This is your captain speaking. Apologies for the flight delay…we’ve run out of air

Seriously, this was one of the announcements on my eventful Virgin Atlantic flight last night.


Flight VS658 was Virgin’s inaugural flight from Accra, Ghana to London Heathrow. The celebratory trip was a glitzy affair and the front end of the aircraft was packed with journalists and members of Virgin’s PR and management team (Richard Branson had already departed for South Africa to attend a meeting of The Elders, which include Ghana‘s own Kofi Annan).


Virgin Ghana inauguralInitially, we had a few teething problems. Check-in had gone a bit slowly as airport staff got used to new systems and procedures; nothing too much to worry about. The flight boarded an hour or so after its 1445 scheduled departure time, but spirits were still high. Virgin’s cabin crew were exceptional, as usual.


The captain advised us that he was waiting on the load sheet. Not long now. Time rumbled on and still no load sheet. The Virgin team began to get a bit anxious as we all returned to our seats for a head count. The already hot and humid A340 cabin was not getting any less hot and humid. Glasses of juice and wine gums were distributed by the still-smiling crew.


Miraculously a baby in the Upper Class cabin was blissfully asleep, despite the heat and hubbub. I grabbed the opportunity to interview Virgin Atlantic chief commercial and financial officer Julie Southern for our various titles.


My heart went out to a teenager travelling with his father in Upper Class who was due to sit his school entrance test in Oxford the following morning. We were now looking at a midnight arrival, rather than 2230 as planned. Apparently the Heathrow curfew was not going to be an issue.


By the time the captain came on the tannoy again we were already a couple of hours late. The load sheet was now all sorted, but one of the tyres was deflating. It seems fate was well and truly conspiring against us. We’d be a little while yet. More drinks, smiles and heart-felt apologies from the cabin crew, management and press team.


Accra airportThe aircraft was jacked up while we were on board and the errant tyre was changed. But the next announcement informed us that the engineers had run out of air and they’d gone off in search of a replacement cylinder. I’m not sure they prepare you for things like this in PR training school.


At this point, some economy passengers lost their sense of humour. One woman was demanding to be let off the aircraft and several others joined in the shouting match. It’s on days like this when cabin crew earn their money for their saintly patience. They did their best to reassure and placate the passengers.


A medic crew came onboard to offload someone with high blood pressure. The heat and humidity were oppressive. The baby was still asleep. We were probably at the four-hour mark. The captain, Julie Southern and Jonathan Harding (Virgin’s GM for international and distribution) did a sterling job of convincing several people who were determined to offload to stay. Seven could not be swayed and yet more time elapsed while we waited for the bags to be found. Still the cabin crew were lovely. A few more last minute would-be offloads were reassured and went back to their seats.


We finally got underway at 2033, nearly six hours after our 1445 departure time to a round of weary, but enthusiastic, applause. The chain of events would be quite comical if it weren’t for all the hard work that the Virgin staff put in to making this event a success.


Julie came on the tannoy and apologised profusely that this first Ghanaian experience with Virgin had not gone as planned. She announced that every passenger would be given a free return flight with Virgin in the class which they were travelling in and that any taxi or hotel needs would be taken care of by Virgin on arrival.


We finally touched down at Heathrow at 0405 (we were due to get in at 2230) and were given a letter confirming Julie’s promises as we disembarked.


I walked in my door just before 0600. The baby slept through the entire saga. And I hope the teenager made it though his entrance test (there was even talk of Virgin writing to the school to explain).


It’s easy to get things right when everything’s going smoothly, but it’s even more impressive to get it right when everything goes wrong. Nice work, Virgin.


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