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.

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40 Comments on "Virgin America Still Having Major System Problems More Than a Month After System Changes"

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Ben
Guest
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… Read more »
bryan
Guest

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
Guest

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

Scott
Guest

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
Guest

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.

Don
Guest
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… Read more »
Don
Guest

I was wrong. Virgin America flight attendants voted down the TWU.

cahilldot
Member

thank goodness they have common sense.. and did not allow the union…………………………….

Trent880
Guest

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

David SF eastbay
Member

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.

longtimeobserver
Member

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

EllenLV
Guest

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.

Sanjeev M
Guest
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… Read more »
Fred
Guest

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
Guest
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… Read more »
A
Guest
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… Read more »
travelnate
Guest
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… Read more »
MeanMeosh
Guest

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

Nick Barnard
Member

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
Guest

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!

longtimeobserver
Member

“WAD” – “Working As Designed”, eh?

Pam de Jong
Guest

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.

TT
Guest

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
Guest
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… Read more »
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[…] a glitches are a categorical concentration of a Tuesday mainstay on The Cranky Flier […]

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[…] the glitches are the main focus of a Tuesday column on The Cranky Flier […]

RS
Guest
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… Read more »
trackback

[…] of these areas.  And while they apparently have been having a rough go at it recently with a new reservation system gone wild, this recent YouTube video I feel is a really fun and unique way to market themselves […]

Beatriss Scatolakis
Guest

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.

trackback

[…] inexplicable errors.  Nate and Brett were quick to point out that Virgin was [and sadly still is] suffering from major pains following their switch from aiRES to Sabre.  The only solution was checking in at the airport when we arrived for our flights.  This was a […]

Jerkstore Jimmy
Guest

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.

Matthew
Guest
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… Read more »
Emma
Guest

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.

Loo
Guest

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

Nick Barnard
Member

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.

Tony Diamantidis
Guest
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… Read more »
J Lee
Guest
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… Read more »
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