Inside Virgin Australia’s 10 hour hostage crisis

StepA cancelled flight and woeful response from Virgin Australia should be a wake up call for airline, says Ashton Bishop, head of strategy at Step Change Marketing.

Late last week Virgin Australia held several hundred customers hostage for 10 hours at Brisbane Airport.

Ok, so I’m being a bit dramatic, but I’m still pissed off after dangerous thunderstorms repeatedly shut down Brisbane airport operations, turning a one hour flight into a 10 hour drama, five if which included sitting on the tarmac with no information.

The silver lining is the lessons on customer service and preparedness that Virgin has so kindly and painfully shared.

“But it was the storms, it’s not Virgin’s fault.” True, the Brisbane storms caused some of the delays, but the brand damage is all Virgin’s to own.

Maybe I’m a difficult customer, but a little empathy at a few key points could have gone a long way to turning this into a brand opportunity.

The first lesson – be your customer’s hero

We all remember the Virgin Atlantic case study of what builds outlandish loyalty, and it wasn’t the customers where nothing went wrong. It was the customers where there was a problem and Virgin Atlantic were remarkable in putting in right – that’s the opportunity that Virgin Australia missed and it wouldn’t have been that hard.

The secret is in the ‘perception’ that it’s a big deal to your customers and you’re trying.

The second lesson – surprise and delight when things are going wrong

It all started in The Lounge. As the flights were initially delayed and the lounge was overcrowded, it would have been an announcement like, ‘Dear passengers, as you can see the lounge is filling up very fast. We’re going to be double-timing it to try and keep you all fed and watered and might even see if we can find a treat or two to help ease the pain.

We know it’s not that comfortable, but hopefully the lounge is still a whole lot better than being in the rain.’ Something as simple as that might have gone a long way to setting a disarming tone. They didn’t.

The third lesson – make sure front line staff have the tools to act

The next fail was when we were cleared for departure and there was a complete absence of urgency in boarding. It was as if it was the weekend holiday ‘business as usual’.

Now at the time this didn’t seem a big deal. But we never took off and at about 9PM flight were cancelled.

This is where it went from not being Virgin’s problem to firmly being Virgin’s problem as Virgin’s crew started looking surprised as if this was the first time a flight had ever been cancelled.

It was announcement after announcement of, ‘we’re waiting for an update’ with the ground crew, air crew and booking line not seeming to know what each other were doing.

So we sat there frustrated not knowing if our flight home was being sorted, and if we had a bed for the night.

Then my phone rang. A colleague in the same predicament on a different flight was ahead of the game and went onto the Virgin website and checked the policy. It was clear, we needed to call a 13number to get a new flight and they wouldn’t be covering accommodation.

So we decided to make the call then and book our own hotel from the tarmac – a rare moment of fortune.

The fourth lesson – customers associate their entire journey with your brand, even the parts you can’t control

The question is this: as soon as the flight was cancelled why didn’t crew walk down the isles with a piece of paper that explained what was going on, how to check your flight and here’s a few hotels to call with a deal for being a valued customer. No. Nothing.

In fact most passengers ended up disembarking after midnight and started queuing to find out the bad news.

Actually when checking in to the hotel at 1.30 AM we heard the bevy of calls at reception as passengers at the airport had only just started to find out what was going on.

And by then the city was full.

So on disembarking there was no Virgin crew with a bottle of water or a ‘so sorry can we help’. When we called up the booking line it was a ‘we’ve only got a flight that will get you back at 3PM tomorrow sorry’ vs ‘what did you have on tomorrow Mr Bishop? Ok, now I don’t think it’s possible that Brisbane will let us put on more flights, but we’re going to try. Let me grab your number and if we can do something I’ll call you immediately. If we can’t though I’ll have to pop you on the flight to arrive at 3PM, but we’ll stay on it, ok?’

The fifth lesson – own the experience

It was in the epic failure in leaving me with ‘it’s a big deal for you, so we’re going to try’ vs ‘it was bad weather so it’s not our fault’ that one of my favourite brands really let me down.

You can’t always change reality, but you can change your customer’s experience of it with a little care. It’s a lesson I’m going to try and remember with my customers.

Ashton Bishop is head of strategy at Step Change Marketing.


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