Virgin America's Broken Booking Engine: Enough's Enough

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on January 24, 2012

From The News Desk

It's hard to imagine that there's anyone who loves Virgin America as much as I do, without actually working for Virgin America.

I fly Virgin America -- between San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York -- more often than most people takeĀ  a cab. The in-person service -- at check-in, at the gate and in-flight -- is the best you'll find on any domestic airline anywhere in the world. I even met my girlfriend on a Virgin America flight.

Sadly my love of the airline only goes one way. In fact, if their web booking engine is anything to go by, Virgin America hates me. And it hates you too.

The first signs of Virgin's growing animosity towards its loyal custo-fans came last October when the company announced it was switching its booking engine from a home-grown system to the industry-standard Sabre platform. This, apparently, would make it easier to accept bookings through sites like Orbitz. It would also -- the company knew from a similar switch by JetBlue -- create at least a month of misery for regular travellers. A month which would come perilously close to overlapping the peak Thanksgiving travel period.

The switch was made and, sure enough, everything went to ratshit. Saved payment details vanished, previously booked flights became invisible, payments failed, flight changes were impossible, call centers collapsed. Two hour hold times became the norm.

But still we loyal fliers stuck around. The in-person experience of Virgin America was just too good. The gate staff and in-flight teams even served apology cookies to frustrated travellers, for God's sake. And continued to do so -- smiling the whole time -- as passengers yelled at them for ticketing problems they were powerless to fix.

And finally, after weeks of chaos, CEO David Cush, sent out an apology email to customers, adding 5,000 Elevate points to their account.

And yet, and yet...

Nearly three months have passed since that apology and Cush's promise that everything was going to be fine. But, as of last night, Virgin America's booking system is still broken.

Try booking a standard class ticket and then switching up to first half-way through the process: the site kicks up and error and boots you back to the start. Try buying a ticket with Elevate points: same problem. Even if you make it through to the "confirm booking" page, there's still a 50/50 chance of getting an error. Last night I tried to book a flight from SFO to LAS. It took me four attempts and, even though I eventually received a confirmation email, still tells me I have no flights booked. Should I show up at the airport? Should I book again and risk being double-charged?

A quick straw poll amongst fellow VX-loving friends brings tales of double-booking, missing confirmation emails, empty itineraries and more. Of my previous half dozen Virgin America bookings, I can remember only one being totally seamless.

Virgin's solution to all this: phone us if you have a problem.

It's hard to imagine a more first world problem than someone bitiching on a blog that they can't book an airline ticket online. But here's the thing: Virgin America has a well-deserved reputation as the most tech-friendly airline. Their online booking used to be flawless, their flights between SFO and JFK have become the defacto nerd birds, largely because they were the first to roll out Gogo inflight wifi across their entire fleet. They'll even loan you a Chromebook for use on the flight. A Chromebook!

But all of that counts for naught if it's impossible to book a damn ticket. And suggesting thatĀ  a disastrously unreliable website is OK as long as there's a phone number to call is an excuse straight out of the late 90's. They might as well replace with an animated gif of a guy digging a hole and be done with it.

One month of problems with online booking is a natural consequence of growing up. A quarter of a year is just embarrassing. It's time for Virgin America to stop making excuses and to start hiring people who actually know what they're doing when it comes to building robust web services.

Virgin America still offers the best service in the skies -- but their web team is letting customers down, themselves down and the whole damn school down.


Update: Perhaps unsurprisingly, a few minutes after this post went up, I got a call from a Virgin America rep. She was very nice (because she works for Virgin America, and they always are) and apologetic and explained that they hoped to have everything fixed by mid-February. The key word there, of course, is hope.

Meanwhile, Vice President of Corporate Communications, Abby Lunardini emailed to explain in more detail:

"Although the bulk of web issues have continued to diminish with web updates and with the migrated data set itself shrinking (as we get further and further away from the fall transition), I am afraid you are in the subset of users still experiencing issues -- the majority of which are now related to Elevate and points bookings. As you note, the explanation does not lessen how inconvenient this has been, especially for some of our most loyal guests, and we do apologize."

So there you go.