An Open Letter of complaint to Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic

Subject: An Open Letter of complaint to Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic
From: Alex Sulman & Family
Date: 20 Jan 2015

Dear Mr Branson

It is with deep regret that I feel compelled to bring to your attention a formal complaint with regards to my most recent experience with Virgin Atlantic. As a man who always appears proud of the services his company provides I hope you will agree that the treatment we received did not meet the Virgin Company standard.

In mid-October 2014 I booked direct return Virgin Atlantic tickets for myself, my partner and our 11 month old from LAX to London Heathrow to return to my home country for Christmas. Despite not being actual Virgin flights, they were operated by your strategic partner Delta, I paid the premium to take flights with a name that I trusted confident that the partnerships your company had formed would afford me the same quality of service I had come to expect from many past experiences with Virgin Atlantic. Given that we would be travelling with a baby we called your very helpful staff at Virgin Special Assistance some 8 weeks before our flight to book the Sky Cot and associated seats for our journey. We were assured that our request had been granted and that our return journey had also been very kindly taken care of. What a thoroughly helpful chap! As first time parents our concerns about flying with our baby were greatly eased by this quality of service.

Upon our arrival at LAX all seemed well. We checked in for flight VS 4034/DL 0034 and made through departures with no complications. Soon after arriving at the gate however the mask began to crack. We were summoned to the departure gate and informed by a Delta operative that our seats were initially at the back of the plane but had been altered to a three seat configuration to "do us a favour". Now as a family man yourself Mr. Branson I'm sure you can sympathise with the distress that my partner and I felt at this news.

"But we called and booked the Sky Cot through Virgin Special Assistance some 8 weeks ago!" we protested.

"I'm sorry sir but Virgin are only able to request a Sky Cot, they cannot actually guarantee one for you" we were told.

"But aren't your two companies strategic partners?" I asked?

"Unfortunately sir our two systems do not really speak with one another. If you had called Delta we could have arranged it for you" was the reply.

Now I have been a customer of several of your companies throughout the years - Virgin Games, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Megastores for example and, as a man with a transatlantic family, I have also flown with Virgin Atlantic/America many times and I can honestly say that I have rarely if ever been disappointed with your services or products. Well, except for the video game Cool Spot of which I wasn't really a fan, but I think we can chalk that one up to an anomaly! At that moment however, standing in LAX with an 11 hour flight looming before us we felt firmly “got by the short and curlies" if you pardon my crass turn-of-phrase and we were most thoroughly disappointed in your company Mr. Branson. We believed we had done all that we could to secure the flight experience we had paid top dollar for yet were faced with what amounted to "The Computer Says No!".

With begrudging acceptance we agreed to the seat configuration and proceeded to endure one of the worst travel experiences I had been through up to that point. My partner and I slept barely a wink for fear of turbulence harming our little one as he lay unsecured between us.

Upon landing at our destination I proceeded to engage in a direct message exchange with @DeltaAssist in a vain attempt to secure the homeward journey seats we had already been promised by your staff. Unfortunately I was met with the same excuse; that the Virgin and Delta computers do not really talk and we were, as a result, once again out of luck.

So we enjoyed our time in the UK with family and friends, enjoyed Christmas and New Year and prepared ourselves for our flight home on Jan 2nd. Now Mr. Branson if you would kindly remember back to my previous statement that our initial flight from LAX to LHR was the worst travel experience I had endured until that point? Well, I am very sad to say that this previous experience was quite spectacularly trumped by the frankly disastrous events of our ill-fated journey home!

Due to the problems we had experienced on the way out we ensured that we arrived at Terminal 3 at Heathrow with plenty of time to check in and reach flight VS 4035/DL 0035; a good 2 hours before our 3pm flight. Whilst there, in an attempt to again procure our bassinet and bulkhead seats, I took the opportunity to speak with one of your representatives. Unfortunately this process took a good hour to resolve and turned out to be unnecessary as we did in fact already have the seats we had requested and were good to go! Delighted by this news we were aware of the lateness of the hour and proceeded to hurry to Departures and security.

Once there we said our goodbyes – there were tears, hugs and reassurances of course – and made our way into security. At this point it was 2:05pm. Our flight was at 3pm. What followed was a truly terrible example of how to deliver a family through airport security. Despite repeated protestations to the staff that our flight was at 3pm it ended up taking us almost 40 minutes to get through security. This, of course is not your company’s fault Mr. Branson (I already have a letter off to Heathrow about it!) but I believe the way in which we were handled as a family was. Please allow me to explain.

Upon making it through security we were aware that we had barely 15 minutes before our 3pm flight took off. With several bags, our little one in his push chair and despite my partner’s movement disability we got moving as fast as we could. Of course it turned out that our gate, 22, was the very last gate at one end of Heathrow! But we still had 15 minutes or so to make it. As we reached roughly gate 18 or so I left the bags I was carrying with my partner and run as fast as I could to reach the gate. As I turned the corner of Gate 22 I realised the doors were closed. It was 2:54pm. I knocked on the door and a Virgin Steward proceeded to open them and inform me that we had missed our flight!

“But it’s not even 3pm!” I stated exasperated

“I’m sorry sir the gate always closes 10 minutes before the flight is due to leave” I was told

“Since when?!?!” I enquired

“This is standard policy sir. Plus your luggage has already been removed from the plane” was the reply

I’m sure you can appreciate how desperate we felt in that moment. Having made every attempt to make the flight despite being waylaid by a series of events that were beyond our control, to be told that we had already been removed from the flight was maddening, disheartening and horrendous to hear.

At this point I would like to take a brief pause and recall a story that I feel is relevant. Back in 2011 I was late for a flight out of Heathrow. Horrendous Traffic on the M4 and a series of wrong turns whilst attempting to rush through the airport left me convinced that all hope was lost and I was doomed to miss my flight. As I slouched my way back to the departure lounge despondent I suddenly heard my name over the tannoy system telling me to hurry to my gate. As I cringed and blushed at the thoroughly embarrassing sound of my actual name over a loudspeaker I proceeded to run. I don’t think I have ever run as fast as I did that day. I ran and ran towards my gate, hearing my name once again over the tannoy. I reached a moving walkway and was greeted by a steward –

“Are you Mr Sulman?” he asked

“….. YES!!” I blurted in return

“Hurry, they are holding the flight for you!” he replied

I continued to run through the Heathrow terminal as fast as I was able buoyed by the prospect that there was still a chance to make my flight. I came across a second steward who asked me the same question and kindly told me the gate to head towards. On I ran, getting to that point you hear about from those people, you know the fit ones - that point where you’ve run so fast and so hard that you are literally about to vomit everything you have and more than you thought you did! Just then I arrived at the departure gate and, to my amazement my flight was still there! I was told that the gate was fully aware I had checked-in and passed through security hence they had held the flight for me. Of course, at this point I attempted to compose myself and walk onto the plane knowing I would be “That Person”, the one that everyone looks at with justifiable disgust and contempt on their faces for holding them up. I also had to sit down in my seat next to an unfortunate sole forced to tolerate my sweaty, panting, near vomiting lump of stressed out self! I pressed the steward button and sheepishly, with a gasp, asked for water…

Why did I spend two paragraphs regaling this story? I feel it bears extreme relevance to our experience on Jan 2nd 2015 due to the following –
• During that day in 2015 at Heathrow we were not paged at all about our flight leaving, not once.
• No-one met us en route to the gate in a bid to help us.
• No-one had called ahead to warn the gate that we were on our way.
• No concessions were made for myself, my baby or my disabled partner.

I feel there is only one conclusion to draw here. Holding the flight for me as a single passenger who could quickly board on arrival was a viable option in 2011. The flight was held considerably longer than 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time to accommodate me, for which I was very grateful.

In 2015, as passengers with a push chair, bags and a bassinet with bulkhead seats, it was not worth holding the flight for my family and I given the time it would take for us to board. As a result no attempt was made to help us get to the flight. None! And I can only assume that the decision to remove our luggage was made some time before 2:50pm to give sufficient time to remove our three bags and car seat from the flight. As a result had I arrived even 10 minutes earlier I do not believe we would have made the flight.

To add further credence to this conclusion was the information we received from a Heathrow Official in a high visibility jacket as we were walking despondently back from the gate. He told us that “There was no reason to not let us board that flight”. When we enquired why he claimed that although the gate had been closed, the plane door had yet to be closed when we arrived. Indeed when I looked out of the window at that point I could still see the plane! Although we appreciated the honesty of the official this information only fueled our frustration and grievance.

Although the flight we were attempting to make was a Delta flight it was Virgin operatives that prevented us from getting onto it. As a result I feel that it is Virgin’s responsibility that we were forced to endure the ordeal I will now recount.
Yes Mr. Branson, after what I feel can only be described as an extremely unfortunate experience so far I reach the just the beginning of what turned into a 29 hour attempt to get my family and I home. I appreciate your patience up to this point and please buckle in for the remaining stretch!

Upon returning to the lounge at Heathrow we headed for a Virgin desk and attempted to negotiate our way home. We were greeted with a fairly helpful representative who unfortunately took some convincing of our story up to that point. Fortunately one of the very helpful representatives from the check-in desk who I had spoken to previous confirmed that there had been considerable trouble with Heathrow security over recent days and was hence not surprised we had been waylaid in the manner in which we had. With this resolved we were offered three options –
• Take a Delta Flight to New York’s Newark airport, get a hotel and take a connection the next day.
• Take American Airlines flight AA 107 to New York’s JFK airport with a 1hr 20min connection via Jet Blue flight 623 to LAX.
• Wait 4 days for the next available seat on the equivalent flight we had just missed.

With waiting not an option and no desire to stay in a hotel over-night we enquired about the connecting JFK flight. Although we were told the connection would be tight we were assured that the connection could be made even with a baby and my UK passport. After some deliberation we accepted that option and set the wheels in motion.

Our American Airlines to JFK was late in landing by about 10 minutes. We hurried through immigration taking advantage of my partner and baby’s US passports which allowed us to all pass through US Citizen immigration in frankly record time! We had received conflicting information at Heathrow that we would have to claim and recheck our luggage at JFK (from the Virgin representative) and that our luggage had been checked through to LAX and hence would not have to be claimed at JFK (American Airlines representative). After checking with representatives at baggage claim I was able to determine that our luggage had indeed been checked through and hence we did not need to wait to claim it. So we hurried from baggage claim through JFK from our arrival terminal 8 via their Air Train system to Jet Blue’s Terminal 5, only to arrive barely 10 minutes before our connecting flight was due to take off and hence with no chance of making that 9:30pm flight. As I have mentioned previously I have travelled a lot and I can honestly say that I have never been as lucky as we were that day with the arrival and connection procedure. Immigration was fast, there was no baggage to collect and recheck, the Air Train was in our favour and yet we STILL did not make our connection! Once again sir, your service had let us down.

Given the hour and with no remaining flights out of JFK to LAX via Jet Blue we proceeded back to Terminal 8 with hope of negotiating another flight with American Airlines. Unfortunately their desks were already closed at this time, leaving me no choice but to break out my phone and start making calls! After a long and unfortunately fruitless conversation with American I attempted to make it back across JFK to talk to someone in person at Jet Blue before their desks closed at midnight. Sadly this also proved fruitless and I was forced to instead call them. After another long conversation I began to learn the subtleties of airline ticket control.

American Airlines had been unable to issue us new tickets as they informed me Jet Blue were in control of the ticket and hence had to either rebook us or relinquish control. Finger Point number 1!

Upon talking to Jet Blue I was told that it was in fact Virgin that had ultimate control of the ticket and hence would have to be the ones to rebook us. Finger Point number 2!
I spoke to Virgin and was greeted by an extremely helpful representative named James with whom I was able to reach some kind of conclusion - take a Delta Flight at 8:15am or attempt to take a Jet Blue flight at 6:15 am. Obviously the latter seemed more appealing at that point as we were already sleeping in an airport and eager to escape from there as soon as possible. Unfortunately James was unable to reach Jet Blue to confirm our actual tickets. No fear I said, their desks open at 3:30am which, at this point was only an hour away (yes I had already been on the phone on and off for some 3 hours!). With James’ assurance that the Delta flight was a confirmed back-up we proceeded back over to Terminal 5 to attempt to resolve the matter with Jet Blue.

Once there I was told that Jet Blue could confirm availability on the 6:15am flight but were still unable to issue us tickets because Virgin were still in control. So I again called Virgin Assistance, reaching another very helpful agent named Michelle who successfully negotiated the release of control of our ticket. Unfortunately Jet Blue were still unable to issue us tickets to their flight and Michelle informed me that following the release of control she was no longer able to issue us tickets either! At this point it was 4:30am. After conversations between Michelle and the Jet Blue representative via my phone we were finally told that Virgin had been able to reissue our tickets for the 6:15am flight and we simply had to wait for the Virgin Ticketing agents to confirm said tickets which would allow Jet Blue to issue actual physical tickets to us. So we waited. And we waited. And we waited and finally at 5:20 I called Virgin back in a vain attempt to speed the process up. A further representative named Chris attempted to help us and followed through on the procedure. Unfortunately it had reached 5:45am at this point and we were told by Jet Blue that we had missed the 6:15am flight. Undeterred we attempted to make the 8:30am flight via the same process! Ultimately Chris informed us that although we could attempt to again negotiate the process with Jet Blue, we could also go for the tickets to the Delta flight that I had originally been promised by James some 6 hours earlier. I agreed and Chris was true to his word.

And so finally at 8:15am we just barely made it onto a Delta flight VS 4741/DL 0472 from JFK to LAX ending a 12 hour experience of JFK’s Terminal 8, Terminal 5 and Air Train system. Oh and the truly terrible sandwiches I purchased in hunger infused delirium at 11pm that night. By 12:30pm Pacific time we landed in LAX and reached the end of our 29 hour travel ordeal. Minus our baggage of course which at this point was lost somewhere between Heathrow, JFK and LAX!

And so having finally reached the end of the exasperating, mortifying and exhausting (both to endure and read) experience and I am left most horribly conflicted Mr. Branson. Whilst dealing with three different airlines and three different airports throughout this experience I can honestly say that the only people that were truly helpful, proactive and considerate to us were Virgin representatives. In many ways many of your staff, at Terminal 3 and Desk 0 at Heathrow, on the phone at Virgin Special Assistance and also Virgin ticket assistance were a credit to your company. Had it not been for the Virgin Staff at Gate 22 making no effort to assist us and ultimately turning us away however the vast majority of this nightmare would have been avoided. After paying nearly $4000 for direct flights to and from LAX with a company that I trust and prefer our actual experience was met with problems and excuses almost every step of the way. And I most certainly did not get a direct flight home!

And so I feel I must request compensation for what we endured. I leave it to your discretion to decide what form resolving this kind of customer experience should take and hope you agree that any gesture made should be equal in measure to the level of distress endured.

I do hope I am able to be a customer of yours in the future Mr. Branson.


Alex Sulman
Jessica Nolasco
Grant Sulman