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Pacific Blues: Virgin on the Ridiculous in Bali

January 24, 2010

There is a travellers’ glitch that happens so often in Bali that it is almost an industry cliche. Departing flights to Australia often leave just after midnight, so passengers need to be at the airport the day before the day and date shown on their itinerary. Inevitably, after falling victim to the dreaded Bali Relaxation Syndrome after a week or two, some flyers pay scant attention to their outgoing travel documents. Towards the end of a holiday here, one’s need to know what day it is becomes completely irrelevant. Yet for most, the shred of planning ability that still remains impels them to quickly skim their itinerary a few days before leaving. And often they will see something like: Departing Saturday 23 January, 12:05 am. Naturally, in their terminally bewildered state, some arrive at the airport at 10pm on Saturday 23rd, only to discover that their plane left 22 hours ago. Without them.

So it transpires that my friend (let’s call her “M”, because everyone else does) is packing to leave Bali on a Saturday morning. That’s when she finds out, to her great chagrin, that her Pacific Blue flight had departed at midnight the previous night. And of course, she wasn’t on it. She tries to contact the airline – but by some strange oversight, no contact details seem to have been provided on her now defunct itinerary.

Luckily there is a helpful concierge at her hotel, who calls the Bali branch of Pacific Blue, where a sympathetic girl says: “Oh! You poor thing! Come in to our office now and we will fix this”. M doesn’t know it yet, but that was actually the peak moment in the customer service experience. She catches a taxi to the distant airline office at a cost of 40,000 Rupiah, but on arrival, is met with studied indifference by a different ‘customer service’ representative. He acts as if it is a huge imposition for him to be expected to work on a Saturday and dismisses her request for assistance.

CSR: “Sorry, can not help you.”
M: “But you just told me on the phone to come in and you would fix this!”
CSR: “The girl who told you that has gone home.”
M: “Well, can you help me then?”
CSR: “No. This is not our problem.You missed your flight.”
M: “I know that, but what can I do now?
CSR: (Shrugging) “Go back to your hotel. Book a flight on the internet.”
M: “Oh. I don’t have a laptop. Can I book a flight here?”
CSR: “No. Go home. Book on the internet.”

During the 40,000 Rupiah trip back, close to tears, M ponders the logical inconsistencies of staffing a local airline office with customer service representatives who can not fix a problem, provide no useful advice and seem incapable of carrying out a simple ticketing exercise. But mostly she thinks about why they don’t even seem to care.

In the meantime, I locate the airline’s Australian-based customer service number and pass it on. M rings them. No, there is nothing they can do. They politely point out that it is through no fault of theirs that the flight was missed. Fair enough, that’s true. They suggest calling the travel insurance people, who not unreasonably argue that this was a self-inflicted wound and therefore not covered. The helpful helpline suggests rebooking on the internet.

While this is happening, I find a flight for $595 AUD on the internet and phone the details to M, who proceeds to an internet cafe to make her booking. With uncanny timing, internet access immediately goes down across most of South Bali. Wonderful. So for M, it’s back to the Australian helpline to explain the situation. Yes of course they can book her on the flight. That will be $610 USD thanks. An unsavoury aroma of opportunism wafts from the phone, but what can she do? And no doubt there is a perfectly good managerial explanation as to why an Australian company would make an Australian travelling to Australia pay in US dollars, but the reasoning eludes her. She is less than happy.

OK, missing a flight because one misreads the date and time is a little careless, and no-one really expects a free flight. One takes responsibility and gets on with life. An ’empty’, fully paid seat has unfortunately been flown from Bali to Australia, and another one now needs to be bought. But it’s the manner in which the new seat was provided – or rather, not provided – that grates. Customer service, even on a low-cost carrier should not be an optional extra like an in-flight meal. There is an expectation that mistakes, even those made by customers, will be addressed courteously and sympathetically. In this case, there was no attempt to solve the customer’s problem; in fact the problem was actually exacerbated by the ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude of ground staff. A subliminal condemnation process seemed to be in operation – a punishment of sorts meted out to ‘no-shows’, as if they had deliberately set out to offend the airline.

I remember the old days when this airline was noted for its easy good humour and great customer relations. What happened?

POSTSCRIPT:
The afternoon flight home added insult to injury. M, a vegetarian, asked for an egg and lettuce sandwich, only to be told: “Sorry, they are a bit stale”. She then asked for vegetarian pasta, to be told, “Sorry, none left”. She ended up with cheese and crackers and red wine. Whoopee do. A less than memorable experience.

HAPPY POSTSCRIPT [14 FEB 2010]
I just heard from M. She sent an email to the Customer Service Department, which I suspect was more for personal catharsis than a belief in the possibility of a remedy. But a small miracle has happened. The airline not only responded with, according to her, “a really nice reply”, but gave her a credit for the full cost of her flight home. Nice one, Pacific Blue – that is an excellent outcome for the customer, and a Gold Star for your Customer Relations people.

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8 comments

  1. This is a sorry tale. I once missed a Qantas flight from Singapore to Cairns … I was at the airport in plenty of time but obviously had some kind of communication breakdown with the counter staff… long and sad tale also. In the end if I wanted to go back to Australia I had to buy another ticket. I did, so I did. Wrote to Qantas explaining the circumstances but to no avail.
    Stuff happens!


    • You are right – it’s becoming way too common to be treated like cattle by airlines controlled by robotically cheerless bean-counters who couldn’t see the big picture even if Blue Poles fell on them …
      Re your other question (deleted by executive fiat 😉 on the insurance needed for a KITAS here, I’ve emailed you some suggestions.


  2. Cheap ticket, cheap service. Probably not always but certainly most the time, right? Just look at Air Asia, Lion Air or Jetstar. If you deal with discount airlines you agree to no frills and zero service. Everything else is a nice dream.


  3. Did it ourselves !!, late last year, first time ever, I had booked the return flight with Jet* a day late to meet a connecting flight in Oz. luckily the Garuda rep at the airport was around and put us on their rtn flight at minimal charge.

    Note to self, check dates properly when booking to save providing entertainment for airport baggage handles etc.

    Bless em’ 🙂

    Paulo


  4. I doubt very much if I would ever fly virgin again, after my flight from bali to perth(due to aircraft breakdown)was changed to bali to melbourne ,and melbourne to perth, got home nearly 24 hours late, had 9 hours in the air(instead of 3.5) had about 14 hours extra in airports, and will be given `NO` compensation of any kind including all the extra monies spent on the aircraft and airport waiting rooms.


    • Interesting that the customer relations department seems to assume that each passenger problem is somehow isolated. It’s not – people talk, they go online – and marketplace perceptions can change much more quickly than airlines seem to realise.


  5. I was caught out by this once (ie; missed the flight ) and I found the staff at virgin Bali to be exceptionally polite and helpfull .
    In fact between them , and customer service in Australia ( using their phone in the Bali office ) they eventually gave me a free flight home . It took a lot of very polite and humble haggling etc etc etc …., but the point is they looked after me in the best way possible .


    • Good to hear. My original story was about a similar occurrence that was fraught with difficulties at the Bali end. However, as the update indicates, Virgin in Australia ultimately came to the party by providing excellent customer service – and a refund – to compensate.



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