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Budget Airlines Need To Pull Their Pants Up

It is an unwritten rule of commercial travel bloggers to not write about negative experiences they have with specific companies. Luckily there is nothing commercial about my blogging, so I am free to share my experiences more openly and I think it’s time to call for some accountability by the budget airlines.

Budget Airline Fails

Everyone who travels regularly has a story of incompetent customer service by the budget airlines. I have personally done a lot of travelling and consider myself lucky to have had only a handful of bad experiences with airlines. The other day after two days of chasing up what should have been a simple issue, the thought came to me that this was ridiculous. These are companies that I entrust with my life and my most precious belongings and I have no faith or respect for any of the promises they make me. How has the industry reached the point where this is acceptable?

I am going to share some of my experiences with budget airlines and yes I am going to name names but please understand this is not meant to be an attack on any one company, rather a comment on the state of the industry and a suggestion on how we may be able to influence its improvement.

I fly often between New Zealand and Australia where we have the choice of two premium and two budget carriers. Now I understand that budget, means no frills, no meals or entertainment onboard, ever tightening baggage rules and online booking but I do not believe that this should take away from a basic level of customer service and trust that the airline will fulfill their obligations to you as their customer.

Bad Flight Experience

I have now had a bad experience with both of the budget airlines on offer. No I just don’t mean crappy customer service or surprise extra fees but experiences when the airline was genuinely at fault.

My first was several years ago with Jetstar. I arrived in Auckland after more than 42 hours of travel to discover they had lost my bag with props attached. (I know they put it on the plane I watched them do it from twenty five meters away at my last transfer) Anyway the bag ended up back in Australia the next day. It took weeks of phone calls and emails to get my gear returned as they had deemed it dangerous to travel without me. I believe it was six weeks later that my property was eventually returned to me, the props were damaged beyond repair and with no apology or compensation. And that’s where I when wrong I gave up, worn down by weeks of pointless phone calls, I don’t even think I placed a formal complaint I was just glad to have something of my property back. This was several years ago now and I have to admit I’m still bitter, I still watch my bags going on and off the plane like a hawk knowing that I have no control if they come back or if they mishandle my gear.

My second was just last week with Virgin. I called to transfer my flight only to be told that I could not do this as I had booked in NZ$ (this is what their website had instructed me to do) eventually I admitted defeat and agreed to cancel and rebook my flight. I was promised that my refund (cancelation costs more than transferring and the remaining “refunded” money is held in a travel bank you can only use to book more Virgin flights) would be available for me to re-book immediately. Fourteen hours later I called back chasing my money, eventually they managed to get the password for my travel bank through to me. I logged into my travel bank only to discover they had only refunded half the money. I called back and after forty minutes on the phone they managed to fix the problem of my “lost” money. The whole episode cost me a great deal of stress, time and hundreds of dollars more than I had reasonably expected based on the $100 fee advertised to transfer to another flight. This time I laid a formal complaint. I have had a reply saying they apologize for my inconvenience and will refer my complaint to the guest relations team but the team is busy and may not get back to me for some time, if ever.

Bad Customer Service

(Update 13/4/16 – Virgin have finally agreed to acknowledge their mistake and partially compensate me for my lost time and money. After six weeks and more than fifteen emails, repeatedly sending the same documents on request and two official complaints I have a resolution. Virgin has apologized for my delayed refund and half of my money being withheld and though they do not know why this happened they say the issue is being internally looked at. On my point about refusing to transfer my flight because I booked in a different currency they have said this is a company policy and refuse to address the fact that this policy isn’t displayed in the ticket information anywhere I can find. Furthermore they have refunded my $240NZD cancelation fee into a travel bank account.

I have concluded my interaction with Virgin feeling like I won some sort of endurance race, mostly I’m just happy I don’t have to deal with them anymore. I appreciate they refunded my cancellation fee as this went a long way to offsetting the extra fees I paid for the flights but although I feel like I won a great battle I can’t help thinking it shouldn’t be this hard, should I have to be this persistent, to spend so much of my precious time chasing something that they now acknowledge was their fault? Either way I now have around $340AU held in a travel bank account that I can only use for Virgin flights in the next year so I guess Virgin will get another chance to demonstrate their customer service to me in the near future.)

But it was last night when I called Jetstar with a simple request for the email address of the department who could confirm I could carry a certain prop onto the plane, when I realized I had just had enough. This was an extremely simple question and yet it took me over fifteen minutes on the phone, two cases of being put on hold and repeating my question ad nauseam to get a straight answer. Something that should have taken three min took over fifteen and I would not have got an answer at all if I had not been extremely persistent in stating what I wanted and not letting the guy who was supposed to help me fob me off in about twenty different ways. It just shouldn’t be this hard!

(Update 13/4/16 – I emailed the address I had been given and several days later I received a reply that the dangerous goods department couldn’t help me and to contact Qantas directly. After another week and two emails to Qantas they referred me directly to the security team at Melbourne Airport who never responded to my enquiries. At each stage of this process no one was willing to take the responsibility to confirm or deny if I was allowed to carry my prop on. It was bureaucracy 101 and of course I didn’t ever get an answer and missed an opportunity because I couldn’t risk having my prop confiscated in the airport.

A week after my flight had come and gone I decided to follow my own advice and make a formal complaint - now here is where Jetstar stood out for me. I received an email a week and a half latter apologizing for my bad experience. They said I was allowed my prop on board (though I needed to check with security - which kind of puts me back at square one as security won’t return my emails but they committed to something at least) and sent me a $50 voucher to be used on flight in the next six months. As much as I am still sitting here with my simple question unanswered five weeks later, the simple response and tone of the email made me feel like they actually cared about my experience and wanted me to have a good experience with Jetstar, $50 might not go along way but it an un-requested token of their commitment to me having a positive experience with their company.)

I was fuming over how the budget airlines get away with being so incredibly incompetent and then it occurred to me that it is because we let them. If a pizza delivery guy says the pizza will arrive in forty min and it doesn’t, they say sorry we said it would be here, please except our apologies and a free pizza and we expect nothing less. How have we got to the point where the pizza guy is more accountable for their actions than these companies we are trusting our lives to? If these companies really believed in their service and in the promises they make when they take our money, they would be willing to stand up and apologize and give compensation when they occasionally make a mistake. The fact that they don’t seem willing to do this speaks volumes about the value of their promises and contracts. There is being in business to make money and then there is being in business with no regard for the welfare of your customers knowing how limited their options are.

Support Airlines in Social media

I want to call to everybody who has had an experience like this with a budget airline, or who will in the future to take action. Follow the formal complaint procedure (it helps if you have noted who you have spoken to and when) but more than that take to social media, share your story, splash it all over their Facebook page, tag Branson, tag your friends, show them that customer service and trust are important to us the consumers. A business will put energy into what makes its customers easy to deal with so join me in making this their problem.

(updated 13/4/16 - Of the two experiences I had following the complaints procedures of these airlines, Jetstar definitely stood out as the most pain free and positively invested in my experience. As even though I got money back from Virgin I had to fight every step of the way. I want to thank both airlines for processing my complaints and for considering compensating me at all but I still stand by my original points in this post.

A basic level of customer service is not a lot to ask and if you have a bad experience with a budget airline follow the complaints procedure, let them know when they are not holding up their end of the contract. Though complaining might be hard and you may feel like a whinger, if we do not tell these companies when they are dropping the ball, then we can never expect them to raise their standards.

I got some feedback on my original post that, I deserved everything I got if I didn’t pay for the premium service but I disagree. I believe that I should get an answer to a question, a refund of the money owed to me and know about policies that have the potential to cost me money, as these are basic things that are advertised as part of the service that I did pay for. This is a great example of the power of the consumer to shape what a company prioritizes for its customers. Make the extra effort and tell the airlines about your experience, who knows you might even get a refund.)


If you enjoyed this post check out my article on what questions to ask a travel agent before booking a holiday.

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