Virgin America Still Having Major System Problems More Than a Month After System Changes

If you’ve flown Virgin America any time since October, there’s a good chance that your experience has been sub-par. No, it has nothing to do with the onboard product but rather the fragile technology infrastructure, which is still suffering after a reservations system change made back in October. That’s right, we’re talking well over a month and there are still widespread issues.

Virgin America Reservation System Problems

A reservation system change is a major undertaking. That system is the heart of the airline, and it talks to just about every other system in the company. So it’s not an easy thing to just switch on a whim. That’s why airlines prepare for a reservation system switch like they’re preparing for the apocalypse. Airlines have lately even shut down booking for a weekend, ramped up call center employees, and thinned flight schedules in order to deal with the pain. Virgin America did that as well, but it still wasn’t prepared.

Were it anyone else, people would be crucifying the airline. Virgin America, however, just doesn’t serve as many cities and doesn’t have the exposure that others would get when there’s a major failure like this one. Remember when US Airways transferred over to the pre-merger America West technology? For a couple of days, people were angry at what a mess it was. But that was just a couple of days. JetBlue and WestJet have also made reservation system transitions but none have seen the painful, persistent problems that have plagued Virgin America customers.

We’ve seen this first hand at Cranky Concierge with customers who still cannot check in online for their flights. They just have to wait until they get to the airport, unhappily. One frequent Virgin America flier reached out to me with a laundry list of problems that have made him miserable since day one of the switch. He couldn’t check in, change seats, or make changes online and call center waits for well over an hour. Frequent flier numbers bounced out of reservations, itineraries had incorrect billing information (terrible for those who need to submit expenses), and refunds have gone unprocessed. He even submitted a challenge to a charge for a ticket that should have been refunded, and Virgin America never responded to the credit card company’s inquiry. The credit card company just issued the refund.

So what the heck is going on here? This is just a mess.

The problem really centers around Virgin America’s IT strategy. Like many new entrants, Virgin America thought it could do things better than the existing carriers. Its Chief Information Officer at the time, Bill Maguire, was profiled in CIO magazine explaining how he was going to save the airline a ton of money by using newer architecture and by outsourcing just about everything. Maguire is long gone – left in 2008 and is at San Jose State University now – but his legacy remains.

Virgin America patched together its systems on its own, sometimes using open source software. For its reservation system, it went with a system called aiRES that never lived up to its promises. In fact, the launch customers WestJet and Virgin Blue, got so fed up with all the money they had thrown down a hole trying to get it working that both walked away. (WestJet is on Sabre, and the now-called Virgin Australia has announced an intention to do the same.) Virgin America also apparently quickly realized that aiRES wasn’t going to cut it and announced earlier this year it would switch to Sabre.

This was particularly important for Virgin America as it moved forward with a strategy to build tighter partnerships with other airlines. While a new and cool reservation system in a vacuum might function just fine, it’s a lot harder to get it to properly interface with airlines on other systems. And Virgin America was tired of waiting, so it opted to jump to Sabre.

The problem, however, is that its other systems were not very well suited to talk to Sabre, and that’s the problem we continue to face today. How these problems were not picked up in testing is unclear, but I’m sure Virgin America wishes it had done this differently at this point.

According to the airline, the number of problems have been diminishing and it says “we hope to have full resolution soon.” But this is still getting on toward two months after the new system went live. Virgin America continues to have a little blurb linked from the top of its homepage with an apology, but the text never changes. The only thing that changes is the date at the top.

So is there a way to know if you’ll be impacted by this mess? I asked, and there isn’t. I wondered if the problems came from reservations that were made before the switch, but that wasn’t it. While issues are more likely for older reservations, problems are plaguing new ones as well.

Hopefully we’ll see this fixed soon, but in the meantime, Virgin America is trying to at least compensate people.

We continue to waive all change/cancel fees for flyers having issues and Elevate members flying during this period have received a direct apology from our CEO and a free flight (5000 points) credited to their accounts.

That’s a nice gesture, but it still is not a substitute for just getting the problem fixed. This never should have happened the way it did, and Virgin America’s customers continue to pay dearly for it. With any luck, this will finally be fixed in the near future.


40 Responses to Virgin America Still Having Major System Problems More Than a Month After System Changes

  1. Ben says:

    I think any time that a business changes the core of their IT infrastructure, it can be a challenge. At my company, I have participated in 1 change of our core business software, and am preparing to do it again. This highlights the importance of doing things right the first time, regardless of the cost. The “right” way may be significantly more expensive than the “cheap” way, but when it effects the experience and productivity of your employees (not to mention your customers), there is a hidden cost that just keeps building.

    And Cranky, a gold star to you for the terrific Airplane! reference in the photo. had me chuckling more than usual.

  2. bryan says:

    Has anyone received the 5,000 mile credit promised? I flew on Virgin twice during this mess and I haven’t had any word about that.

    • Jeff says:

      I received mine on Nov 9 after a roundtrip involving Nov 3 and Nov 7.

    • Scott says:

      Have flown (3) roundtrips on VX since the upgrade, including Nov 4-6, and have never received a CEO apology or 5000 point credit. Worse, I was promised in email a $100 credit file due to a maintenance cancellation, and have never seen that either. Shame on VX for this….great in-air product cancelled out by this debacle

    • LoMo says:

      I’ve flown five times with them in November and December, and not only have I not received any of the points I *should* have earned (even after repeatedly entering the Confirmation number in the ‘missing points’ form on their site) but I also haven’t got a message from the CEO nor 5000 points.

  3. Don says:

    Their flight attendants will unionize today (with the same union that wanted them not to fly two years ago), they are not making any profit year after year, this sabre problem still exists.

    Someone please tell me why they think Virgin America will survive? It is a great product. I LOVE VIRGIN AMERICA! But great products needs to make money and control/manage their problems. Maybe another CEO should do the trick?

    FYI – From the flights that I’ve been taking (and talking to the flight attendants; I think the union will win in a landslide today when the results are announced). What a shame. The TWU will ruin it even worse.

  4. Trent880 says:

    I check their facebook page on a daily basis and it is BRU-TAL. …Especially for a carrier whose business plan relies more on social media than on sound principles. #schadenfreude

  5. Sounds like they didn’t plan for the worst and hope for the best.

    It’s one thing to try and save money, but somethings shouldn’t be trusted to new/unproven systems. You should never scrimp on the ‘heart’ of you company, that being a reservation system for an airline.

  6. AirBoss says:

    Looks like an acute failure of the pre-cutover specification and testing regime.

  7. EllenLV says:

    I have been dealing with them since October, having to call in once a week for changes, on hold most times for over an hour. The reps are blase’ now, and do not seem to care. The whole thing has been pathetic, and if it weren’t my job to make changes for my boss, then I would dump them completely.

  8. Sanjeev M says:

    Love the Sabre graphic :)

    I wasn’t aware of this mess at all, so you’re definitely right about how “insigificant” VX is compared to the rest of the airlines in America.

    I’m starting to think there’s an underlying problem with this country’s fare structures, and that’s why VX is struggling to make money. Round trip fares between the east and west coasts (5.5 hours) have risen to about $350 return, but not nearly enough. Most other “full-service” airlines on shorter sectors charge more. E.g TK can charge $400 for 3.5 hours LHR-IST return (but provide a far better service).

    So we think fares should be low either cause its domestic, or because we’re so used to travelling long distances really cheaply (hence our vast suburbs). This hurts airlines cause stage-lengths are super long (so utilization is much less and fuel cost is more). VX is particularly prone as transcons make up a majority of their operation.

    Lets hope they get this mess fixed soon.

    • Fred says:

      Well, as for the fares, two things are going on:
      Passengers (as a whole group) have shown that pretty much all they care about is price, with schedule/timings a distant second, and everything else below that. That’s why tickets are cheap and we have relatively poor service, fees and the like.
      Second, VX struggling to make money is partly due to the fare structures of other airlines, but it is something they should have expected and reacted to. It’s not anyone elses fault that they chose to jump into flying mostly transcons and routes with significant competition.

      • Emma says:

        Okay, so all people care about it the price…..exactly why, when fares between some two US cities are just about up to the price of an international flight, should passengers NOT care first about the price? Around here, it’s 2.5 hour’s drive to CLT and comparable to GSP. Often a difference in price. The effort to get to either is costly in time, wear-and-tear, and gasoline. You bet folks look at the ticket-plus prices.
        In what other near monopoly business can a customers call the shots? Just where can they go when they need to fly anywhere? Are there always a lot of choices? Why is it necessary for every person in the nation, no matter now little money they have, to fly? I remember the days when flying was for those with the scratch to pay for it. And we dressed up to travel, hats and gloves and all.
        If all the airlines charged what it costs to do business, including paying shareholders, then the choices would be the same, but everyone would make a living. The companies that couldn’t are not necessary, obviously.
        Tickets are cheap for many reasons, but the airlines make it the customers’ fault? I say it’s the fault of the guys who set the ticket price being scared witless they might take a hit for the time it takes for the other airlines to catch up. Didn’t take long for them all to hit us with “fees” for our luggage, did it? They could be decent about it and all just tell us the ‘real’ cost of a flight and put it out there, cleanly, fairly, and businesslike. There’s too much of this ‘fee’ stuff all over the place. But look at Verizon Wireless, it sells a product and the price is the price, take it or leave it. They are on time, on the correct ramp, etc, and they are doing just fine. And I pay a chunk every month that I could save by switching to another server, but quality matters even on a pension.
        I flew upper class to europe for personal reasons and if I can’t afford the freight, i adjust my wants to my means. I stay home! Should this happen in flying, it will mean the top one percent will do most of the flying…..and the thought makes the airlines people cringe…..c’est la vie……

    • A says:

      You bring up an issue that gets me time and time again. Why are relatively long flights like JFK-LAX so cheap when short hops around “fly over country” are so expensive. I 100% understand the high volume = cost savings, etc. aspect, and that those routes have tons of competition…but…airlines like VX with limited route networks shoot themselves in the foot on those routes because of the competition. WN made a business out of flying to secondary cities and avoiding competition. I sure wouldn’t invest in another startup flying only major east/west coast cities with tons of competition.

      So…This whole VX issue is a non-issue to me because they fly literally nowhere. Ok, ok, I’ve flown between many of the cities they service, but then again when I need to go to IAH or AUS or ATL or DEN or MSP….I’m SOL with VX. For an airline that prides themselves as a “business travelers” airline they must must MUST fly to the at a minimum the top 25 largest metros. This is where business happens people! Palm Springs?!? Not so much.

      Say what you will about the AA, UA, DL’s of this country but they always get me to where I need to be.

  9. travelnate says:

    I’d like to point out this is NOT Sabre’s fault.

    I oversaw a large portion of the Sabre system at another airline, including upgrades, and Sabre was very VERY good at responding to issues within its own family of products. I really can’t think of any downtime from the system, and the glitches were fixed in hours.

    What Virgin has done is added in their own tools to make Sabre look, act, and feel like aiRes, which is an amazing system (with its own issues). When companies build tools, they use an API – think of it as a universal ‘link’ for data in, data out… so naturally when you add in your own products thru the API things go awry.

    What baffles me is why Virgin just hasn’t gone with the Sabre-suite products (ie – flight information, online check-in) while they work out their own kinks.

  10. MeanMeosh says:

    “Excuse me, Mr. Branson – I speak jive…er…Sabre…”

  11. For an airline that is based in Tech Central San Francisco, and targets hip nerds having IT problems is probably one of the worst things you can do. Your clients are less likely to actually forgive you, since many of them are in IT companies as well..

    • A says:

      Exactly! I flew with them 3 times this month… waiting over 1.5 hours to book each….changes never work on site have to call back. Missed getting seats on several last minute flights because they got booked while i waited on hold.

      Each time I tell them im in IT in SF and that why I fly them!

      Still no letter nor miles!

    • Pam de Jong says:

      Amen. I have a client who’s CEO of a company in the digital advertising industry, and after having to fly Economy after having paid for Main Cabin Select, because the system didn’t fully process the change, he’s about ready to fly United again.
      Which, if you know him, says a LOT.
      I can only hope that the folks responsible for this debacle have had their pay docked, and that it’s distributed to the poor call center folks who have to deal with the fallout.

  12. TT says:

    I just don’t understand, why airlines even consider Sabre. I have NEVER heard of any smooth migration to Sabre, nor off of Sabre!

    • travelnate says:

      the problem is the transitions have been from a “new generation” system to a legacy where things are done much differently. On Navitaire, Radixx, and aiRes, a user can simply build a flight, add fares, and *voila* its done. Sabre can take a day to get a new flight/fares added because they use 3rd party (OAG/ATPCO) for schedules & fares (you could add extra sections on a whim, but have to use existing fares).

      It would be like having a diesel engine and using unleaded fuel – there’s a lot you have to swap out, its not like flipping a switch.

      I never had any major issues with Sabre, and I know folks at WestJet (in the technology dept) are MUCH happier with Sabre than Navitaire….

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  15. RS says:

    Bill Maguire left in 2008. The cutover to Sabre started in March of 2011. It is disingenuous to associate him (or his legacy) to the issues that VX is currently facing with the Sabre implementation. And, as for the usage of open source, the stack is industry standard – apache, java, .net, MySQL etc.

    To anyone who has implemented systems, it will be clear that VX did not spend enough time integrating and testing its web site with Sabre’s engine. You can perhaps blame poor planning for this outcome. On the other hand, VX was plagued by constant outages of the Aires/iFly system that they were on since 2007. They were unable to run a predictable business because of the unpredictability of their reservations system which is akin to a central nervous system.

    I completely support VX’s urgency in wishing to implement a new system. They were racing against time with the specter of a massive and extended aiRes outage looming that would have completely crippled the airline’s operation. Given this tough choice, I too would have implemented a new reservations system with equivalent urgency. The one thing I would have done differently, however, is that I would have identified and disabled features on the web site that were known to not work or were buggy. When you analyze the guest complaints, you can see that the vast majority of issues occurred during change/cancel, check-in and seat selection. I would have messaged the guests to show up at the airport earlier to ensure that they were well served. Nothing frustrates a user more than a non-working function that is available to them to exercise.

    As another commenter pointed out, another good solution would have been to integrate Sabre’s SabreSonic web and online check-in widgets into the VX web site to begin with so as to not impact travelers. The “Virginization” of the web site could have been undertaken after the cutover and the expected settling of dust.

    In any case, I wish VX well. They are a great airline, with great service, with crew and teammates that really, really mean well and want to be the best. That is a great combination for success, and I hope VX is able to overcome these tech hurdles expeditiously.

    Parting thought – hindsight is 20/20.

    • CF says:

      I noted that Maguire left in 2008, but that same strategy has been in place since then.

      I don’t think anybody (well, maybe one commenter) is suggesting that moving to Sabre was a bad idea. It was clearly the right thing to do to leave aiRES and many others have chosen Sabre in similar situations. It’s all about implementation and that’s where they fell down. It’s true that hindsight is 20/20, but there are plenty of other examples in the last couple years to show how to achieve a transition like this, so you would have hoped that they could have followed those models a little more closely.

      • RS says:

        The aiRes decision was made before Maguire joined VX. We can have a deeper conversation if you wish, but the strategy is not where the problem was. It was/is in execution – and you aptly point out, VX could have learnt from the angst that their compatriots in the industry namely WestJet and JetBlue faced when they switched over from Navitaire.

        As was evidenced by JetBlue’s troubles and investment in the transition ($40mm by some estimates), money alone cannot solve the headaches a transition can result in.

        In my opinion, VX dropped the proverbial ball by severely compressing the implementation timeline. They would have been in comparitively great shape had they cutover in 03/2012, by giving themselves the requisite time to do a good job. Simple things like giving enough time, following an SDLC, quality assurance, and constant reality checks whould have largely mitigated the issues.

        I can’t speak to the pressures VX faced that led to the compressed timeline. There is certainly a lesson to be learnt there – perhaps for the next airline.

        • KC says:

          Here Here RS. Trying to execute something as momentous as this in such a short timeline seems to have been the big culprit in this situation.

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  17. Beatriss Scatolakis says:

    This is indeed sad for passengers, VX, its employees and stockholders. They’re getting a good set of tools now, hopefully once they’re through the turbulence they can grow steadily. I love the VX product.

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  19. Jerkstore Jimmy says:

    Still happening (Jan. 4, 2012). I called three times to change a reservation (website couldn’t “accept” it) and was disconnected three times. My switch to traveling V will be brief.

  20. Matthew says:

    Found out the day before my flight home for Christmas that the booking was mysteriously lost and canceled. Called the customer service number in a panic to find out what happened. I was told that they were having trouble with online booking and that I should have booked on the phone. REALLY!? That’s your solution? The agent on the phone did not even bother to ask if i had an alternate way to get home for Christmas (i did not) and did not offer to try to book me on the flight (which i would have gladly bought just to get home to see my family for the first time in 3 years). I have never had a more soul-crushing experience and have never encountered a customer service group with such little concern for me as a customer. I have called every day for 3 days and all but one time i was disconnected or blatantly hung up on when I started explaining the situation. The customer service supervisors do not care at all about the inconvenience. I hate to leave them, but I will not use them again.

    • Emma says:

      And how many who tell a similar unhappy story do not post on the boards……..
      But one site (do i dare mentionYelp.com) does have stories of happy travelers and stories of those who will never fly virgin again. How to sort the pepper from the fly droppings, is the problem for anyone researching the virgin ratings from flyers. I take my cue from those on this site who are not happy. I would be furious and feel helpless to sort things out, so will remember this is not Branson’s most successful company.

  21. Loo says:

    It reminds me of the Netflix fiasco. WHat a disaster when a company tries to fix what isn’t broken.

    • But the reservations system was broken in the sense that it didn’t serve their future needs.

      I’d also argue that Netflix was broken from a marketing perspective.

  22. Januar 26, 2012 and the problems have still not been solved. Worse yet, just got a response to my comment posted on the VIrgin website 6 weeks ago with a paltry apology and an internal notation that my issue has been “solved”!!!

    See below… This is hopeless

    Discussion Thread
    Response Via Email (Kyya) 01/26/2012 01:19 PM
    Dear Antonio,

    Please accept my apologies for the delayed response and the experience you have encountered during our switch to a new reservations system. Specifically, we know that you had difficulties with our website and the long hold times on the phone. This was not the guest experience we are typically known for – and you deserved better.

    We have communicated your correspondence to our IT and reservations department. Although at times we are still experiencing lengthy call center wait times if you need immediate assistance please call us at 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN (877.359.8474).

    We continue to work through the final issues associated with the reservation system transition – and appreciate your loyalty and patience as we complete this process.

    Again, please accept our sincere apologies. We hope to have the chance to welcome you back again – and show you the award-winning service we are better known for.

    Best Regards,
    Kyya
    Virgin America Guest Relations
    Customer (Antonio Diamantidis) 12/10/2011 10:29 AM
    Compliments???

    Three days online trying to change a flight

    Two days of several calls and hours on hold trying to change a flight

    The most nerve wracking music on hold. Assume it was on purpose to encourage people to hang up.

    Untrained call center personnel that INSISTED that the flight I was asking to change to did not exist (After several exasperated minutes of back-and-forth, agent admitted mistake)

    A $75 change fee applied, despite of the pain and suffering inflicted. Nothing else worked in your system, but the $75 fee did – well done

    As a reasonable person I understand glitches and try to be patient, but this was over the top.

    Question Reference #111210-000049
    Date Created: 12/10/2011 10:29 AM
    Last Updated: 01/26/2012 01:19 PM
    Status: Solved
    Departure Airport:
    Arrival Airport:
    Flight Number:
    Flight Date:

  23. J Lee says:

    I just tried to apply $25 credit from the so-called “travel bank”. At the end of check-in process, it asks me to click the button to confirm without any button at the bottom of page. I am working for a consulting company as an executive and worked numerous clients for 8+ years. I know exactly what’s going on with VX, and how they messed up the system. The technical reasons are well listed above, but the managerial reasons are…
    1. They don’t have money to burn
    2. They relied on its contractors and own IT dept too much. No auditing or QA process before having the migration in place
    3. No rollback plan clearly defined
    4. Old infra and network are replaced rather than existed in parallel while building the new ones.
    5. They messed up contractual issues with aiRES and hurried to jump into Sabre without the overlapping operation period
    6. I smell some legal issues that they couldn’t meet and recover.
    7. No clear direction from management but rather fat heads on the board room
    8. They don’t know the root cause of issues unlike what they told and believe themselves.
    9. I can list all forever… :->

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