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LETTERS: Virgin Australia Bali flight overbooked, ticket holder denied boarding

LETTERS: Virgin Australia Bali flight overbooked, ticket holder denied boarding

One of my regular activities is reading the often outraged letters to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Traveller Column. This week, a disgruntled passenger was denied boarding on a flight bound for Bali.

Sure, some letters praise travel organisations, destinations, hotels and airlines. But where’s the fun in that?

I am usually attracted to letters of outrage, usually filled with a lack of understanding of the way the industry works. These are the ones I delight in. Does that make me a bad person? I hope not.

You can read some of the background to the incident that Virgin Australia provided towards the end of this post.

Favourite letter today

My favourite today is the lead letter: ‘Lite not so easy’. In it, Clementine Py of Coogee, NSW rightly complains of being ‘unable to board my Sydney to Denpasar, Bali VA65 flight, on Tuesday, June 25.

She was told of this a half hour before the 5:45 pm flight’s departure, and after she had received a boarding pass with an assigned seat, ‘Virgin unapologetically informed me of this news over the public address at 5.15 pm.’

Clementine is mostly concerned with the inadequate substitution flight she was offered and the expense of last-minute airfares, quite rightly. She opted to get a refund.

a group of airplanes in an airport
Virgin Australia aircraft from Virgin Melbourne lounge [Schuetz/2PAXfly]

Not the fare but the luggage

I am interested in the part of her letter that discusses the interpretation she infers from the airline’s employees’ statements.

When another passenger who was also denied boarding asked, ‘Why us?’, she was told that it was because they had paid for an ‘Economy Lite’ category ticket. Although not stated overtly, the implication is that it was because she purchased a cheap seat.

Why boarding denied?

The reality is more likely to be that Economy Lite tickets come without any checked-in bags. That means that with a denial of boarding so close to the departure time, there was no need to unpack the baggage hold to retrieve the denied boarding passengers’ luggage. That means no delay to the flight. It happens to be a cheaper fare because of the no checked-in luggage, but that is not the primary concern here.

Clementine is also outraged that ‘At no point were volunteers requested over the PA.’

First up, there is no requirement for airlines to ask for volunteers.

Second, as you will see below, Virgin did call for volunteers by a PA announcement on the aircraft.

Thirdly, it is possible that she and any other passengers who were denied boarding were the only passengers on an ‘Economy Lite’ fare, so were the only likely candidates who would not delay the flight due to retrieving luggage from the hold. They also hadn’t yet boarded.

If they were not the only Economy Lite ticketholders, it may have been because they had the lowest status, or indeed, no status in terms of the airline’s Velocity loyalty scheme. As it turned out they were passengers who hadn’t already boarded, which appears to be why they were targetted.

a woman walking in an airplane
Interior Virgin Australia Boeing 737-800 [Schuetx/2PAXfly]

Last minute decision

No airline likes to deny boarding to paying passengers with confirmed tickets and boarding passes. I can only assume that there was a legitimate reason for this. There are many possible reasons. Here are a few:

  • Seats were required for cabin or flight deck crew to reposition
  • Some seats on the aircraft were inoperable, and this was only determined at the gate
  • IT stuff up, resulting in double booking (unlikely)
  • Load or other restrictions – as it turned out, restriction was due to the need to carry additional fuel

There may be other reasons, including some kind of error or incompetence. But that’s highly unlikely.

Virgin Australia Lounge entry, Adelaide [Schuetz/2PAXfly]
Virgin Australia Lounge entry, Adelaide [Schuetz/2PAXfly]

Virgin Australia’s response

Wanting to get a handle on what actually happened in this case, I contacted Virgin Australia’s media unit, who in turn requested information from they guest relations team.

The flight in Question, VA65, from Sydney to Denpasar on 25 June was restricted in the payload it could carry. Due to severe weather expected to be encountered during the journey, the flight required additional fuel reserves.

That need resulted in some passengers being denied boarding and being rebooked on alternative flights that same evening with Singapore Airlines via Singapore. That’s the re-routing that Clementine complains about in her letter, as the routing required unacceptable to her layover time in Singapore. A passenger, which we deduce was Clementine, was fully refunded, plus given a flight credit.

Virgin’s response doesn’t specifically address the question of how they chose which passengers would be denied boarding, just citing ‘appropriate procedures’. But given they hadn’t boarded yet, and apparently had the Lite fares without checked luggage, that could be the reason they were selected, according to the ‘appropriate procedures’.

a plane in an airport
View from Virgin Australia lounge, Melbourne [Schuetz/2PAXfly]

2PAXfly Takeout

Clementine’s case is a very good argument for Australia to adopt a government-regulated compensation scheme similar to EU261.

Airlines as standard practice, don’t stuff passengers around unless they have to. They are in the customer service business, so they know offending passengers is not in their interests.

Having said that, being informed that you will be denied boarding over the PA is not a good look.

The appropriate course is to be requested to come to the service desk at the gate by name over the PA. Still, it’s better than queuing up and being told when you present your boarding pass!

The alternate flight arrangements offered, as described by Clementine, do not sound ideal. However, this may have been the best alternative available given the time of year and the school holiday season. Under these circumstances, having frequent flyer status and a ticket with an airline running multiple daily flights is handy. Having a travel agent who knows the system can also help.

A compensation scheme that ensures refunds and penalties appropriate to passengers’ inconvenience would really help. A bill for airline travel compensation, ‘Pay for Delay,’ is about to hit the Australian Senate, so now is the time to lobby your local senator.

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