Virgin Atlantic has admitted it “fell short of its standards of service” in processing Covid-19 related refunds and has apologised to its trade partners and their customers.
Speaking on a Travel Weekly webcast, vice-president of sales Lee Haslett admitted: “We know at times during this crisis, with regards to refunds, we’ve definitely fallen short of the standards of service that we hold ourselves to and we know that we owe our trade partners and our customers a heartfelt apology.
“A number of customers have requested refunds they’re entitled to and so have our travel agents and partners, and we are working through them at a rapid rate.”
Haslett said the process had been hampered by a severe lack of resource, particularly early on in the crisis.
“A lot of our finance teams and many of our teams have been working from home and been furloughed. We are managing thousands of refund requests and it’s been challenging, especially as we’ve been cancelling routes on the network at the same time, which has added to that backlog,” he said.
He admitted that Virgin had “failed to give the clarity needed” at times and conceded that the airline had “let a lot of people down” and “caused agents pain”.
Describing the time taken to refund agents and customers as “regrettable”, Haslett offered his personal assurance that the operation was improving.
“It has taken longer than usual to process refunds and, at times, we’ve failed to provide the clarity needed,” he said. “This has understandably let a lot of people down and this goes against everything that we stand for. It’s really disappointing that we’ve caused this pain for our agency partners that are so important to us, but also their customers and our customers.
“Let me personally assure you, we are doing everything we can to improve this. We’re continuing to train and increase the size of our team to make sure that we process [refunds] at a greater number. Just last month, we brought back 167 people off furlough just to process refunds.
“We are actually receiving over 10,000 enquiries a day, including refund requests. Since April, we’ve increased the size of the dedicated team processing refunds – it’s five times larger than it was, and we are processing refunds 30% quicker compared to at the start of the crisis.”
Haslett denied accusations that Virgin Atlantic had been purposely withholding refunds in order to “prop the company up” during its well-documented financial problems.
“We’ve been focused on ensuring that we’re processing as many refunds as we can, on a daily basis. We’ve had, at times, as high as 85% of our teams furloughed; it’s purely been a challenge on capacity,” he said.
“We’ve said that every customer, including if they’ve booked directly with Virgin Atlantic, or through one of our trade partners, will receive a refund in 120 days. Some – most – are quicker than that, but we’ve set a time limit that no-one will have to wait longer than 120 days from when they submitted that refund request.”
Haslett denied Virgin’s reputation had been damaged permanently by the refund situation and insisted that it could return to its pre-Covid status.
“It’s been unprecedented times and our partners – certainly with last week’s news [of a refinancing deal], have been incredibly supportive,” he said.
“Our customers, because I’ve seen what’s booking, know too. I think people will appreciate the fact this has been a really unprecedented time; this is not something that we’re famous for; this is not a position that we would like to find ourselves in again. But we know that we need to rebuild some of that some of that trust.”
He added: “One of our core strategic pillars, one of our values as an organisation, is ‘best in partnering’. We pride ourselves on being fantastic to do business with, so we need to make sure that we get back to that and we’re out there talking to our key partners on a on a day-to-day basis.”
Haslett said Virgin Atlantic’s survival was important for competition and value in the market.
“The UK travel trade and UK consumer need a fit and healthy Virgin Atlantic challenging, and continuing to challenge, to ensure that there’s competitiveness there, to ensure that there are low fares in the market,” he said. “We will continue to challenge those legacy carriers.”