On August 23rd 1992, the Hayes family, which included their eight year old son, set off for a two week holiday in Florida USA. The package deal was with Virgin Holidays to include flight, car hire and accommodation - the latter paid for in advance and a book of vouchers issued as confirmation of reservations. There were no problems at the check in at Gatwick for the flight, which was a scheduled service to Miami.
The majority of passengers were independent travellers, only around 30 or so families with children were travelling courtesy of Virgin Holidays on a package deal basis. At no time were any of the passengers checking in told or warned of a Hurricane which even then was gathering momentum in the Caribbean and predicted to hit Miami sometime in the next 30 hours.
The flight was uneventful apart from a brief
cabin address by the Captain in the latter stage of the flight, in which
he remarked that there was a Hurricane in the region but that it was not
The aircraft landed after a ten hour flight at approximately 3pm local time. It was noticeable when approaching the airport to land that the roads were virtually deserted.
After passport control there was an announcement on the Airport public address system warning everybody of an impending Hurricane. The Hayes family eventually met a Virgin representative who told them that they could not go to their pre-booked hotel, that all of the hotels in that area had already been evacuated and that they could not collect their hire car, as the State Governor had declared a State of Emergency which also precluded foreign visitors from driving on the roads. They were informed that the best course of action was to remain at the airport. Meanwhile the Virgin 747 departed back to the U.K leaving the package holidaymakers to their fate.
The Virgin holidaymakers were issued with a red blanket plus refreshment vouchers and spent the next 26 hours 'camped' on the terminal floor with their luggage away from the windows. Televisions operating in the bar areas graphically depicted the approaching horror until eventually they blacked out as the Hurricane hit. The power failed, this included the air-conditioning and water. Conditions inside the terminal became extremely hot and unpleasant and toilet facilities with the lack of water were disgusting . There was also the fear of the airport being invaded by vagrants and looters from the surrounding area seeking shelter. As can be imagined it was impossible to sleep under these conditions which after the long flight and 'jet lag' only served to increase the misery.
The Hurricane passed through and the following day (only by late afternoon) the Virgin representative re-appeared. He appeared at a loss as what to do with the passengers. The roads were apparently passable but there was devastation everywhere. After a lot of shouting and complaining from the passengers he arranged for taxis to take the passengers to West Palm Beach Airport to collect hire cars. Originally he wanted the passengers to go to Daytona Beach which was further away, but the holidaymakers refused. Everybody was utterly exhausted and demoralised.
On arrival at West Palm Beach Airport queues developed at the car hire office. The representative assured everyone that accommodation had been booked in West Palm Beach. Having finally collected their car, the Hayes family set off to find their hotel. Eventually at 9pm they arrived at their hotel to be informed that there was no record of their booking, furthermore the desk clerk stated that no rooms were available. At this stage Mrs Hayes became hysterical and taking pity on her the Manager 'found' a room for the family.
As the Hayes family tried to reorganise their holiday over the following days it was apparent that any arrangements made by the Virgin representative for them in Miami were useless. They encountered further problems whereby hotel staff were not aware of 'bookings' made by Virgin representatives at Miami, this pattern continued for the rest of the holiday.
On return to the U.K a letter of complaint was sent to Virgin Airlines who failed to reply. Eventually after six weeks and repeated telephone calls they declared that the complaint should be addressed to Virgin Holidays, a 'different' company. After protracted correspondence an offer was made to the Hayes family of £100 compensation which they declined. In their complaint the main bone of contention was that no advance warning or choice had been given at the check in at Gatwick. Whilst it was acknowledged that it had been a scheduled flight and Virgin was duty bound to fly their independent passengers to Miami, no provision or consideration had been given to the 'pawns in the game' - i.e. the package holidaymakers who were in the minority and also expendable.
Virgin Holidays eventually admitted that it had been a 'commercial decision' to go ahead with the flight - implying that they were aware of events building up in Miami though they initially said they were not.
The Hayes family felt that it was incomprehensible that Virgin Holidays did not know of Miami being evacuated and/or the ban on foreigners driving hire cars. It appeared that they had been left to their fate by Virgin Holidays. Warnings should have been issued by Virgin and the choice left to the holidaymakers as whether to go ahead or go home!
In conclusion, the Hayes family settled, very
reluctantly for a 30% discount on another holiday with Virgin Holidays
which was taken the following year, as the company were not prepared to
offer any further compensation. Since the fiasco the mention of any Hurricanes
in the Florida area only serve to bring back the appalling memories of
that trip. The Hayes family feel that they were placed in danger,
neglected, treated with indifference, and have ended up thoroughly disillusioned
with Virgin Holidays. They were also appalled by Virgin's reaction to their
complaint and the length of time in dealing with it.
The form of 'compensation' also committed the family to further expense with a company they were loathe to travel again with.