Virgin America Encounters Turbulence Over Silicon Valley


Virgin America is in a bona fide social media crisis as it makes the switch to Sabre for reservations. Richard Branson’s hip, business-oriented U.S. carrier, a darling amongst sophisticated travelers, recently made the change to accommodate increased business, but its online booking system is wreaking havoc on passengers changing or canceling flights, making seat selections, or checking their frequent flier accounts. 

“We are really the first airline that has gone through this type of business change in the era of social media,” commented Virgin spokeswoman Abby Lunardini to Venture Beat, which reports that the tech woes have been raising hackles among Silicon Valley tech execs. “It’s a knife-edge cutover because you have live operations. You have to move everything over to the new system at once.” Good thing the carrier has a new head of marketing to run damage control.[more]

The Sabre system, when de-bugged, will improve Virgin America’s offerings including codesharing with V Australia and Virgin Atlantic, elite programs for the most frequent fliers, as well as enhanced mobile features. The plan is to migrate all ticketing, technology and distribution to the SabreSonic Customer Sales and Service System by 2013.

The Sabre system processes more than 19,000 transactions per second—about 2 billion every day, and at peak times, 1 million transactions per minute. Impressive, but not enough for an unforgiving public armed with social media.

The twitterverse is abuzz with pushback such as: “I’ve been fascinated by the botched Sabre migration. Worst since Hershey’s moved to SAP & had no candy for Halloween” in 2002, tweeted NYC-based techie, frequent flier and social media influencer Anil Dash.

Things have been equally tough for Virgin America on Facebook, including this from Michael Fahmie: “they have been on this new reservation system transition for 30+ days. Horrible, horrible, horrible…CEO should be fired! Not able to reach anyone by phone, no email, ….lost my reservation Thanksgiving Eve, travel bank account LOST! I had high expectations but you guys blew it!”

Or this FB update from Patrice San Dov Al: “Virgin SUCKS. I’m having the same problem. I haven’t recieved ANY confirmation on the reservation I made a few weeks ago. How do I know the person on the phone actually made the reservation. I HATE YOU NOW AND WILL NEVER TRAVEL ON VIRGIN AGAIN!”

For travelers who make changes or cancellations at the airport, fees will be waived, and Frequent Flier members affected received an email apology from the company’s CEO and 5,000 bonus points. 

To their credit, Virgin has staffed a 24/7 social media team to respond to consumer complaints, sending about 10,000 Twitter messages since the problems began. Virgin hopes to fix all the bugs this week (by December 8th).

“We are hoping that when we get on the other side of these last errors that guests will still enjoy the experience with us and stay with us,” Lunardini told Venture Beat.