Sunday, December 19, 2010

India: Stranded Edition

Due to weather conditions, I am stuck in Delhi until December 25. Although I've enjoyed my stay here, seven days was quite enough for me, especially because the pollution has negatively affected my normally clear respiratory system.

I am disappointed in Virgin Atlantic's approach towards its customers and do not anticipate flying with them again. They didn't appear to have a specific plan to accommodate their passengers and seemed intent on getting us to cancel our flights and then fly with other airlines at our own cost. It took about eight hours before they put me in a hotel and confirmed an outgoing flight back to California. Initially, it appeared they might be able to get me to Newark, NJ and then to SFO via Continental Airlines, but Virgin said Continential Airlines wasn't responding to their phone calls, and Continental's counter wouldn't open up until later in the evening. When Virgin finally managed to get in touch with Continental, all Newark flights were overbooked, which apparently wasn't the case earlier. Then, after telling me all Newark flights were overbooked, another Virgin employee told me they could get me to Newark but then I'd be on my own in terms of getting to SFO. I declined, as I had no accommodations in Newark, and Virgin wasn't willing to confirm that it would pay for any accommodations in Newark until I was able to get to SFO. The conflicting information--overbooked vs. sudden availability a few hours later--makes me wonder whether other people had been able to book flights on Continental while I was waiting in the airport, and whether Virgin employees had done their best to get their American-bound travelers any available seats.

In my case, I didn't have to go to weather-impacted Heathrow. I could go anywhere in the world that connected with SFO, but I don't think Virgin wanted to incur more costs than absolutely necessary to get me home for X-Mas. I even asked to go to anywhere in Asia, including Singapore--which has direct flights to California--so I could have a better chance of getting back to San Jose faster, but they weren't going to accommodate that request, even though flights were available to Hong Kong on other airlines. For first time in many years, I will be spending X-Mas away from my mom, dad, and sister.

[Update: from what I heard from similarly stranded people at the hotel bar, British Airways put some U.S.-bound passengers to Hong Kong then to the U.S.]

If I wanted to cancel my Virgin flight and take another airline, it would have been much more expensive due to the short-term nature of the flight arrangements and the holiday season. Apparently, the available seats on some other airlines were first-class only, which are very expensive (one person called and was quoted 4,000 dollars for a seat). Moreover, because my flight's cancellation was due to a weather-related issue rather than Virgin's own direct fault, Virgin might not have a mandatory requirement to put passengers on other airlines or to reimburse passengers who went home on other airlines. In short, a cancellation due to weather-related conditions appears to transfer the entire responsibility the passenger to find alternative accommodations and flight arrangements.

I managed to get them to put me in a hotel by being one of about six people who stayed until the evening and asked for continued assistance. The Virgin employees had told me I was responsible for arranging my own hotel, but most people from both Virgin and British Airways were eventually set up in my current hotel. Even so, the lack of organization is extremely upsetting and added unnecessarily to an already stressful situation. Some airport employees at the Virgin-designated counter appeared to be standing around much of the time, talking to each other instead of assisting passengers.

In my case, Delhi's Virgin employees blamed their failure to take me back to SFO on other airlines and on airport immigration controls. When I asked to speak with the home office of Virgin, one Virgin employee said the home office bigwigs weren't sitting by the phone, waiting to get calls from passengers. I was in the airport from 11:00AM to about 7:00PM. My flight was supposed to leave at 1:45PM. I still don't understand why Virgin didn't help me out by putting me on a flight back to the States that avoided Heathrow, and why they claimed immigration rules prevented them from sending me anywhere without a ticket showing a final destination in America. I understand there are procedures, but if you can get someone back to his final destination by putting him on another airline that can avoid weather-impacted airports, why not work with other airlines to get the passenger back home?

When I finally arrived at the hotel, I was told that even though Virgin had specifically told me they were covering my entire hotel stay until my return to SFO, Virgin had failed to tell the hotel that they would cover my accommodation. Earlier, I had received verbal confirmation from Virgin's airport representatives that Virgin would cover all of my hotel expenses, but Virgin apparently failed to convey this information to the hotel when I arrived. Luckily, I had gotten a Virgin employee to confirm in front of a hotel-affiliated worker that they would cover my entire stay, so the hotel manager told me a few hours later that he had made some calls and had received confirmation that Virgin would cover my accommodations. Finally some good news, eh? Not quite.

The next day, a Virgin employee told me Virgin would not cover anything more than one night's stay because my flight was delayed due to weather, which was not Virgin's fault. He also wanted me to agree to pay a 75 pounds fee to go to Heathrow and asked me to change my December 25 outbound flight to Heathrow without any specific details regarding a replacement flight. I didn't agree to pay any additional fees, and I referred to Virgin's own handout (which stated they would cover hotel costs). I then looked up visa requirements and any 75 pound fees on the UK Border Patrol and U.S. State Department websites, and neither website indicated I needed to pay a fee or get a visa. When I informed the Virgin employee (he only gave me his first name, which starts with "R") that I couldn't find anything about a 75 pound fee, he said I might be stuck at the airport if I didn't pay it, and then he told me to go to the hotel counter around 8:30AM the next day to check for news, telling me it was possible I might have to leave the next day.

I explained I had to let my relatives in London know when I was arriving so they could pick me up, and I had already told them to pick me up at the re-scheduled flight on December 25, but my pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. I don't see the benefit in having different Virgin employees tell me different things or try to get me to pay more money when I've already paid in full for a flight to Heathrow and then to SFO. Coupled with all the other issues, it seems strange for Virgin employees to add more uncertainty to the current situation instead of trying to smooth out a way back home for me. In addition, even if there is a 75 pounds fee--and I'm not sure there is--it's probably cheaper for Virgin to cover the fee and get me to Heathrow earlier instead of covering my hotel stay here. On the other hand, perhaps Rajeev sincerely believes Virgin isn't required to cover my hotel stay until I leave to Heathrow, so perhaps he doesn't see any need to accommodate me at all. That's quite interesting when Virgin's own handout clearly indicates they will cover hotel accommodations for flight cancellations (no mention of fault is made in the handout, or a limitation on the number of days covered).

Making matters worse is the fact that I am having a tough time reaching my sister, who had been trying to fly back to the States on her own. We did manage to get in touch at Delhi airport, and she's chanced a trip to Mumbai because she's hoping to get back to Boston on standby (it's a shorter flight to the East Coast than the West Coast from India, and she was hoping to bypass Heathrow entirely). I am going to be worried sick about her in the meantime. [Update: good news! At 2AM, I received an email stating that my sister was with family in London. This is such a relief!] This was not the vacation I had planned. I will try to do some work here, but it will be difficult until I receive news from my sister that she has a confirmed flight back to the States or Heathrow. I continue to be extremely frustrated at Virgin's lack of communication with us and the conflicting information provided to me by different Virgin employees.

If you're planning on taking a vacation and are considering India, remember that customer service and infrastructure in India are inconsistent. For those reasons, if you're unprepared to handle inconvenience and limited infrastructure, look elsewhere for a vacation. As for Virgin Atlantic's Delhi employees, pray that you avoid all of them wherever you travel.

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