Virgin America Suffers its First Major PR Issue

By | March 17, 2010
Passenger terminal at Stewart International Ai...
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This weekend saw horrible weather hit the New York area. Some of the reported conditions were at the level of a tropical storm. With JFK’s longest runway closed, flights were delayed, and many planes were diverted to alternate airports.

Virgin America Flight 404 circled JFK till it was diverted to Stewart Airport in Newburgh, which is also run by the Port Authority of NY & NJ, as is JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia, to refuel and wait out the weather. This is hardly out of the ordinary. But as the hours passed, supplies grew slim, tempers frayed, and things started to come to a boil.

Passenger David Martin, of, had been onboard and recorded and tweeted the whole thing. He insists a Stewart Airport Supervisor refused to let the crew deplane the passengers, which conflicts with the statement issued by the Port Authority.

From his statements, Virgin America, both onboard the plane and through its other channels, were useless. They had no plan on how to deal with the situation and nothing seemed to be getting done.

Finally, JetBlue, which had several flights of its own diverted to the airport, but actually flies to Stewart, sent over water. Then, later, with permission from the Virgin America crew, kindly arranged for the passengers to be deplaned and bused to NYC. Ironically, their plane was cleared and did beat them there.

Virgin America CEO David Cush called the passengers to apologize, promising a full refund and $100 credit. The airline also issued a statement apology, taking full responsibility for the situation and its failure. It is a good first step.

Virgin America is not even three years old yet. JetBlue just turned ten. Why does this feel to us like a case of big brother helping out little brother, who is in over its head? Either way, Virgin needs to learn from the mistakes JetBlue made, even from the mistakes American made that brought the tarmac delay issue into the public awareness.

They need a contingency plan. That includes people who can be called up to spring into action if a plane is diverted into an airport which it does not fly to and has no relationship at. There should be a point person on duty at all times, who can be called in, woken up, what have you to handle the situation and take charge. They shall be empowered to do whatever is necessary, including negotiate and/or pay ground personnel.

Regardless of what the Port Authority has said on the subject of how they handled this, Stewart Airport is one of their airports now. During the coming months, with a runway at JFK closed, more flights may get diverted there in bad weather. They have to step up as well and be prepared. The airport has several Jetways, although one could imagine them all being taken in a storm. Even with that, passengers could be gotten to the terminal. Where was their initiative?

Everyone could do better. The solution is for them to publicly advise us how.