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.
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.