In an effort to mitigate the difficulties involved in switching to a new online reservation system, Virgin America has been making good use of social media. In fact, they have sent out more than 11,000 direct messages via Twitter to customers upset about problems encountered during the transition.
Prior to the switch they sent out emails to fliers, over staffed their customer service department first by 35 percent then by 45 percent and thinned their flight schedule. They have also been monitoring the social media networks for complaints (hence the 11,000 DM via Twitter) of which there have been many.
Unfortunately, despite all this preparation, monitoring and management, Virgin America has found itself on the receiving end of an outpouring of ill-will from its tech-savvy customers who cannot seem to grasp why they are suddenly experiencing so many difficulties from the airline which is known for having re-invented air travel.
The fact is the reservation system change-over is a once in a lifetime event for an airline and no small thing. It represents a major change in the way Virgin America reservations are conducted online. The new system, called Sabre, is the industry-standard for travel reservations network. It started in the 1960’s and has seen numerous evolutions, some better than others. The Virgin America migration is hardly an earth-shattering move, or a signal that the airline is giving up on its philosophy of originality and joining the “good ol’ boys” network. Just the opposite.
Virgin America hopes the new system will represent a smoother overall experience for fliers once all the bugs have been worked out. The difficulty lies not in the end result they are hoping for but in getting from here to there without being abandoned by the very loyal customers they are hoping to improve service for. So far results have been mostly negative as angry fliers have taken to the social media landscape to complain fervently about the problems they are having with the new reservation system. As compensation the airline is waiving change and cancellation fees for passengers who experience trouble and some members of the airline’s frequent flier program who traveled during the switch-over and experienced problems received an email apology from the airline’s CEO and 5,000 bonus points.
How much the switch has hurt their business is still unknown, and still too early to tell. In the end it seems likely customers will find the things they love about Virgin America – Wi-Fi on all flights, power outlets at every seat and more leg room – far outweigh the inconvenience they experienced while the new reservation system came online.