Virgin Atlantic Thinks Customer Is Making Up Pakistan Flood Disaster

You can’t expect every person to be up to date on the latest news cycle, especially not on a global scale. But there’s a Virgin Atlantic Airlines CSR who not only somehow missed that Pakistan just suffered its worst flooding in 80 years, but who kept insisting the Elisa, a customer trying to make her way back home to NYC, prove that the flooding happened. Elisa says the CSR “insisted that there were no indications in her notes that a flood had happened in Pakistan,” and that Elisa would have to prove the news or pay $933 for a “service change fee” to get back home.

After four of the most terrifying days of my life – driving speedily through landslides, trudging through swollen rivers, and broken dams to get to dry ground, the most frustrating experience I encountered from living through the Pakistani floods (the worst in 80 years with hundreds dead and over half a million displaced) was with Virgin Atlantic Airlines.

When I was trapped in the mountain town of Gilgit, with six landslides and three broken bridges between me and Islamabad, I had no way of getting out and making my scheduled flight. The roads were going to take up to fourteen days to get back into working order, and I was thus going to miss my flight out of Islamabad to London, and also my connecting Virgin Atlantic flight from London to New York. I called Qatar airlines, who very accommodatingly offered to waive the change fees, due to the international crisis. And the Virgin Atlantic representative, who I spoke with briefly, recommended that I cancel my current flight, and rebook once I knew exactly when I would be in London. They promised that they understood national emergencies, and assured me that at that time, any change fees would be waved.

You can imagine then, my frustration and sheer loss for words, when after being airlifted out the floods by the Pakistani military in a cargo plane, and calling Virgin Atlantic (which were the steps they recommended), [redacted], the customer unservice rep, informed me that I would be charged a colossal $933 service change fee.

[Redacted] insisted that there were no indications in her notes that a flood had happened in Pakistan. (My suggestion that she check the headlines on BBC, the NYTimes or any major newspaper in the world fell on deaf ears.) After thirty minutes of pleading with her on the phone, explaining how I’d been airlifted out of a literal flood area by a Pakistani military cargo plane, and asking to speak to a manager who might have heard about the crisis, she eventually suggested that I try and convince another airline company to call her and convince her that an international crisis had happened. Confused by this strange request, but eager to resolve the situation, I asked her what information she would need, which airline she recommended, and which number I should have them call. She either hung up on me at that point, or I got disconnected.

It was at that point, in total emotional and physical exhaustion that I realized the situation was absurd. I gave up and did a quick check on the internet for flights from Heathrow to JFK on August 7th. Iberia airlines, it seems has a fare offering at $811. That’s right, I could buy an entirely new ticket for less than the “change fee” from Virgin Atlantic. Even though, both Qatar Airlines and American Airlines willingly offered to waive the change fee due to national emergency.

After the four most terrifying days of my life, I can’t help but feel exhausted and cheated by a company trying to take advantage of a person in a desperate situation.

I’d say it’s more likely that you somehow ended up with the stupidest CSR at the company. I can says she’s stupid without fear of offending her because I’m fairly certain there’s no way she’ll ever read this.


Edit Your Comment

  1. grucifer says:

    Call back, hope for a different CSR IMO.

    • Dover says:

      Yeah, I would’ve been redialing about five minutes into that conversation. Why put up with such an idiot rep? Also, I think the rep was being a jerk and not serious when she suggested that another airline should call and tell Virgin that there was a flood.

    • wetrat says:

      Not all of the following are always options but all are good ways to get better help in the airline crapshoot:

      1. Call back. You may get a better agent.
      2. Call the Frequent Flyer number (you can find these on the internet). On some airlines the most senior agents work exclusively with frequent flyers (and a good reason to sign up even if you don’t fly frequently).
      3. Go to the airport. If you’re standing at the checkin counter it’s a lot harder for them to ignore you. My wife has even got an airline to BUY her a ticket on a competitor leaving one hour later by crying at the check in counter after the original airline screwed up her connection (they originally told her she wouldn’t be flying until the next day).

  2. areaman says:

    I think Virgin sees this as an opportunity to make $933. I mean the call center probably is based in India, so how can they not know what’s going on next door?

    • OnePumpChump says:

      Maybe money has nothing to do with it. Maybe the CSR just hates pakis and people who like them.

    • Brink006 says:

      Which part in particular suggested that this was a Virgin Airways policy and not some uninformed CSR?

  3. Jacquilynne says:

    It’s too bad that Virgin apparently doesn’t outsource their call center work to South Asia. At least if they did, the CSR would probably have, you know, heard about this major disaster.

  4. Dover says:

    If you’re “fairly certain there’s no way she’ll ever read this”, why redact her name? At least publish the first name so the story is more readable. Also, you will post Virgin’s response, right?

    • Astrid says:

      Uh, I’m “fairly certain” that the folks here at consumerist edit and redact where they feel necessary. I’m not sure how it makes less sense to you without a name. If it makes you feel better we can call her Sally…

    • Tim says:

      [Redacted] seems to redact every [redacted], be it a [redacted], [redacted] or [redacted]. Even when it’s [redacted] necessary.

      It’s redactulous.

    • Bob says:

      He says “fairly sure”, not 110% certain.

  5. ModernDemagogue says:

    Agreed with Grucifer.

    Honestly this is a case of just try again and talk to someone different, and/or analyze your approach to the situation to go with a different opening line or setup. Self-disclosure can engender sympathy, but too much hysteria can make someone unwilling to help you — parts of the submitters post read like the opening to a James Bond movie — and while I’m sure it was a bad experience, she’s not dead, not suffering from cholera, and was fortunate enough to be airlifted out of danger. The hyperbole involved in claiming that the worst part of her experience was that of dealing with Virgin Atlantic CSR reeks of self-involvement and lack of comprehension of the concept of a first world problem. Authentic stories / complaints are not written in this fashion — after reading it, not only do I not want to help her, I know I wouldn’t even like her.

    Suggesting to someone that they check the front page of the NY Times is condescending, unhelpful, and also, wrong. Not only has it not been front page news everyday, but until very very recently, it has not been regarded as nearly the global incident she seems to be representing it as. Yes, it happened, but news out of that part of the world is very slow to percolate through Western society, and most people largely don’t care unless its on the magnitude of the Tsunami. Even then, the true scale of the catastrophe was only immediately apparent to climate and regional experts.

    While the CSR does sound like an idiot, I’d posit that there might have just possibly been something this woman said, or the way she came off, that rubbed the person in the wrong direction. When in that situation, the idea of simply not calling back and trying again, and instead hunting down a fare online screams entitlement — I mean, you’re in a place where you have internet while hundreds of thousands are dying in the affected areas — stfu.

    If I were her, I’d be happy I was alive.

    • reishka says:

      No. The most frustrating part of her experience was dealing with the airline — not the most terrifying, not the worst. The most frustrating. There is a big difference between frustrating and horrifying/worst. As far as I can read it, all she did was set up the scenario of what she had just lived through.

      As for “there might have just possibly been something this woman said, or the way she came off, that rubbed the person in the wrong direction.” — It doesn’t matter if you like the woman or not, do your damn job. You don’t sit there arguing with the woman arguing for half an hour about what she did or did not go through. It would only take a few minutes to ask a few co-workers to verify that there was a flood, transfer her to a manager (like she requested), or check online (if you have access). It seems like the rep did none of these things.

      While I second (or third, or fourth) that she should have just called back to try and get a different rep, I’m sure at that point the woman was exhausted. For all we know, she was awake for four days straight (or at the least had very minimal sleep), and she may have just arrived in a location where she has access to internet/phone/etc… so I really don’t see a reason for you to be so condescending towards the OP, telling her to ‘stfu’ and just be thankful she’s alive.

      • ModernDemagogue says:

        Well then the experience wasn’t really that bad. I can think of a lot of things that would be more frustrating when escaping a flood, such as a vehicle getting stuck in the mud and becoming unusable. Or falling down while climbing up a hill, that would be frustrating, and certainly more so than one unhelpful CSR.

        It does matter whether the CSR liked the woman or not — because the woman wanted the CSRs help. Factually, there was probably no note on her account that she had previously called about this, as the prior CSR assumed she would explain what was going on at the later date. Perhaps that was an error on Virgin’s part, but the new CSR didn’t know, didn’t see it on the account, and was probably stupid. Sure, the OP is allowed to act melodramatic and hysterical, but that won’t get her on the next plane out of “Islamabad” (oh how precious of you to be dropping names of exotic locale so that your story has a destination). If you want to get out of a country, and get what you want, then you socially engineer people to do your bidding. If you want a good story to tell your friends back in the faculty lounge of the South-East Asia Studies department of your well known University, you act like this woman.

        I don’t know what your experience with people is, but my experience with those who write as the OP did (“after explaining that I had been airlifted out of a literal flood area by the Pakistani Military” — who says that? I saw a scene like that in Blood Diamond. And is there such a thing as a non literal flood area?), is that they are annoying, self-entitled, indignant prissy jerks with no concept of the world around them or the consequences of their actions. I bet she even has an annoying voice. She probably patrols web boards looking for typos and grammatical errors in comments.

        The point is, if she’d called back, and said “Hey, I’ve had a really bad few days here. I got trapped in a flood, the countries all messed up, I finally made it to an airport. Here’s my info, I was told I could change my flight once I made it through and that the fees would be waived, can you help me out? I would really appreciate it” 8/10 times she’d be on the next fucking flight out.

        You have to ask yourself, what is your goal? To get in a pissing match about how helpless your situation is (which it isnt) and how bad a time you’ve had (which you haven’t, because you’re not dead or severely injured, you’re, gasp, tired), or it can be to get on a fucking plane and go home.

        I am all about maximizing the power of the consumer. This woman hurts consumers everywhere, by acting like a child, and an idiot.

    • Shouty D says:

      “When in that situation, the idea of simply not calling back and trying again, and instead hunting down a fare online screams entitlement …”

      Yeah, considering an airline rep. TOLD her exactly how to go about getting her flight changed, free of charge, I’d say she had every right to act entitled, you know, because she WAS entitled…

      “If I were her, I’d be happy I was alive.”

      But you’re not, so instead you can just be happy you’re an anonymous, condescending asshole on the internet. 100 points for you!

  6. AustinTXProgrammer says:

    CSR roulette. Call back in 3 minutes…

  7. Dallas_shopper says:

    I’d have hung up 5 minutes in and called back to get a different CSR. I’ve done it before when I thought the first one was talking shit. It usually works.

    Good luck and I’m glad you made it out safely.

  8. Mknzybsofh says:

    Yeah I agree with everyone else here. Hang up and call back. I would not have wasted all that time with one CSR trying to get the fee waived when it was promised that it would have been free before.

  9. thewinchester says:

    @Chris Waters: I’d suggest getting Elisa to make contact with Christopher Elliott or pinging him yourselves ( or twitter @elliottdotorg).

    He has a much bigger readership amongst the relevant Travel/tourism industry professionals and it would be worthwhile getting a run over there – but more importantly, he has direct contact with Senior Airline Staff as part of his beat and is known to frequently write balanced stories on consumer travel issues and get a fairer resolution/fix.

    Also, I’d like to know what steps Consumerist takes to verify these stories. As someone whose heavily involved within the travel community myself, I know there’s a lot of complaints which don’t even stack up to the most basic of scrutiny.

    Does Consumerist undertake appropriate checks and balances to verify the veracity of claims from travellers in a way that I, as a loyal reader, can be confident the story is true, accurate and there’s an airline out there who really needs their backside kicked – hard?

    • Shouty D says:

      I think something that we all tend to forget is that, despite how fancy and legit it looks, the Consumerist is still just a blog, so take EVERYTHING posted on here with a grain of salt.

      • Jeff-er-ee says:

        Amen. Sometimes I think that “corroborate” and “verify” are words that don’t appear in The Consumerist’s dictionary.

    • e065702 says:

      If you want a fair and balanced view go to the mediation meeting. If you want the Companies viewpoint feel free to go to their website.
      THIS website is the voice of the consumer . . period.
      Virgin Atlantic has an entire advertising budget for informing the world about the wonders of their company.
      NOBODY expects them to address customer complaints publicly.
      Once they start being totally transparent then there will be no need for this tupe of website. Until then, if you don’t want to hear the consumers viewpoint read something else.

  10. says:

    Customer service departments must use a less stable telecommunication network than billing departments. Whenever I explain difficult situations to CSRs, I often find myself magically disconnected. Remarkably, I’ve never lost connection with any billing agents.

  11. packcamera says:

    Echoing all the others who said call back and get another CSR, securing an international flight home following a massive disaster seems to warrant more than one phone call.

  12. smo0 says:

    Send and email to the big “B.”

    Maybe you can score a free trip on the Virgin Galactic.

  13. NumberSix says:

    Actually, this flooding thing is news to me too.

  14. TasteyCat says:

    So did we come to the conclusion there was a flood or not?

  15. Miss Dev (The Beer Sherpa) says:

    Airline CSRs must live under a rock.

    In March of 2003, Denver experienced the worst snow storm in 20 years. In the suburbs, we had 3 feet of snow, and out at Denver International Airport, they had more. 20,000+ people were trapped at the airport. I was due to fly out two days after the storm hit for a spring break trip to NYC, and, as we watched more snow fall and flight after flight get cancelled, we called Continental to find out my options. CSR after CSR (all based in Texas, we found out) said that they showed no indication that there were any issues in Denver except for a “few” cancelled flights, and that all should be fine by the time my flight was due to leave. I told them that our Subaru Legacy was unlikely to be able to get through 3 feet of snow, and that it was likely that some of the 20,000 people at the airport would need to get to NYC. No one believed us.

    Finally, 17 calls later, my mother was in tears after one CSR told her to just “suck it up.” That CSR told her that she could “whine” to his supervisor if she wanted. She did, and this supervisor not only had heard about the snow storm, but had received directions from corporate to change flights for no fee to anyone willing to give up seats to the stranded passengers. He said that they were in the process of letting all of the CSRs know about the situation and profusely apologized to the both of us.

    I got a voucher for another flight (which I used a year later), and someone got my seat to get home. But I couldn’t believe how frustrating the whole experience had been. Except for my flight a year later, I have refused to fly Continental ever since.

    Of course, these are the days pre-Consumerist. If I had been the savvy consumer I am now, things would have been much less painful.

  16. Jesse James says:

    I was a CSR for a phone….. Heeeee Haw….

    …..Them there were rough times. But I’m patient and skilled with my six shooter. I used to let them customers get real comfortable, and would just sit there patiently while they HOLLERED at me AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS about losing their contacts, or to complain about the customer service before me. Then, once the dust settled I would calmly start a sentence, and about halfway through a word, in the blink of an eye, I would quickly draw my finger, and before the they new what hit them I had disconnected the call.

    Heeeeee Haw!