Solomon Airlines, Air Niugini, Air Nauru, Aircalin, Fiji Airways and probably some more I’ve forgotten.
My Pacific islands flying over the years has been remarkably smooth. Sure, I’ve had the occasional weather delay. Gone are the days of constant operational delays and cancels for many of these airlines.
Air Nauru’s island hopper ran like clockwork for me last year and I’ve never been fed so much on a flight.
Fiji AIrways has given me over a dozen on-time or early flights. One was late by a half hour.
Except Virgin Australia
I have a better Virgin Australia record on domestic than international. Even mainline flights like my Sydney-Perth last week was suddenly downgauged to a smaller plane and I was made to scramble from Sydney’s international terminal to domestic on the infrequent transit shuttle that goes through regular street traffic (because why would you build your terminals in the same place or have sensible transfer?) to barely catch the earlier flight.
Last year Virgin Australia (their Virgin Samoa arm) stuck me for a night in Auckland on my way to Cook Islands. The Cook Islanders say they choose JetStar for a reason.
The Indian Ocean Island Hopper
Now I get the Virgin Australia Regional Airlines (VARA) treatment. The fleet consists of 2 A320s and 14 Fokker 100s.
The A320s operate the twice weekly Perth – Christmas Island – Cocos Keeling Islands – Perth hopper. On Tuesdays it goes first to Christmas, on Saturdays it goes first to Cocos.
I flew out to Cocos last Tuesday. Besides the front lav out of service, reading lights not working, and decrepit interior, the flight was only delayed the standard 1-2 hours islanders are accustomed since Virgin Australia got this contract.
Friday night I was ready to depart on Saturday for Christmas Island when first the 1-hour delay posted, then the flight canceled entirely.
Calling Virgin Australia is an exercise in futility – first they don’t know that their own system is notifying passengers of the cancel, then they say the only option is to rebook for a week later. From prior experience I know to believe nothing that call center says. Glad I did not accept rebooking.
There is one group at Virgin Australia that has some clue about things, the Flight Change Administration Department in Brisbane, open Brisbane time weekdays 04:00-22:00, weekends 04:00-20:00, direct dial +61 731197042, if you call the global numbers you can get transferred to them with persistence. Outside of their business hours you will only spin your wheels calling Virgin Australia.
Twitter, which operates limited hours, is useless, but does not trade in misinformation. They admit they know nothing and give canned apologies, with no follow-up.
Recovery Flight 1
15 hours after the cancel announcement, local island channels got word of a recovery flight to be attempted on Tuesday. Nothing could be sooner because both A320s were out of service.
6 hours after that Virgin started updating itineraries with the new dates.
Tuesday came, I took the ferry over to the airport and before I could check in, the recovery flight, which as per regular Saturday schedule had stopped in Learmonth to refuel, then went mechanical en route to Cocos and was diverted back to Perth.
Recovery Flight 2
Word spread by evening the next attempt is to be Friday. Never mind the people with medical issues waiting transport to the mainland, workers to jobs, families reuniting, and tourists.
There is no other airline service to Cocos Islands and cabotage rules have stymied a tag flight to extend Garuda’s charter Jakarta-Christmas Island service. All upcoming flights, if any operate, completely sold out with the start of Australia summer school holidays.
If a working plane is what you need, the other airlines of Virgin Australia Holdings have them, yet the parent company does not employ them even in an emergency.
Cocos and Christmas make up the Austalian Indian Ocean Territoritories. The new Island Administrator raised a call through government channels, and now, on Tuesday, Virgin Australia says they will attempt a flight on Wednesday. Local word has gone out though reservations are not yet updated.
Taking it Easy
So far I have avoided drastic impact on my overall schedule. I may not get much of the Christmas Island red crab migration though if working planes are conjured I can get back to Perth on the 16th and continue on my merry way.
The Virgin Australia compesation policy covers my accommodation and meals. Wisely, the Coco Island Cooperative Society that runs the businesses here is having hotels bill them, and the Co-op will deduct it directly from their account with Virgin Australia so that the money actually gets paid.
After days of fruitless calling and counter-productive attempts to be proactive, I am trying to go with the flow, island-style!