John Walker's Electronic House

A Complaint: Virgin Atlantic

by on Jul.16, 2006, under Rants

Dear Virgin Atlantic,

I am writing regarding the flight VS019 on the 11th July 2006. Yes, that one.

I understand the flight has already entered legend amongst your staff. This letter should come as little surprise.

Due to leave at 11.00, we were boarded promptly after 10.30, and I took my seat in the economy section. While your airline is by far the best in terms of in-flight entertainment, food and service for the economy flier, it is of course one of the least generous with regards to seat space, and as such we were all squeezed into our narrow gaps and awaited the rather daunting prospect of an 11 hour flight to San Francisco.

The captain came on the tannoy to announce that there would be a “three minute delay” as we waited for a space in which to take off.

Half an hour later the captain decided he might as well say something else. There was a problem with the plane. They would get back to us with more information very soon.

Half an hour later we were once more considered worthy of being spoken to. We’d been on board for an hour and a half now, and had only taxied a few hundred yards. It didn’t feel well enough on our way to receive so little information. The engineers need to take us back to a gate to check the plane. We were soon being towed back to where we started.

Roughly another half hour passed, and we were then told that the engineers would be back with an estimate in “ten to fifteen minutes”.

Fourty-five minutes later the captain found time in his busy schedule to give an announcement. It was a problem with the hydraulics. It would take between three to four hours to fix. We would have to leave the plane. It was, by this point, 13.15. Buses were on their way.

The buses arrived to pick us up at 16.15.

At no point was an explanation given. In fact, at one point two hours went past without an announcement. The cabin crew said they knew nothing, which appeared true. That the door to the plane was open from 13.15 onward would suggest that at any point any member of the plane’s crew could have escaped to seek explanation. Oh, and the plane’s air conditioning broke at about 13.30.

By 15.00, having been on the plane for four hours, the personal air blowers began to blow only hot air. It was extremely hot on the plane. Fortunately at this point it occurred to the crew to offer us water. No food, of course, because it was needed for the flight, and where on earth would they find more aeroplane food at an airport?!

After a number of passengers suggested that they might want to turn on the in-flight entertainment if we weren’t going to be either flying or getting off the plane, it was announced that they would! Hooray! At least we could watch one of the 50 movies or many television programmes to pass the time… No, of course not. Only the Virgin promotional travel programme was put on. I believe SEVEN times in a row.

I think it might have been at around 15.00 that we were told we’d be receiving vouchers for when (if) we got back to the terminal with which we could get meals. We were told by the cabin crew at one point that the ground staff had told them the delay was due to their needing to print out the vouchers. They arrived, soon after 16.00, handed out one by one by a total of two people. They were hand written. And for an astonishing £10. Have you ever bought a meal in an airport? No, I didn’t think so.

Once we had received our scrap of paper with “£10” scrawled on it, we were released onto the buses. They took us back to the departure terminal… No of course they didn’t! They took all 450 of us to a line for a baggage check in a corridor with no ventilation or air conditioning! That’s right – a baggage check! Because while on the plane, about a third of the passengers had been fashioning knives and bombs from toilet tissue and in-flight entertainment magazines, and a decent proportion of them could easily have finished. Well, that line only lasted about 45 minutes, and once our bags had been rechecked for all improvised WMDs, we were let loose to splash out on ten pounds of food. Two sandwiches and a cup of coffee later I laid back satiated… Sorry, I mean, wandered around aimlessly, hot and miserable and so frustrated at the appalling lack of information. After a couple of hours I thought to go to the Virgin information desk to see if anything was known.

“Gate 25.”
“But there’s nothing on the board.”
“Gate 25.”
“When will it take off?”
“When everyone gets on.”
“But it’s not on the board!”
“Gate 25.”

I check the board, but it was not there. I told people I recognised from our earlier five and a half hours sat on the plane the news, and the rest of my party, and made my way to Gate 25 where I informed the staff that they had failed to TELL ANYONE THAT THE SODDING FLIGHT WAS READY. They put it on the boards. We filled the plane.

“We apologise for the delay, and any inconvenience this might have caused,” read the new captain off his piece of paper.

The entire plane joined in a chorus of disgusted laughter and booing.

Ten and a half hours later we arrived in San Francisco, nine hours late.

Yours sincerely,
John Walker

8 Comments for this entry

  • wiper

    My word, you did have a good trip. Makes fun experiences with airlines, starting with Perth airport (the one far south, rather than a bit north), seem considerably more bearable. But still, flight companies are useless. Let’s swap stories:

    You’d think, perhaps, that when you have departed with over a thousand British pounds for a return flight to a far-off country (for a five month period, no less), that said company might try to keep you abreast of developments. Such as, for example, the cancellation of one of the flights supposed to be getting you back home after your five months of toil are done. Of course this isn’t the case, as they assume that you, working in the middle of the outback, will have plenty of opportunities to check in with a friendly QANTAS office to check on your flights.

    That it would be a trifling matter for them to perhaps email you with these details is of no concern, regardless of the fact that you have paid for a service from them, QANTAS will lift no finger to try and ensure you get home.

    Fortunately, I was never so naive as to leave my wellbeing entirely in their hands, and thought to check my flights (through the medium of the village hall near my workplace, which happened to be blessed with two internet-capable PC’s) a month before I was due to return. I was intrigued to discover that my flight no longer existed. Prompted by this to, on my next weekend, travel the four hour car journey back to a town with a QANTAS shop, so I could discuss my options.

    This was a little over two years ago, so the conversation that happened within is heavily paraphrased, but it stays true to actual events:

    “Hi, I was wondering if you could help me, as you can see I have a pre-booked flight to London -” handing over tickets “-only the first flight no longer seems to exist”
    “Ah, yes, that can happen.”

    I wait for further advice, but none is proferred.
    “Um, so how can I get home?”
    “Hmm. I’ll have to see if we can move you onto another flight.” Plays with their PC for a bit. “Ah, here we go, there’s an earlier flight you can catch which’ll make your connection”
    “Oh good, that’s a relief, what time’s it at?”
    “It leaves Adelaide at 6a.m.”
    Ah. “Oh… um, I’m going to have quite a bit of a wait at Perth aren’t I.”
    “I’m afraid so.”
    “No chance of moving me onto another flight at Perth to cut down on waiting?”
    “Well, it’s possible, but we’d have to charge you for it”
    “Hmm… how much?”
    “[some cruel number comfortably equivalent to over a hundred pounds]”
    “Ah. Oh well, I guess I’ll pass on that. Can I get my first flight sorted now? That’s free, right?”
    “Of course, just let me make some changes and you’ll be sorted”

    And so I ended up, a month later, getting up at three a.m. to make a four a.m. coach to catch the six a.m. plane, getting to Perth, waiting six hours – entirely alone for the first four apart from the occasional cleaner (even getting quizzed by security as to what I was doing in that particular departure lounge as there were no planes for so long), and finally catching my (hour late) plane to Singapore.

    Whereupon problems befell my final flight, the one to take me to Heathrow. Having all been rushed off the plane by staff to make our various connections, we were shoed onto a nice 747 with the intention of leaving immediately. Of course, this wasn’t to happen. The plane taxied for a short distance, before rolling to a halt. We sat in silence for 10 minutes before the captain announced that one of the engines wasn’t working properly, and would need maintenence.

    So we waited for maintenence. And waited. In Singapore. During the night/morning, but still comfortably above 30 degrees. I was used to temperatures in this range by now, so wasn’t too bothered – at first. Unfortunately, without the engines on, there was no air conditioning, and held in a large tin filled with other hot and sweaty passengers, things gradually got hotter, and more humid. Fortunately the maintenence only ended up taking an hour and a half, and we were finally on our way, and more importantly were able to bask in the breeze of overworked air conditioning.

    I eventually arrived back in Heathrow, got on a train, got home, greeted my parents, and was forced to sit down at a pub with them, near-catatonic as I was from having been awake and travelling for nearly two days. Another two hours crawled by and I was finally allowed to slouch home and collapse.

    In summation: I look forward to the day when the oil runs out, as it will ensure I never fly again, and will presumably be far enough into the future that my parents won’t be around to keep me awake any more. Yippee!

  • Enki

    Unfortunately being unusually long in the leg, I am forced to choose airline based on a ratio of leg room : length of flight : price (There’s actually a variety of websites on the subject of exactly how many inches each airline/plane combination will provide in each class). It never ceases to amaze me that, on the occasion I fly a short distance and so choose price over comfort, the check-in staff deem I am unsuitable to be the designated exit person. I’m in my 20s, and regularly run around with 16 stone on my back.. i’m pretty much the poster boy for someone to manage to open a door. Yet everytime I still seem to get overlooked (even if we arrive ridiculously early for checkin) for getting those elusive seats with legroom. So far the only time i’ve managed to acquire one was when I pointed out to the cabin crew that on this particular flight it was physically impossible for me to sit in a regular seat, as the distance from seat front to seat back was less than the length of my femur. THEN they actually had the decency to seat me between two 5’2″ 80 year olds who had the exit aisle seats.

    If you really want hell at the airport though, wait til they lose a passenger. Been there, done that, delayed our flight by at least 3 hours. After sitting on the plane for about half an hour with nothing seeming to happen we were finally informed that we were “waiting for one more passenger”. As time passed everyone regressed to their childhood and began manufacturing spitballs and paper airplanes to assault the offending individual when they arrived. One man started to sharpen his shoe. About 45 minutes later, we were finally told that the passenger who clearly wasn’t keen on flying through the air today still could not be located, and they had in fact given up the search for them. Hooray! If the first 10 rows would like to return to the Terminal now, we can begin identifying the baggage. What? Boo! 20 minutes later, our plane is empty and everyone is milling around not really knowing where they are meant to be. After another half an hour we finally get directed to some strange room full of tables that assumedly is part of the baggage haulers mysterious Fortress of Hammers and find roughly 200 suitcases around and about. About 20 minutes into the search for all our bags, we realised why the carousels are there, because otherwise finding your own bag is a fucking nightmare (especially the last one.. “Have you checked over in this corner? What about this pile over here?”). Finally it seems everyone has managed to identify their things, the last couple of offending suitcases are executed by firing squad, and all the passengers reseated themselves. Wait for the bags to arrive, be reloaded, and us to get a takeoff spot and then we’re finaly good to go. At the time no-one was sure who to be more annoyed at, the passenger who never turned up or the airline company for messing us around. I certainly knew who I felt like blaming after a conversation that roughly follows the belwo with the cabin crew:

    “So why did we have to take the missing passengers bag off the plane?”
    “Security Reasons”
    “What? In case there was a bomb in it? Don’t all the cases get checked anyway?”
    “Well yes….”
    “But not to a degree where you’re certain? So there could be someone on this plane right now with a suitcase full of TNT and a fuse in their hand?”
    “No that couldn’t happen sir…”
    “Then why the hell did we need to offload those cases and delay the flight, you could have just put them on the next one back”
    “Security Reasons”

  • Maddy

    It’s not as good as mine! However, I’m crap at writing things down like you grown up people.

    Malaga was having a heatwave, and it was about 40C. We arrived at the airport at about 1pm, and boarded our plane at 3pm. Waited for take off for an hour, as we were delayed by missing passengers. When the plane actually started, there was a huge squealing noise and the whole thing shook. The Captain then announced that the steering had broken slightly and the brakes were completely gone. And we were still going to attempt to fly back to Heathrow. Everyone was protesting and trying to leave, so the Captain decided to take us back to the airport, as apparently,” it wouldn’t be such a good idea to fly”.

    So we got chaparoned back to the airport by spanish armed police who kept waving their guns around in an attempt to look cool or something. We were told that it would take about an hour to be fixed, so we waited for another two hours and still nothing happened, so they decided to make us sleep in the hot, cramped airport floor, not even offering us blankets, hotel rooms or any food/drink.

    The next morning about 10am we were finally given 12 euros each to buy breakfast, which by this time had been eaten, so there was basically no food for us to have.

    We were told at 2pm that our plane was coming into the airport. We all gathered at the windows to watch our plane arrive and then head off again. They had no explanation for this and had to get another plane to get us.

    Finally, at 4pm we boarded our flight.

    25 hours at the airport! And no decent shops!

  • Enki

    The only time i’ve had to sleep over due to flights being scuppered was being in Atlanta when Katrina hit. As ALL the hotels were getting full we booked into the Hilton and claimed it back on travel insurance.

    Best. Delay. Ever.

  • Kieron Gillen

    You’ve all made me scared to go to the airport in an hour.


  • Steve W

    Then drive at half the speed.

  • Julie

    Hi John

    Virgin’s seat pitch is 31′ – pretty sucky for a long-haul flight. The standard is 31-34′ for Coach. Next time you fly, check out It’s a summary of airline seat pitches, and there are traveler reviews up there too.

    Airlines aren’t permitted to break the seals on food intended for in-flight service while on the ground. It’s a Customs thing. Eh, I don’t know. Ten pounds is a pittance at an airport though…

    A question, if I may: couldn’t you while away the waiting time by creating a new Brian or two? I miss the little guy…

    – Julie