By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 2:04 am
I can’t think of many companies, in any line of business, which I like as much as I like Virgin America. I’ve often said that if I could only fly to destinations served by this airline–with its mellow and helpful people, universal in-flight Wi-Fi, and many 0ther attractions–I would.
But in the past two and a half weeks, I’ve taken four Virgin America flights, and found its Web site completely crippled. Everything I want to do on an airline site, I can’t do.
At the moment, the Virgin America site is so broken that its press section has an error message where the press releases should be.
The Twitter chatter about Virgin America is rife with tweets from unhappy campers, some of who are crabbier than I am…
Many of the complainers refer to interminable wait times on Virgin’s phone line; presumably, it’s being flooded with calls from people who are currently unable to get anything done online.
The woes stem from Virgin’s switchover from its old reservation system, iFly, to the industry’s 800-pound gorilla, Sabre. The change happened on October 28th, and the company knew it wouldn’t be silky-smooth: It suspended ticket sales that weekend, beefed up its phone staff, and warned customers about potential snafus. But it apparently expected things to be largely back to normal after the first weekend.
Instead, almost four weeks later, the glitches persist. The more things I try to do on the site, the more I discover that’s busted.
Virgin isn’t trying to cover up the problems. There’s a large announcement of them on its home page, as well as a detailed accounting of what’s not working. Nor is the airline discounting the inconvenience they present to travelers. In fact, the @virginamerica Twitter feed is currently dominated by apologies and attempts to resolve issues.
And after a flight earlier this month–which was trouble-free–both my wife and I received unsolicited form e-mails signed by Virgin America President/CEO David Cush in which he acknowledged problems, apologized, and said we’d get 5000 complimentary points apiece in our frequent-flyer accounts. (That’s enough for a free short-haul round trip.)
Then again, the e-mail from Cush, which was dated on November 9th, almost two weeks after the switchover, also said “Over the next week, we expect to work through and address the final website-related issues associated with the transition.” That didn’t happen: Most of the problems I’ve encountered happened starting on November 18th, when I took a trip to Chicago and found I couldn’t check myself in at home or at the airport.
So what’s going on?
To find out, I contacted Virgin America, which sent my inquiry right to the top. I ended up speaking with President/CEO Cush, who’s been in the airline business for more than two decades.
He pointed out that other airlines such as WestJet and JetBlue, have struggled with system migrations. (Here’s an interesting article with lots of details about just why they’re so painful.) But he didn’t mince words, describing the aftershocks of the switchover as “extremely irritating” for Virgin America customers.
“These are difficult transitions,” he said, “but this has been more difficult than we expected.”
Cush told me that he pushed to move to Sabre quickly because the existing reservations system, iFly, couldn’t keep up with Virgin’s rate of expansion. The airline has grown by 50 percent over the past 18 months and expects to grow another 30 percent in the next year. It needs to be able to deal with big-airline complications such as bookings through third-party sites, code-share flights, and reciprocal frequent-flyer program agreements with airlines in other countries.
“I went into this with my eyes wide open…We were in a race against time,” he explained. “I was willing to change on this accelerated schedule because staying with the old system might have been catastrophic–it would go down for days at a time.”
(I knew that already–in fact, I wrote about an extended breakdown last May.)
The new system, Cush said, powers far more than the Virgin site and airport self-service terminals, including flight planning and crew scheduling. Most of the behind-the-scenes functions are already working well, he told me. And he said there are signs that the situation for customers is improving: Web check-ins, which had fallen to about 20 percent of all check-ins, are now in the high thirties, close to their typical 40 percent. The average hold time for phone callers is now under 30 minutes; that doesn’t sound so spectacular, but it’s an improvement over the recent figure.
Virgin continues to work on ironing out the new system’s remaining kinks, and plans to give its site a major update on December 1st. “I’m confident–and crossing my fingers–that it will solve most of our remaining problems,” Cush told me. Another update is scheduled for December 8th.
I’m crossing my fingers, too. The site’s woes have made clear to me, in a way I didn’t quite understand, that modern businesses, of all sorts, don’t have Web sites. To a remarkable degree, they are Web sites.
Virgin says that the system failure hasn’t affected the flights themselves, and once I’ve gotten airborne, the four trips I’ve taken in November have been just as pleasant as usual. But it can’t go back to being a great airline until it has a Web site that doesn’t require any apologies or explanations.