We had enjoyed our late winter break in the sun. The hotel in Barbados had everything suggested by the brochure – and maybe more. The food was plentiful, varied and of high quality, unusual these days in a hotel offering an ‘All Inclusive’ package. The staff were smiling, helpful, relaxed and showing the friendliness typical of Barbados. The only down side had been the daunting double stairway to reach our otherwise comfortable room. This had resulted in a very painful and persistent backache for Irene. A doctor’s visit produced some painkillers and the hotel moved us to a ground floor room, so we continued to enjoy the holiday.
All good things come to an end and as we were being driven to the airport we were still experiencing charm and friendliness from our lady taxi driver. We arrived at the modern, clean and airy terminal, walked straight to the Virgin Atlantic desk, checked in with more smiles and pleasantries and with plenty of time to spare. Passing mercifully quickly through the intrusive security section we set off for a last bit of ‘Bajan’ hospitality in the Executive Lounge. God was in his heaven and all was well.
Eventually, after some coffee and snacks, the flight was called so we collected our hand luggage and joined the queue for the bus, then the queue for the steps to the aircraft. This was the first tiny dent in our personal mist of euphoria. It was hot, we all shuffled slowly up the metal stairway, wandered past the unsmiling cabin attendant and followed the aimless trail of people and oversize bags all the way through First Class – where only one seat, or rather, pod, seemed to be occupied, and then all the way through Business Class, which seemed to be empty.
At last we found our seats in Premium Economy, the first two in a central row of three. Here, things really started to deteriorate. God had clearly left his heaven and gone on holiday! The whole row in front of us, and the one in front of that, seemed to be occupied by one extended family – which included a loud, energetic, uncontrolled and indulged child; not the worst we had encountered on previous flights, but getting close. As I tried to ease myself into my (outer) seat a stewardess – no sorry! Not allowed to call them that – nor trolley-dollies either! So the Cabin Attendant tried to shove a glass of sparkling wine into my hand. No smile, no words, just a glass with bubbles which subsequently didn’t taste very nice. I noticed at the time that, unusually with this airline, the female cabin attendants seemed to be a bit scruffy and uncaring – they looked over-tired. The normally smart red uniforms looked tired as well, and ill-fitting. Somehow, balancing the glass, me, and the seat belt, I arrived in the seat. I noticed that Irene was having similar problems in the seat beside me. But she had a bigger problem. The row in front had now become dominated by a screaming, snarling, raging toddler, leaping along the row of seats and occasionally attempting to climb over the seat immediately in front of my wife, all this under the indulgent gaze of accompanying adults.
Here was our first mistake. We tried to ignore this drama but it didn’t go away for a long time. Then came the usual safety broadcast before take-off. At least we assumed it was a safety broadcast because something had gone wrong with the public address system and we could only hear a distant murmur.
We took off, climbed away and then, quick as a flash, out came the main meal. Unfortunately, at the same time the seat in front of me was shoved back into the fully reclined position. The seat also started bouncing up and down, presumably from some sort of headphone delivered music. This meant that the food tray, which had just arrived, was, as well as my knees, being banged by the back of the seat in front. We were travelling Premium Economy, partly for the additional space between seats. So far, that decision did not seem to be a success.
I started to tackle the in-flight meal and discovered several problems. The main course was served in a ceramic dish straight from the microwave and far too hot to touch. A large quantity of greasy sauce had slopped out of the dish, coating the outside of it as well as part of the tray, making the dish slippery, hot and unmanageable . I became concerned at the prospect of wearing the liquid element of this chicken stew on my shirt. I took care, but it was a struggle, particularly since the distorted aluminium foil cover which should have been removed from the dish before serving, was dancing about the tray and was also covered in goo. Second mistake. I should have sent the whole lot back. Third mistake. I should have complained about the fully reclined seat back – not allowed during meal service, according to the airline’s rules. I didn’t. I struggled on. Then I heard my gentle and polite wife asking the seat occupant in front of me, gently and politely, if she (a teenage girl I think) could please move her seat forward an inch or so, to enable her husband – me – to eat.
All hell broke loose. The teenager leapt out of her seat and raced away forward through the aircraft, returning a few seconds later with the single occupant of First Class, a heavily made-up woman who I thought might be staff, flying free. Two stewardesses – sorry, – Flight Attendants – arrived and started cooing and soothing the unrepentant teenage creature seated in front of me. The woman from First Class stood in front of the whole block of seats and yelled at me ‘If you don’t like it, why don’t you fly First Class!’ The Flight Attendants finished patting and soothing the teenager and turned to me. ‘Why don’t you recline your own seat?’
‘Because He’s trying to eat.’ Said my wife.
‘Oh, if he can’t eat, I’ll take the tray away.’
I gripped the greasy tray more tightly.
‘She’s perfectly entitled to recline her seat you know,’ said the second Flight Attendant. Actually, not true. Not during meal service say the rules.
And so it went on. I ate what I could, hunkered down and tried to watch the films, ignoring other approaches from the Trolley Dollies. Fourth Mistake. I should have made a fuss and demanded a complaint form. In fact over the next eight night-flight hours I sat in misery trying to watch the seat-back films. They were mostly rubbish and no help in passing the time. Whenever I did try to sleep, I would be bumped awake again as a Flight Attendant passed along the aisle. Perhaps they had a weight problem?
When I at last arrived home, still shattered, despite the comfortable journey in a Chauffeur-driven Jaguar, I decided to complain. So after a very necessary sleep I wrote to Virgin Atlantic setting out my complaint in full. Three weeks went by with no response, so I sent an email to the complaints team, with my original letter attached. More weeks, and no response. Then I telephoned and after a short wait on the phone of only an hour and a quarter, listening forcibly to vile music, I received an answer.
‘Oh dear,’ said the operator, I can see we received your letter, oh, and your email, I can’t understand why we didn’t reply.’
‘Because you are totally lacking in competence or customer care and anyway you don’t give a damn’ I thought but did not articulate.
We will deal with this straight away,’ said the operator. Somebody will call you at about 6 p.m. tomorrow evening.’
‘That’s a Sunday,’ I said, will they call on a Sunday?’
I waited for the call. Unsurprisingly no call came. Perhaps it’s a game they like to play,’ I said to myself.
A few weeks later, I received help from a member of my family. I was given the email address of the Executive Office of Sir Richard Branson, and I sent off the whole horrible experience to that source. I did get a response – several, in fact. I received apologetic emails from various executive assistants to the great man. I understood that such an important person would be unable to reply personally, he was probably busy perfecting his smile!
But I was told that as a token of their sorrow at my unfortunate experience, I was to be sent a gift! A gift! What could it be, we wondered? Then it arrived. A huge box which contained another decorative cardboard box. With rising excitement we opened the box, pulled out a room-full of packing and then saw the ‘gift’. It seemed to be the mismatched contents of a food hamper, but far from the style of Harrod’s. It contained two bottles of wine ‘Plaza Bonita, The Spanish Social Network’ – one ‘red’ and one ‘white, These were accompanied by a jar of ‘beetroot jam’ two impressive-looking cardboard tubs, each containing about twelve crisps, a nice box of ‘made in Ireland’ chocolates and a packet of fudge. Now I’m not one who is churlish about gifts and we have eaten the crisps and most of the chocolates but the wine proved undrinkable and is now used in cooking, although that could be a mistake.
I thought about this horrible experience and its incompetent aftermath at some length. We had, after all, enjoyed quite a few Virgin Atlantic flights in the past, but we still felt unlikely to risk another one. I thought at one stage that it was the worst flying experience I had endured as a passenger, with dozens of flights in more than 30 different airlines, (there had been a lot of uncomfortable events over my years and thousands of hours as a naval pilot) but then I realised it wasn’t our worst experience as passengers – that had been many years ago in the hands of Reg Ansett and his Airlines of Australia, crossing from east coast to west coast but that’s another story for another day.