Ian McMahon’s Perspective: Keeping up in the loop

JOHN Borghetti was scarcely six weeks into his job as managing director of Virgin Blue when the airline’s reservations system suffered a catastrophic crash. Arriving at Brisbane airport he was appalled by the lack of effort to inform passengers about what was going on. He addressed the crowd over the PA system.

“I didn’t really know what to say but I told them the truth,” he told Doug Nancarrow, author of his biography, Game Changer.

“I said, ‘This is who I am. There’s been a computer problem. No idea how long it’s going to go for. No idea what’s caused it. But we are working hard to try and fix it… As soon as I know anything I’ll let you know … I was quite cranky with a few people and I said when things go wrong you’ve got to tell people what’s going on.”

A few months later, in September 2010, the carrier’s new Navitaire system collapsed resulting in around 130 cancelled flights and delaying more than 60,000 passengers. Again, Borghetti was disappointed with the way it was handled by Virgin management, albeit he acknowledged “a vast improvement”.

“Things go wrong in airlines all the time and it’s a question of how you react… It’s all about providing information to the people who are affected,” he told Nancarrow.

By August 2013 Borghetti had put his stamp on the airline. Now known as the Virgin Australia Group, it included the recently acquired Tigerair. And when the airline was that month hit by a global Sabre reservations breakdown, Borghetti was pleased that “communications between the airline and affected customers was good,” Game Changer reported.

So what are we to make of the fiasco over the suspension of Tigerair’s Bali services by the Indonesian authorities?

At the time of writing, the situation appeared to be resolved, but reported comments by passengers castigated the carrier for communication failures. The airline was asking passengers to refer to its website rather than phone for information because, apparently, its call centre could not cope.

Above all, the airline refused to say why the Indonesian Government had suspended the flights. But as all other airlines were flying as usual, it seemed unlikely that this was a capricious decision by the Indonesians. One informed guess was that Tigerair may have sold one way fares in breach of the conditions of the charter licence under which it flies to Bali.

But why should we be guessing? In the words of John Borghetti: “When things go wrong you’ve got to tell people what’s going on.”