virgin atlantic

Are lax rules slowing down airline ticket refunds?

Kathleen and Eugene Bianucci paid $5,770 for a pair of round-trip tickets between San Francisco and Dublin this year on Virgin Atlantic Airways. A few days before their trip, Kathleen, a fitness instructor from San Bruno, Calif., broke her leg and had to be hospitalized for a week. Her doctor grounded her for six months, and when she told the airline about the accident, a representative promised her a full refund.
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Ridiculous or not? Airlines fall in love with fuel surcharges all over again

When Sylvia Dawson tried to book airline tickets from New York to London for a group traveling next month, she was taken aback by the fare.

“We were told by Virgin Atlantic that there would be a fuel surcharge of $98 per person,” she says.

Dawson isn’t a novice who would be shocked by news like that. She’s a travel agent who specializes in tours to England, and books a lot of flights over the pond. The reservation was for a group of 20 clients headed to the U.K. on a tour.

“We know that the price of oil has skyrocketed,” she says. “But this group has been booked with Virgin since the beginning of the year. It seems that the increase is somewhat over the top.”

Worse, her group couldn’t pull out of the trip without incurring heavy penalties. The airline had them over a barrel, figuratively speaking. Either they would pay 14 percent more for the price of their tickets or lose their vacations.

Fuel surcharges are a peculiar thing. On domestic flights, the price of fuel must be included in the base fare quoted to passengers. But international flights aren’t regulated the same way, and an airline can quote a low base fare but then add a “fuel surcharge” later.

Is Virgin Atlantic out of line?
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Strike update: Virgin Atlantic deploys larger aircraft to accommodate stranded air travelers

virgin2You knew this would happen.

Virgin Atlantic Airways just announced it would deploy larger aircraft on key routes over the 12 days of the planned British Airways cabin crew strike “in order to carry stranded passengers.”

Virgin Atlantic has identified a number of flights on routes such as New York (Newark), Boston, Washington and Delhi where it is feasible to operate the flights with larger aircraft. These selected flights will now be operated by an Airbus A340-600 rather than an A340-300, thereby providing 68 extra seats per flight. The extra seats will go on sale over the next 24 hours.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are bitter rivals, of course. Which makes the following quote from Virgin’s Richard Branson so — well, let me just play the clip for you:

It is a nightmare for passengers, and you have to feel for them at Christmas time. Any strike would obviously be extremely damaging to everybody – the company, employees and most importantly the traveling public.

But a good PR opportunity for Virgin Atlantic. Why else would you issue a news release on this? (Actually, let me rephrase: What took you so long?)

Meanwhile, British Airways has bigger fish to fry. It’s going after its own employees.
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“Should I just take the money and run?”

virginatlanticMegan Boing booked two tickets from Chicago to London on Virgin Atlantic Airways for her honeymoon. Then the airline canceled her flights.

Normally, it would offer her two options: either a full refund or a new flight of its choosing.

But that’s not what happened.
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Has Virgin Atlantic deflowered EU Rule 261?

The European Union has some of the toughest passenger rights laws on the books. But is Virgin Atlantic thumbing its nose at the rules?

EU Rule 261 says delayed passengers must be compensated a minimum of €250, and a recent court decision says airlines may not use a mechanical delay loophole to get out of their obligation. Yet that is precisely what happened to Adam Giusti, who was flying from Newark to London on Dec. 26.

When we arrived at the airport to check-in, we were told that one of the planes engine’s had failed and we would not leave for London that night. The replacement part for the plane was brought in from another airport that night and the engine was repaired. Our departure was delayed until the next day. Virgin Atlantic put us up in a hotel for the night. Upon speaking with a Virgin Atlantic representative at EWR the next morning, she assured us that we would be able to recoup damages.

Under Article 6 of the rule (PDF) Giusti is entitled to €600.

Virgin Atlantic disagreed. It sent him a letter offering 5,000 frequent flier miles, instead.

I suggested he appeal to the airline, citing the EU rule and the recent court ruling, which clearly outlined Virgin Atlantic’s responsibility. Its answer?

Virgin Atlantic has been made aware of, and are looking into the latest EU ruling on Regulation 261/04. We know that this specifically constitutes an “unexpected flight safety shortcoming” for the purpose of the exemption from compensating passengers in the event of a flight disruption. In the meantime, however, our position remains unchanged.

Any attempt to operate aircraft with known technical faults would create a flight safety shortcoming. And thereby compromise the non-negotiable basics of flight safety and security, which must be upheld by all European Union airlines. Where flight safety shortcomings are unexpected, the airline is exempt from the requirement to pay compensation.

Interestingly, this appears to be a pattern. I asked Virgin Atlantic to review an almost-identical case last week from reader Damon Anyos and it came back with an almost-identical response.

Anyos’ flight from Chicago to London was canceled for mechanical reasons. Although the airline paid for his hotel and meals, it denied his request for €600 under EU Rule 261.

According to our customer service records, Mr. Anyos was compensated appropriately as per the EU Mandated Compensation 261/2004.

Under such regulation, if Virgin Atlantic has to cancel a flight due to circumstances beyond our control and within 14 days of departure as a result of the following: operational, industrial action, political instability, weather, aircraft type grounding, air traffic control or safety reasons (technical would fall under safety), then we are not required to offer financial compensation.

We are required to rebook them on the next available flight and offer ‘care’ (which would be to pay for hotel and meals if it’s an overnight delay) which in this case we did provide.

Under EU, Virgin Atlantic isn’t obligated to offer any good will gestures, such as miles, yet due to our high level of customer care, we offered 25,000 miles as a further apology.

Indeed, Virgin seems to offer a different interpretation of its responsibility under EU rules than the EU court appears to have intended it to.

I can’t blame Virgin for its narrow take on EU Rule 261. But is it correct?

I’m not a lawyer, but I can’t imagine lawmakers intended to let airlines off the hook for a mechanical delay. If they had, then they might as well have not written it. The subsequent EU court rulings support that conclusion.

Maybe this will be an issue the courts — not the customer service agents — must decide.

Downgraded without a refund

Question: I’m having a problem with an involuntary downgrade. I bought a ticket on Virgin Atlantic Airways last March to fly from New York to London in premium economy class. When I arrived at the airport, Virgin canceled my flight but rebooked me on the next flight out on British Airways.

When I was issued my new ticket, it was in economy class. I tried to explain I should’ve been booked in the same class — in this case, World Traveller Plus — but British Airways wanted to charge me extra for it.

I’ve complained to Virgin that I should’ve at least been issued a partial refund, but haven’t heard anything. Any insight you have would be greatly appreciated. — James Simon, New York

Answer: Virgin should have either put you in the British Airways equivalent of premium economy class or refunded the price difference between the tickets.

But that’s easier said than done. Even though Virgin’s premium economy and British Airways’ World Traveller are essentially the same products — they have roughly the same amenities and services, including in-flight entertainment, meals and seats with about the same amount of space — the airlines treat the products differently in their reservations system.

It turns out you were holding a discounted ticket for Virgin Atlantic’s premium cabin. When the time came to transfer your ticket to British Airways, the airline bought you a seat in the equivalent class for that fare — which was economy class.

That’s understandable from an airline’s perspective, but I think someone should have taken the time to explain why you were being downgraded. Virgin Atlantic could have also found a way of making this up to you, either by crediting miles to your frequent flier account or by offering you a flight voucher.

Instead, you were unceremoniously sent to the back of the plane. And when you asked for compensation, you were ignored.

How could you have prevented this? I think the ideal time to resolve a problem like this is at the ticket counter, not after you land. When you saw the involuntary downgrade, you should have protested the seat reassignment politely, but firmly. As far as I can tell, Virgin’s customer contract doesn’t specifically address a downgrade such as the one you encountered. However, the fine print seems to suggest that you should be sitting in the class of service for which you paid.

I contacted Virgin on your behalf, and a representative promised to offer you $250 in ticket vouchers or 25,000 miles. It also assured me your frequent flier account would be credited with the miles, as if you had flown on Virgin instead of British Airways.

Too bad the story doesn’t end there. A month later, you had received nothing. I contacted Virgin again. It didn’t respond. So you threatened to take the company to small claims court.

Finally, the airline sent you a belated apology, depositing the promised 25,000 miles into your account and crediting you with the miles for the flights. Better late than never.

Now that fuel surcharges are being dropped, how ’bout a refund?

When an airline drops its high fuel surcharges, what happens to passengers with advance bookings? Do they get a refund?

That’s not an academic question for reader Simon Gornick, who bought a ticket on Virgin Atlantic in October from Los Angeles to London for Christmas. The price included a hefty $400 fuel surcharge.

Only a few days after making his reservation, Virgin Atlantic cut its fees.

That’s great for future bookings, but what about folks like Gornick? He phoned Virgin a few weeks later to check the price on the same flight, and found that the surcharge was gone.

That means that many people are paying the surcharge on the same flight, while others are not.

Putting aside the clear price gouging by the airlines represented by the use of the surcharge, it strikes me as grossly unfair to be penalized for an airline’s poor oil future purchases.

If any business should be well-informed about oil prices, it should be the airline industry. And with the volatility in that market, they should have paid more attention to the spot price.

Gornick contacted Virgin’s customer relations department by email, but heard nothing back.

I phoned Virgin Atlantic and asked a representative the same question. Could I get a refund if I bought the ticket in October, when the fuel surcharge was in effect?

“Unfortunately not,” I was told.

Wrong answer.

Virgin, and the other airlines that are lowering or eliminating their fuel surcharges, ought to offer a refund – or at least credit – to passengers who paid the fee. Better yet, they should eliminate fuel surcharges altogether and include the price of fuel in the fare.

Is my lost ticket a lost cause?

Question: Can you help me with an airline reservation? I recently bought a ticket on South African Airways through Virgin Atlantic Airways to fly from Los Angeles to Johannesburg. My credit card was charged and the airline promised to send me a paper ticket.

It’s been several weeks, and I haven’t received a ticket or an email confirmation from Virgin. I’ve made many, many phone calls to Virgin to find out what happened to my ticket. If possible, I’d like to make a change to the ticket, too. There’s no way to contact a manager to find out if it’s actually been mailed to me.

Do you have any contacts at Virgin who can find the ticket? — Jerry Levine, San Francisco

Answer: Yes, I have a few phone numbers at Virgin Atlantic. But it shouldn’t be necessary to make a call. The airline should have sent the ticket to you by now, and if it hasn’t, then a polite email or call should be all that it takes to track it down.

Too bad that’s not how it works. Your story about the unhelpful phone agents is becoming increasingly common in a world where airlines try to cut costs by automating their phone systems or offshoring their call centers to places where English isn’t a first language.

I think one of the reasons you were getting nowhere with the airline is that you made repeated calls. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to start your inquiry by telephone, but when it comes to follow-ups, don’t let your fingers do the walking. Try emailing the airline.

You can contact Virgin online through its Web site. Airlines generally track electronic queries more efficiently than incoming phone calls. You’ll get an automatic email acknowledging your note, followed by a meaningful reply “as quickly as possible.”

But the benefits to committing your grievance to writing go beyond the promise of a speedy resolution. You’re also saving yourself countless minutes — perhaps even hours — of having to explain yourself to the next reservations agent. That’s not a problem when you’re emailing the airline, since there’s a record of your previous correspondence.

I have good news and better news. First the good news: This particular problem is unlikely to repeat itself. Late this spring, airlines finished transitioning from paper to electronic tickets, according to the International Air Transport Association, a global trade association for the airline industry. That means any future tickets don’t need to be mailed to you. Instead, your airline will send you an electronic confirmation.

And the better news? Turns out your tickets were mailed to the wrong address. The airline resent you an electronic ticket and added 5,210 frequent flier miles to your account as an apology.

Virgin also made the change to your ticket and waived its fee.

Virgin Atlantic breaks promise, hangs downgraded passenger out to dry

As a rule, Virgin Atlantic has an excellent reputation for customer service. But there are exceptions to every rule. James Simon is one of them.

The airline has broken a promise made to him — and me — to compensate him for an involuntary downgrade.

Here’s the note I received from Simon in early August.

I bought a ticket on Virgin Atlantic last March to fly from New York to London in premium economy. When I arrived at the airport, Virgin canceled my flight but rebooked me on the next flight out on British Airways.

When I was issued my new ticket, it was in economy class. I tried to explain I should’ve been booked in the same class, in this case World Traveller Plus, but BA wanted to charge me extra for it.

I’ve complained to Virgin that I should’ve been issued a partial refund at the very least and haven’t heard anything.

I contacted Virgin on Simon’s behalf. Here’s what it had to say.

We will contact Mr. Simon and offer him $250 in customer relations vouchers or 25,000 miles. We’ll also ask Flying Club to credit him with the miles he would have earned if he’d flown on the Virgin flight rather than BA.

That’s a reasonably good solution. I passed the message along to Simon, and he waited.

And waited. And waited.

A few weeks later, he wrote to me again.

I still have not received an official response from Virgin with the compensation they say they would offer in your last email. Did they say when I should expect this?

To which I replied:

I would give them a week or two, because of all the holidays. Please let me know if you don’t hear from anyone by mid-September. I apologize for the further delays.

It’s highly unusual for a travel company to promise compensation but to not deliver it. I really believed that Virgin had gotten sidetracked. I was wrong.

Two weeks later, Simon contacted me again.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, Chris, but despite my patience, no one from Virgin has responded with the settlement you described. Please inform them that if I have not received the credit vouchers and miles in my Virgin account before the end of this week, I will file a small claims case against them in court.

I sent another note to Virgin, asking about the refund (but not mentioning the potential suit, since that often doesn’t have the intended effect).

As of today, there’s been no answer from Virgin.

At the very least, the airline ought to tell Simon if it’s had a change of heart. Perhaps it will have a chance to do that — in court.

Update (9/23): At almost literally the 11th hour, just as suit was about to be filed, and 24 hours after this post, Simon received the following letter from Virgin:

Dear Mr Simon,

Thank you for contacting Virgin Atlantic Airways.  I’m sorry that there’s been a delay in responding to you.

I understand that you had purchased a ticket to fly in Premium Economy on our airline last March, but that this flight was cancelled. You were placed instead on a British Airways flight travelling in their economy cabin and you have requested the difference in fare from our refund department.

I have followed this up for you with them,  and they advise that the type of ticket you had purchased,  was a discounted Premium Economy ticket, that although providing you Premium Economy services with Virgin Atlantic, was equivalent only to an economy fare on British Airways.  Therefore there is no refund value to the ticket.

We only cancel one of our flights if there is no other alternative, and this is a decision that is never taken lightly.  We understand how disruptive it is to our passengers, as well as to ourselves, and I sincerely apologise for the inconvenience you were caused.

I certainly recognise your disappointment however, and as a gesture of goodwill I’ve taken the liberty of adding 25,000 miles to your Flying Club account, which I do hope you’ll accept with my compliments.  I’ve also contacted our Flying Club department to ask them to credit your account with the miles for the Virgin flight as if you had flown on Virgin that morning, and this has also been done.

In closing, I would once again like to offer my sincere apologies for the inconvenience and disappointment you have experienced, and also for the tardiness of our response to you.

With kind regards,

Liz Vallez
Customer Relations – US

I love a (relatively) happy ending. Thanks, Virgin!

Greenwashed! How to spot the travel industry’s eco-lies

Book an airline ticket, save the planet.

Re-use the towel in your hotel, stop global warming. Rent a hybrid car, reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.

Lofty promises made by airlines peddling gimmicky carbon offsets, resorts hawking convoluted green initiatives and companies with shiny new fleets of high-maintenance cars to rent.

And empty promises.

In fact, there’s no credible evidence that the greening of travel is saving the Earth. But here’s what we do know. A recent Deloitte survey found that nearly half of all travelers try to be “environmentally friendly” when they’re traveling, and almost a quarter of them are willing to pay more for green hotels, resorts and rental cars. Another poll by Travelocity found that almost three-quarters of active travelers were prepared to pony up more cash for a greener getaway.

In other words, travelers want to feel socially responsible — and the travel industry, true to character, is more than happy to take their money. Even if it’s doing nothing meaningful to help the environment. There’s a term for this clever repackaging of its polluting ways: greenwashing.

“Greenwashing is undeniably present in the travel business,” says Hugh Hough, president of Green Team, a company that specializes in working with sustainable travel destinations and travel-related companies. “But there are steps travelers can take to distinguish travel providers who are legitimately cleaning up their act from the more cynical providers who are just cashing in on an opportunity.”

Look at the planes — not the airline
There’s no deficit of green schemes in the airline business. The latest stunt is Virgin Atlantic’s test flight of an aircraft burning a mixture of standard jet fuel and biofuel. But Michael Miller of the Orlando-based aviation consulting firm Green Skies, says a real alternative to jet fuel is a decade or more away. For an airline to be “green” today it needs to make a top-to-bottom commitment to saving the environment (a handful of carriers, among them Virgin Atlantic, FlyBe and Continental Airlines, have, he says).

But most fall short. “We are at a stage right now where companies are trying to be environmentally responsible but also business responsible,” he says. “They want to have it both ways, and they’re having a hard time.” Until there’s a credible ratings system for green airlines — Miller is planning to unveil one soon — he recommends looking at the planes, not the airline. “If you have a choice, fly on a more fuel-efficient plane, like a newer Boeing 737, instead of an MD-80,” he says.

Find the stamp of approval
Don’t take a travel company’s word when it claims to be eco-friendly. If it says it’s green, check it out. “The key to differentiating sincere efforts from trend-hopping shams lies in the details,” says Raphael Bejar, chief executive of Airsavings SA, which develops airline carbon offset programs. “Which carbon offset program is partnered with an established environmental group, or which car rental company’s fleet has more fuel-efficient vehicles?”

For example, the U.S. Green Building Council certifies “green” buildings. Another group, the Green Building Initiative, markets a rating system called Green Globes to validate a resort’s commitment to everything from greenhouse gas emissions to land-use planning. But there is no internationally recognized group that certifies travel industry products based on their environmental practices — yet.

See the big picture
Hotels are figuratively falling all over themselves to out-green each other. Most of their efforts look sincere but have a negligible effect on the environment. So you’re washing fewer towels? Good for you. That’s not saving the planet — it’s saving you money. You’re recycling? Nice, but in many places, that’s just following the law. You installed water-saving showerheads? Great, now can you convince those Americans who insist on taking two showers a day to cut back? Being socially responsible, say experts, isn’t just about adopting one or even several “green” practices, but changing the way a resort and its guests think about the environment and their limited resources.

Alex Pettitt, host of the TV show “Mainstream Green,” says some eco-resorts have really “missed the boat” when it comes to being green. “They lower their water consumption, but don’t have a sustainable design,” he says. “Or they’ll offer eco-trips, but the facility itself is an ecological wart.” Pettitt and other experts in sustainable travel say you have to look at the proverbial forest as well as the trees when you consider a hotel’s environmental efforts. A laundry list of green initiatives does not make your hotel green. Instead, it’s something far more difficult to pinpoint — something ingrained in the corporate culture, almost to the point where it goes without saying that everything it does takes sustainability into consideration.

Find out if it works
One question you must ask yourself when booking a green vacation is: How sustainable is each component? It’s easy to write off a plane running on biofuel as unworkable, at least for now. But what about the golf resort that bills itself as green but then irrigates the desert in order to offer guests a lush lawn to play on? How about the full-service hotel that practically scolds you for not reusing your towels, but then stocks its minibars with overpriced water bottled in landfill-clogging plastic? And don’t even get me started on cruise ships …

Not all unsustainable green efforts are so obvious, says Tim Gohmann, the senior vice president of travel and leisure at the market research firm TNS North America. For example, several car rental companies now offer the option of renting a hybrid vehicle. “But these offers are few and far between because the cost of maintenance for these hybrid cars are higher and the car company then loses the revenues made from traditional gas-powered cars,” he told me. “There is no immediate payoff for the car companies so they are more reluctant to put this practice into place, and it’s not widely offered.”

Be a skeptic
Don’t believe everything you read. After seeing a recent announcement that Universal Studios in Orlando had gone “green” with an initiative called “Green is Universal,” you might be forgiven for thinking the only theme park a socially responsible traveler could visit was Universal Studios. Among the initiatives: Universal would recycle more, use energy-efficient lights and switch to alternative fuels on its service vehicles.

But as I reviewed these steps, which are meant to turn it into “the greenest resort possible” I found myself chuckling at Universal’s creativity. I mean why wouldn’t a theme park want to recycle and use alternative fuels? Do they mean to tell me they weren’t doing this before they announced this program? Besides, if Universal wanted to be the greenest resort possible, it would level Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure to the ground and plant trees. I’m happy the park cares about the environment, but show me a resort that doesn’t recycle or use fluorescent lights. Brian Mullis, president of Sustainable Travel International, suggests that press releases are not necessarily the best place for environmental initiatives, anyway. “First and foremost,” he told me, “their commitment to sustainability should be obvious.”

Ask hard questions
If you’re really concerned with saving the planet, and not just interested in feeling good about your travel purchase, you’ll need to do some research of your own. “You should ask tour operators and hotels questions about their impacts,” says Ronald Sanabria, director of sustainable tourism at the Rainforest Alliance, which also offers green certifications to the travel industry. “Ask about their environmental policy, the percentage of their employees that are local residents, whether or not they support any projects that benefit the local community and if they are certified.” Also, find out how they support conservation, what kinds of policies they’ve put into place to conserve energy or water or manage waste, how they educate their visitors about conservation and local culture, and how they monitor their practices.

You probably won’t read the answers to these questions in a tourism brochure, and if a resort or tour operator’s sustainable tourism plan is half-baked, they certainly won’t volunteer a response, even when you ask politely. But if you really care about the environment, you need to ask.

Traveling “green” is not impossible. As long as you pay attention to what other people are saying about a travel company’s sustainability efforts, have a critical eye of your own and ask the right questions, you can avoid being scammed by the travel industry’s greenwashers. And above all, don’t believe everything the companies say when they claim to be green.

“At this point,” says Thomas Basile, managing director of the marketing firm Middleberg Sustainability Group, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”