Virgin shuts its legs, I shut my wallet
Monday 6 December 2010 @ 2:00 pm

Update 2, 5:44pm, same dayUpdate 5:10pm, same day:

On Twitter, I’ve been asked this question a few times, so I figured I’d include the response here…

Via @cbalint “Why did you wait until 10 minutes b4 the flight to board?”

One of the only pricey indulgences I’m happy to pay for is First Class air travel. I fly LOTS, and when you’re also big fat-ass, the wider seats are definitely more comfortable. Indeed, with the exception of the Bay Area Southwest flights I used to take, it’s fair to say – since ’96 – you could always find me at the front of the plane (as a first class passenger, not giving the pilot’s “driver’s courtesy”).

After Southwest did it’s level-headed best to alienate large passengers everywhere, I was off flying for awhile, sticking strictly to my beloved bus – the last refuge of the oversized traveler with a Jay-and-Silent-Bob-lined bank account. But in order to attend the Walter Gretzky street hockey tournament in Brandtford this summer, I HAD to fly again (we couldn’t make it in time driving, due to a previous engagement).

So I bit the bullet and got on another plane, for the first time in months. And when I sat down, the fella next to me smiled and asked “They gonna throw you off this plane too?”

And the next three flights I took, it was the same. Even worse: when you fly first, you board first, sit down… and then EVERYONE files past you. And when you’re the Too Fat To Fly guy on a plane? Well, everyone stares. Then the whispering starts. A hundred people look right at you – when you’re not on a stage. It kinda blows.

But Affleck told me that when he flies, he uses a concierge service: a company that works with the airport and each airlines. Their job is to get you to the plane on time, but not when boarding begins; that way, you don’t have to play the Elephant Man for passengers passing you en route to their seats. Essentially, you board last. The entire service is designed to get you to the plane door shortly before the door closes.

We were at the airport and checked-in for over an hour before departure, waiting in the lounge. Dorothy, our concierge, has been doing her job for years; she knows EXACTLY how much time she has to get her clients to the plane before the door closes. This is how she makes her living, so it behooves her to know when to head for the plane; we had time. The plane was not only in sight, it REMAINED in sight for the next 15/20 minutes. Dorothy the concierge was, rightfully, beside herself: the gate agents made HER look bad – even though this is EXACTLY how she does her job every day.

So that’s why I got to the door ten minutes before the flight: because I was told to by a professional who’s been working JFK for years. It didn’t matter; The gate agents made up their minds to lose Virgin some business.

But that’s in the past now. Virgin America did EXACTLY what any corporation/company should do when their customers have issues with their service: they almost instantly self-corrected. I appreciate that they’ve done their best to repair damage and apologize.

Lots have Tweeted that Virgin only corrected because they didn’t want to go through the shit I went through with Air Master Race back in February. I don’t care why they’re trying to amends, I’m just sincerely relieved to know that there’s an airline out there that will listen and seriously try to fix things – not just write a blog that lied about their captain, only to then CHANGE their party line AND blog without denoting or highlighting their deception… Sorry – CORRECTION! Meant correction. Southwest still stands alone as Worst in Customer Service in my book.

But even though the Virgin America JFK gate 25 agents royally fucked my day, someone higher up in the company tried very hard to make it right… And succeeded.


Update 1

Unlike Southworst, @VirginAtlantic seems to care: lovely, apologetic email, full refund for flight, free tix offer – all before I’ve landed. I appreciate the gesture/effort.


Dear Virgin America,

I’m gonna do this carefully because I’ve already got some… history, shall we say… with another airline.

My wife Jennifer, my friend Jason Mewes and I were booked on VX 409, JFK to LAX today, December 6th, 11:45am.

So as not to potentially hinder the boarding/departure process, we arrived at the airport over an hour ahead of BOARDING time. We checked our luggage – 3 bags in total, 2 of which belonged to my wife.

With over an hour to kill in the very-empty-in-the-early-hours Terminal 4, we settled in a pre-boarding lounge until it was time to head to the gate. To further insure that we wouldn’t hinder the boarding process, we even took advantage of a concierge service – an airport liaison whose job it is to get travelers on their planes on time. Dorothy, the liaison, kept us informed as to when we could go to the gate.

We went through TSA with no issues, collected our things, and headed to gate B25. Boarding started at 11:15, and we arrived at the gate at 11:35 – a full ten minutes before scheduled departure. But as we reached the gate, we saw a man closing the door. Since we were a good 50 feet or more from the actual door, Mewes called out to the man, letting him know there were three more. The man looked at us and continued closing the door. We told him we were on the flight and he told us it was too late; the flight was closed. It was 11:36. We told him we had first class tickets. The lone attendant said that didn’t matter. It was still over five minutes ’til the scheduled departure.

We pleaded with Manny (the unfriendly face of Virgin America JFK working the gate), pointing out the remaining time (there were still 8 minutes before scheduled departure), and pointing out that the jetway was still attached to the plane. Flying as much as I do (usually up at the front of the plane), I know that the jetway only gets pulled back ONCE THE PLANE DOOR IS SECURELY CLOSED. As we tried to get Manny to realize our bags were under the plane and we’d been checked in for an hour, the jetway stayed in place. The plane wouldn’t pull back from the gate for another 15 minutes (if you want, I can show you the picture we took of the jetway still attached, with Mewes’ phone displaying the time in the foreground; yes, I took that picture; sadly, that’s the world we live in now).

Manny was joined by Erwin, who identified himself as the person in charge. I pointed out – EXTREMELY calmly – that we’d checked in an hour prior and that our bags were on the plane. He said it didn’t matter, as we weren’t at the gate when they shut the door. We told him we were with sight of the gate and that Manny could’ve held the door – particularly because departure wasn’t for another nearly ten minutes at that point. He said he’d called for us over the p.a. system, but my wife’s name is SCHWALBACH – you say a name THAT distinctive over a loudspeaker, at least two people in an airport are gonna turn their heads: me & Jen Schwalbach. And, the fact that we were going through security mere yards from the actual gate, and we’d heard the last call announcement for the previous San Francisco flight… well, without calling anybody a liar, it’s just REALLY hard to believe that p.a. call was actually made. I didn’t hear my name over the loudspeaker. Jennifer Schwalbach didn’t hear her name. Jason Mewes didn’t hear his name. Dorothy, the concierge service lady, didn’t hear any of our names. Four independent sets of ears, mere yards from the origin point of the alleged p.a. call failed to hear the call; what are the chances we’re all stone cold deaf?

But like I said: I’ve been through it with an airline before. I knew this was a losing battle-for-reason; I’ve dealt with petty, per-hour tyrants who abuse their authority and assume nobody further up the corporate ladder is ever gonna hear about how they represented their employers in the worst possible light. Sometimes, y’all put folks up front who give your company a bad name. Keeping me off my flight even though I was checked in an hour prior and my baggage was already on board isn’t even the big slap in the face though; that came next.

I told them, in a VERY polite manner, that I didn’t care about making the plane (even though it meant we’d be missing our kid’s first basketball game at school – a fact I didn’t share with them because if Manny and Erwin couldn’t give a fuck about me, their customer, what chance did Harley have of finding any compassion); all I cared about was my wife’s luggage…

Which was under the plane…

And contained her medication.

She needed to take it eight hours from her last dosage. Rather than put it in her carry-on, she put it in her bag that went under the plane. Since we were gonna be home in six hours, what did it matter? But now? In a world where the next flight wouldn’t get us to our bags/her medication for NINE hours, naturally, I was concerned with getting our bags off the plane.

But Erwin said that wasn’t possible. So did Manny. They didn’t even TRY to call someone about getting the bags off. “They can’t do that,” was all I got. Dorothy, the concierge, said in her 27 years working with all the airlines, she’d never seen anything like it.

And still, the plane sat right there at the, jetway still attached. Our bags could’ve EASILY been removed in the time that the jet remained parked at the gate (or we could’ve been permitted to board). And even though I CALMLY explained three times that my wife would need her medication based on the delay they were creating, neither Manny nor Erwin would do anything to help about the bags – or getting us on a plane we were booked on/had tickets for/were in the terminal an hour ahead of schedule to take.

Manny wouldn’t give me his last name; he said he didn’t have to. I said it was unfair, as he had my name (and home address!); he insisted two more times that he didn’t have to furnish me with his last name (Erwin did, however). The pair then looked to book us on the next flight out – which had no first class available.

It didn’t matter: at that point, I knew I’d never spend another dime on anything Virgin-related ever again (which sucks, as I’m a huge fan of your trains in England and your cross-Atlantic flight). It’s not that your airline sucks: you guys are actually a top-notch operation, about whom I literally said to my wife a mere five days ago while we were en route to the east cost “Virgin does it right, man. Such a great airline…”

You are a great airline – but the wife and I will be avoiding you like the plague from now on. As will Mewes – who must’ve smoked an entire pack of cigarettes outside afterwards to calm down. As will anyone in my immediate and extended family. As will any of the cast/crew I’ve gotta fly around the country (or out of it) for productions.

I don’t fault you for the petty, lazy, unhelpful behavior of your JFK terminal 4/gate B25 desk crew. But if that’s the caliber of customer service/customer satisfaction you’d like to be known for, then it doesn’t matter if you’ve got free wifi on the plane and a kickass, in-flight movie selection. It all starts at that check-in desk; and what started there today was the end of our business relationship.

And you WANT me as a customer, man: I’m a first class fiend and I travel TONS. But this shit may have even put me off Virgin Atlantic, too.

A one-time booster who feels fucked over,

Kevin Smith
Loudmouth of the Skies


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