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CAN WE TALK? VIRGIN AMERICA SAYS YES
By Chris Barnett
May 13, 2010 -- It is the same story on every airline's Web site. You navigate a maze of questions, fill in all of the blanks, punch in all of the numbers, click on "purchase"--and you're rejected.

You've already spent 20 minutes or more tediously filling out a digital questionnaire and now you are wasting more time trying to decipher the error message. When this happens to me, I'm stymied and call a live agent. I complain that their software program is botched because I can't complete the transaction.

Then I beg: "Can you seal the deal at the same Internet rate? And, by the way, please don't charge me an extra $20 to $25 for buying the ticket from you because your Web site doesn't work."

It's exasperating. Maddening. Crazy-making.

But credit Virgin America with yet another bright idea to save you from pulling your hair out trying to buy airline tickets online.

I recently found a San Francisco-to-Orange County roundtrip on VirginAmerica.com and snagged a seven-day advance round-trip fare of $186, which was $45 cheaper than Southwest. When I tried to book the fare, however, I was bounced. But, this time, something strange happened. A box popped up on the screen that said "Click to Call." The box was friendly, too, with an inviting "Let's Talk."

I was leery. It sounded helpful, but I figured it was a come-on for a conversation with a computerized agent powered by some voice-recognition program that would understand every other word and drive me bats.

Just the opposite. Virgin's Click to Call feature may be the ultimate perk for business travelers in a hurry and booking their own flights. You punch in your telephone number and the airline promises to call you back "right now, in one minute or five minutes."

Promise kept. Impatient me clicked on "right now" and, almost instantly, my cell phone started ringing. I got a friendly but--uh, oh--mechanical female voice that purred I would talk to a live agent in a minute or so.

While I was wondering if it would be a single minute or 30-minute wait, a cheerful young human woman cut in and asked what was wrong. I could practically hear her smile through the phone. She made me feel like her first passenger with a problem, not her nine millionth guy with a gripe.

In a flash, she spotted the dilemma: I didn't check off the box refusing Virgin's travel insurance offer. That error alone ground the wheels of commerce to a halt. (In my defense, the Virgin webmeisters should redesign the type and box on the Web. The site is somewhat cluttered and confusing. The airline would probably save themselves a lot of Click to Call calls with a better Web layout.)

With the digital roadblock removed, I expected my angelic troubleshooter to ring off the line. But she stuck with me, completed the sale and gave me a confirmation number. She also double-checked to make sure I'd be credited with Elevate points for Virgin's frequent flyer program. And then she E-mailed my itinerary and sent a separate communiqué with my Elevate membership number--to write down in a "safe place."

In an age of airline consolidation, when you just know redundant heads will roll, it's mighty reassuring--make that shocking--to know that a carrier's flesh and blood problem solvers will call you in a flash and all you have to do is key in your phone number.

Virgin had already won me over with its in-flight entertainment center embedded in the seatback; an AC power plug at every seat; in-flight WiFi; calming, colorful lighting schemes throughout the cabin; and its flight attendants, who are actually gracious and smile. All those extras plus the new Click to Call feature take the sting out of being charged $15 to check a bag when Southwest Airlines lets luggage ride free. But, then, I find Southwest Airlines pricier on most routes where it competes with Virgin.

And here's the clincher: A few weeks ago, I bagged a $122 one-way fare from New York/Kennedy to San Francisco. With taxes and the bag fee, it was still just $145. I got to Kennedy early, so early that I could stand by for a Virgin flight leaving two hours before mine. But I didn't want to risk losing my aisle seat or missing the flight while my checked-in garment bag took off for San Francisco.

"Don't worry," said the agent, who dialed someone in operations and hung up with a smile. "You're flying standby, but you are also confirmed, you have an aisle seat and here's your boarding pass."

Confirmed standby?

"Yeah, and even if you were just on a standby list and didn't make the cut, we'd go in and fish out your bag for you."

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ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Creators Syndicate.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

This column is Copyright © 2010 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.