Virgin Atlantic embraces cribbing pax, asks him to choose in-flight menu

Here’s a perfect example of a an airline not only dealt maturely with a negative situation, but also showed that it takes feedback seriously and has the guts to involve the customers in creating brand experience. A passenger who wrote a witty letter complaining about the Indian meal on a Virgin Atlantic flight to Mumbai has been invited by the airline’s boss Richard Branson to help select food and wines for future Virgin flights!

In what The Telegraph calls “the world’s best complaint letter”, Oliver Beale included seven photos and tons of witty remarks in his 1300 words letter! Here are some excerpts:

“I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the dessert?”

“Richard…. What is that white stuff? It looked like it was going to be yoghurt. It finally dawned on me what it was after staring at it. It was a mixture between the Baaji (scrambled eggs) custard and the Mustard sauce.”

“It reminded me of my first week at university. I had overheard that you could make a drink by mixing vodka and refreshers. When I attempted to make the drink in a big bowl it formed a cheese Richard, a cheese.”

Virgin Atlantic at its resilient best!

Virgin Atlantic not only replied to the “constructive if tongue-in-cheek” email, but also offered him a job selecting the food and wines for future flights. What does that show about the airline? It’s preparedness and resilience for sure. The fact that instead of ignoring such an email, Virgin responded promptly, and offered something to make the passenger happy shows the airline’s maturity.

And what better way to involve a customer in creating a brand experience? I had mentioned in my webinar on airline branding that airlines that embrace the accidental spokesperson will do well. And this is exactly what Virgin Atlantic has done. They have managed to involve a person passionately speaking about the airline, to further improve customer experience.

What do you think? Could Virgin Atlantic have dealt with the situation any better? How can other airlines adopt such a practice, given that not every passenger’s whim can be addressed?

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco. Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others. Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
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Showing 14 comments
  • Steven Eberly

    It isn’t a surprise that Sir Richard would ask this person to assist with food and wine selections. The letter reflected a sense of humor along with a clever wit reminiscent of his own. He is a direct and innovative leader, and takes very few cues from other airlines on how to get things done. Whilst there is no way any company can satisfy all the people all the time, it is refreshing to see a corporate leader that isn’t afraid to extend a hand to the customer.

    Sadly, I have not had the honor of meeting Mr. Branson, even though I’ve operated many flights into Tortola, where he has a home. I wish I could work for a man with such wide horizons and values. Could he have dealt with the situation any better? I doubt it. It was a very public letter i the end, and to dismiss the writer with a pat on the head would have been bad PR.

  • Jan Green

    Now that the International community is merging more in communications, it would also help to learn more about different cultures to merge similarities in foods and wines for common satisfaction.

  • John Bellenis

    There is one very important piece of information missing form the article… What business is the passenger in? Obviously if he is involved in the food and beverage industry it somewhat changes the situation – but that may make the article a little less whimsical and have been purposely omitted.

    Even so, Virgin is known as a company that thinks outside the box, and whether or not this is a good idea, whether or not they take his “advice” or not, is irrelevant. As a piece of PR this is clearly genius – it gets them press, shows a devotion to passengers and customer service and once again demonstrates that Richard Branson has a sense of humor, can laugh at himself and it further promotes the brand in general… at zero cost!

  • Cristian Saracco

    I don’t know if it is good or not… But, for sure, it is coherent with Virgin and Branson behaviours…

    And considering coherency as an honest attitude… Probably in that case, the brand experience is reinforced…

    Also, it’s quite difficult to generalize thi situation. Virgin (as well as Branson) behaviours are quite unique and far away from the average in any industry… So, this could work with them… but only with them (and correctly decodified by the Virgin tribe)

  • Fabio

    An airline who listens?? and Airline who cares ??? an airline who invites their custoomers to make changes?? and airline that seeks advertising through sensationalism and gets it so easily…… who could be in charge of such an Airline.

    It an advertising stunt and its is working. even if at the end of he day they only change one meal on one flight it was worth it

  • Ashish Banerjee

    Yes. He will be a lifelong advocate now, instead of a lifelong critic – because he has been heard and his gripe has been acted upon. He’s been given control. He can shape. And we all like being able to do those things. And we talk about them when a brand opens up enough to invite us in and let us do that. Virgin couldn’t have done any better.

  • Remy Chevarin

    I due agree with all the previous comments (pretty good balanced by the way ;-).
    Surely, the Writer-Traveller status could have played a major role in the Branson’s riposte …ups, reply (this would need additional investigation no ?).
    I supposed that many others passengers on the same flight had experiencing this “once in the life time” gourmet experience!… so why this letter catches more attention than some others (if any)? …

    Second, It was more than just a letter and words, there were very, very, powerful images attached to it – puky FX warranty! – and communication people know how impactful images can be in people memory and damageable for a brand.

    Third, important factor is Virgin’s reply time frame. Did Branson’s had the choice? Meaning if this letter was already published and fast pollinated on the web?… If yes, thus this letter needed a spectacular reply.

    Indeed, I feel the smartest of the reaction is more in the quick reaction of Virgin’s PR avoiding this to go to big and too far, then, this was done with Branson’s legendary maestria.
    Strangely, this was just in time frame with their recent “Flyingphoria” campaign…. (check Shashank blogs few weeks ago). Well done guys.

    Airlines are well aware that a very small amount of unsatisfied passengers get guts to write complains… people used to buzz negative comments around and switch to another airline next time they had to fly !.. So the Virgin response was more than appropriate to limit brand damages.
    However, today’s technology has radically changed relations between airlines and their audience. Travellers using the Web2.0 tech posses now a “real” powerful communication tool if they which to engage frontal communication-fight and get concrete results. The same situation a decade ago would have probably generates from the airline (at least) a courtesy apologizes letter and ideally some vouchers or a pack of additional miles!..

    More pragmatic questions are? How could a customer-brand centric airline like Virgin could not be earlier aware of such disgusting things served to their passengers?
    I would expect from Virgin more focus and monitoring on that (important) part of the flying experience (and its negative collateral effects on the whole of it!!)
    Airline catering has always been great debate/issue with air traveller’s community.

    Does Indian sub continent (eco class) travellers tend to “shy” in complaining ?…Is there some cultural issues there that could allow airlines on this (recent) fast growing market segment to go more “risk taking” with their service offers?… none will take the risk to serve such puky stuff on the London- NY route right !…

    Maybe using this event as tipping point, it would be interesting to investigate the whole airline’s decision chain which allowed “this” to land on the table tray of this passenger…

  • Rajiv Bajaj

    An apology for the poor quality, if at all it was of poor quality, and perhaps a nominal compensation,should have sufficed. An airline cannot go around addressing every passenger’s whim in this manner. Whilst it is good that customers complain about poor service, as it gives the airline a chance to improve weak areas, this particular case was definitely not good CRM. As a matter of fact, many people are of the opinion that could be just another publicity gimmick, and frankly, I would tend to agree with it, given the past record of the carrier for indulging in gimmicks.

    Further, does the airline have any right to impose a menu of one individual’s choice on all its other passengers ? What if tomorrow several others complain ? Will they invite each of them to decide future menus ? They might as well start a full-fledged a-la-carte service instead ! That way, perhaps, they might satisfy more people.

  • Shashank Gawade

    I think given Branson’s personality and what Virgin stands for this was the best reaction I have seen till date in a potentially conflicting scenario.

    I agree with Cristian, Virgin’s persona (and that of Branson) is pretty unique and best part of all is that they have the ability and grace to carry it off very well. However unsatisfied the patron was am sure he surely must be glad to have been chosen to select the menu for future Virgin flights.

    And the icing on the cake is the positive amplification of this episode in media which turns the tables.

    All’s well when marketed well keeping the brand at the centre of all all actions and backing it up with sustained delivery and service. Guess Branson has mastered this art and lives upto it like the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer Program or even he going hot air ballooning or skydiving showcasing the uniqueness and adding the personal touch to these initiatives.

    Such initiatives are a one off and am sure that not every irate flyer on Virgin would be getting these opportunities. I guess this coincided with Virgin operating in new sectors in Asia Pacific.

  • Milind Puri

    This is difficult to comment on given that it was later rumoured to have been a publicity stunt!

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