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  • Mark Whitworth

Virgin Atlantic – You might want to think twice, but it's alright.


The original booking, MEX-LHR return $2554.

It has become common knowledge that Virgin Atlantic have become serial offenders when it comes to overbooking, but this is a perfectly legal way for an airline to do business, even if it is of questionable morality. Life in the airline game is hard, and it must be challenging trying to maximise loads and yield; I should know; it is a job I used to do!


However, there are other questionable airline practices that might be regarded as somewhat less legitimate. I will outline the idea by illustrating the events surrounding my own recent experience with Virgin Atlantic. I should point out that the second but last paragraph is the most important, but a bit of background is required.


I had booked two return tickets from Mexico City to London Heathrow via New York, booked online in Mexico through Virgin Atlantic. As Virgin Atlantic do not operate MEX-JFK, or vice versa, these legs were supplied by their partner, Aeromexico. I should point out that Aeromexico was superb in every regard, and I have no complaints about the Mexican airline.


The problem occurred on the New York to London leg, which Virgin Atlantic operated. Unfortunately, the aircraft had suffered a lightning strike on landing. It is even more unfortunate, and some might say careless, that the damage caused was not spotted for several hours until the new crew commenced their checks and the passengers were ready to board. It was then the delay was announced, first one hour, then two until we were told the flight was delayed 24 hours. The following morning, we were advised the flight was cancelled, and we had been re-booked on a KLM flight via Amsterdam, which was to leave 48 hours after our original departure time.


Lightning striking an aircraft. Photo: The Daily Express.

Everyone understands that if an aircraft is unsafe, it should not fly; that bit is easy. We also understood that a 48-hour delay was the price you might have to pay when airlines are trying to maximise their load factors. It appeared that Virgin Atlantic would be generous (in fact, they told us they would be both verbally and in writing); they would cover the costs of hotels, transport, and meals. It was irritating that they also said they would not help us arrange accommodation, particularly as we were in transit and did not know the New York area. However, they told us looking for accommodation had proved difficult for them when they tried earlier in the day, so they clearly needed a break. Their exhaustion was a sight to behold, the poor dears.



Our hotel in Long Beach, NY. There was almost nothing to do in Long Beach. Photo: M. Whitworth

And it was not easy! Eventually, after an hour of trying to get a room, we found one, even if it was some distance away in Long Beach. Still, it was midnight, and we had no other options. Although this is not part of the story, our total bill for two nights came to $1125.66 for hotel, meals and transport. Initially, Virgin Atlantic said they would only pay $724.36, only relenting when I wrote back, reminding them of the original commitments from their ground staff.


I suppose this should be the first piece of advice. Get receipts for everything and make a second complaint if they initially fail to cover your costs; we improved their offer by 55% with a straightforward email.


Virgin Atlantic will hide behind a law they will quote as the EC261/2004 care package, one of the most bizarre pieces of legislation ever to protect a customer. It seems to be the EU who set this up, but the UK has continued it since BREXIT. However, what they did regarding our booking was not covered by this regulation, and the only approach open to me is litigation.


This availability was accessed about 5 hours before our KLM flight; but departed an hour before it.

As previously stated, Virgin Atlantic booked us onto a KLM flight from JFK to Heathrow via Amsterdam. I decided to upgrade us on the KLM flight to give us more legroom; it cost $196. While I was doing this, without thinking, I thought I would check Virgin Atlantic's availability. It was astonishing to find out that they had flights on sale for the very evening that they had put us onto a KLM flight; not only better-timed flights but also direct into Heathrow. I took screenshots (left) of this availability.


We arrived at JFK early, and I went immediately to the Virgin desk. Within a few minutes, they realised the seriousness of the situation and acted to correct the hole they had dug for themselves.


Here is a simple comparison:

  • I pay for a Mini Cooper, but I am told I cannot have it.

  • I am given a Dacia Sandero instead on which I pay for a spare wheel.

  • At the same time, the Mini Cooper I originally paid for is being sold to another customer at a higher price than I originally paid.

These were the seats listed as empty.

Virgin seats that should have been made available to me were being sold to another customer when I had to put up with the extra time switching aircraft in Amsterdam. Additionally, Virgin Atlantic was selling one-way seats JFK-LHR at $1050 each. Our entire bill for the return trip from Mexico was $1277 each.


There is a phrase about smelling a rat; this is a rat so high it must have been festering for years. Just how long has this been going on?


Although Virgin Atlantic's JFK desk understood the seriousness of this complaint, their customer services team, who seem to be based in the UK, did not. While it is clear they were selling flight seats on my revised day of travel, only they will know if they were selling seats the day before or even on the day we were initially supposed to travel.


An additional irritant is that Virgin Atlantic refused to have anything to do with the KLM booking and refund the extra charges we made, saying the booking was nothing to do with them. Honestly! They made the booking! They would also not countenance repaying the £200+ that I lost on a London hotel I had booked, even though it directly resulted from Virgin Atlantic's cancellation.


My problem is that I am based in Mexico, not the US, the UK, or even the EU; it makes litigation problematic. Any law company that would like to step in, you are more than welcome, and for any additional recovered costs, I would happily split 50:50.


https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/travel/flight-changes/ They might work for you!

So, this is the second piece of advice. If Virgin Atlantic take you off a flight for whatever reason, or if Virgin Atlantic delay you for whatever reason, immediately check what they have on sale that you could be transferred to because, in all likelihood, they will not do this. As the Virgin Atlantic desk clerk in JFK said, "It's complicated. It's always a state of flux." It may be so, but they should do their jobs properly and look after existing customers before trying to rope in more.


On a more mundane matter, the return flights were uneventful, although the Virgin Atlantic leg was quite uncomfortable. Why Aeromexico can outshine Virgin Atlantic in practically every department is beyond me, and to think, I used to be a big fan of Branson's baby—no more!


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