does the FAA know about this?

  26. eva Says:

    I booked two non-refundable tickets to DC for a funeral. They charged me the "refundable" ticket rate, which is twice as much. I have now wasted several hours trying to fix the problem.

    The flights themselves were a disaster with 3+hr delays in both the return and departure. Virgin – what's happening to you? You used to be my favorite airline!

    And where is your customer service? Each time I call, the wait time is estimated at 30-50 minutes! This is ridiculous.

  27. @austingeidt Says:

    the site is still BEYOND wonky. I can't cancel a flight. Or change a flight. It won't let me enter payment information most times. I can't get through on the phone. Customer Support won't write me back. Twitter doesn't get me a response. I work for a startup in transportation and our CEO would have the engineers up nights and nights until the product was fixed (along with our community team who would respond to every tweet and ticket asap). It's been almost 4 months…UNACCEPTABLE.