Virgin America Shows How Even CIOs Can Make Big Mistakes

How could Virgin America screw things up so bad?
How could Virgin America screw things up so bad?

How hard can it be to be a CIO at a major airline? Your job is pretty straightforward – make sure that you can take reservations, schedule the planes and the crews, and print out paychecks ever two weeks. Nothing to it, right? Well it turns out that over at the Virgin America airline, their CIO appears to have made a very bad decision and everyone is now paying for it.

A Very Bad Decision

Taking customer’s orders for plane tickets is at the heart of what every airline does. If you can’t fill your planes, then you’re not going to be able to pay for the planes, gas, and pilots. It’s always important to try to fill up your planes as much as possible; however, there are certain times of year that it becomes even more important.

During a typical week, an airline will fly with about 80% of its flights full. During the holidays, such as at Thanksgiving, they operate with about 90% of their flights full. Clearly, the IT department wouldn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize these most critical time periods.

However, in 2011, Virgin America’s Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO), Dean Cookson, went ahead and started a major project to change the way that Virgin America interacted with their customers who were booking flights online and in airports. Virgin had a problem: they had outgrown their existing reservation system. They decided to install a new system that was created by the airline industry solution provider Sabre Holdings.

Unfortunately, they decided to make this change at exactly the wrong time. The company switched to the new reservation system on October 28, 2011 and fro the next month their customers had nothing but problems. Customers couldn’t modify their flights online, they couldn’t book flights, they couldn’t check-in online, and some even reported being charged too much. Talk about a customer relations disaster!

What Virgin America’s CIO Should Have Done

It’s easy to throw CIOs under the bus. By the very definition of information technology it’s a high profile job and when things go wrong here in the 21st Century, the CIO often has a role to play. However, we’re all adults here and there are some very basic things that the Virgin America CIO clearly didn’t do.


  • Know Your Calendar: There are some IT projects that can impact the entire company. When we’re faced with these types of projects, we need to whip out the company calendar (not the IT calendar) and take a look at what the impact to the company would be if the project takes longer than expected or if it doesn’t go well.



  • Test, Test, Test: Long before you roll out an entirely new way of doing something, your new solution needs to be tested. In the case of Virgin America’s new ordering system, clearly this had not been done – so many errors were being found that it quickly became clear that very little real-world testing had been done.



  • Have A Back-Up Plan: We all know that sometimes an IT project can hit a wall. In the case of Virgin America, their new reservation system caused a major disruption for over a month. In the highly competitive world of commercial air travel, this is way too long for this type of problem to be allowed to linger. The Virgin America IT team should have had a way to roll back the new system and revert to the old system while they came up with a new roll-out plan.


Any CIO can make mistakes. However, if you’re going to make a mistake when it comes to a large-scale IT project that impacts your entire firm, at least make a unique mistake.

What All Of This Means For You

Here in the IT sector we spend a lot of our time talking about the challenges of aligning what the IT department does with what the rest of the company needs. Just when we think that we’re making some progress in this area, events like the ones that are unfolding over at Virgin America come along and remind us that this job is not yet done.

The Virgin America CIO launched an ambitious project to upgrade the company’s reservation and booking system starting at the end of October – just before the busy holiday travel period started. The project was an unmitigated disaster. For close to a month Virgin America’s customers struggled to use the flawed new system.

Given the importance of information technology, what the Virgin America IT department should have done was to plan this project based on the company’s schedule and not attempted to do it during the holiday period. They should have also done a better job of testing the solution and making sure that they had a back-up plan just in case the worst happened (like it did).

Just like when we see an accident on the highway and we all slow down to take a look, the IT failure over at Virgin America should serve as a wake-up call for all of us. Yes, as CIOs we do need to find ways to have IT work more closely with the rest of the company; however, if we don’t keep our eyes open then just like Virgin America we may find our grand IT plans not being able to take off…

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: What time of year do you think that Virgin America should have chosen to upgrade their reservation and booking systems?

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