The Good The Bad and the Downright Useless
During the early to mid 90’s Virgin Atlantic was the airline of choice for many celebrities, influential members of society and even royalty.
The photograph of Princess Diana wearing a Virgin Atlantic sweatshirt in 1995 given to her by Richard Branson was the best advertising any company could have wished for.
One thing they have always struggled to get right is the correct number of cabin crew required to operate the entire schedule. For this reason flights regularly go with less crew than they should have or with crew working in ranks they’re not trained to work in.
Cabin crew working up as on-board managers or on-board managers working down as cabin crew happens often.
Over bank holidays and significant events such as the Wimbledon final sickness is high. There’s rarely enough crew on standby to replace those who call in sick.
Working out of rank never bothered me. I enjoyed working a different position for a change and always chose to work in Economy.
This was a flight to Miami, we were about to take-off. It had been more than twenty years since I had sat on this jumpseat at the back of a Boeing 747.
On a full flight to Barbados some years ago on Christmas Eve I operated four cabin crew down on a full Boeing 747. I also had a cabin crew member working up in the managerial role of Cabin Service Supervisor.
On the Airbus A340-600 aircraft that I operated to Atlanta on 24th December 2018 with Bart, there should have been one Flight Service Manager who was me, two Cabin Service Supervisors and nine cabin crew. When I arrived at check-in there were eleven crew including myself and no Cabin Service Supervisors.
I was told by a crew manager all available crew on standby had been used so I would probably have to go one crew member down.
The CSS’s (Cabin Service Supervisors) are on-board managers whose role involves supporting the Flight Service Manager (FSM). One works in Economy, the other in Upper Class. They run the services and lead, support and develop their crew.
With there not being any CSS’s it meant two cabin crew would have to work up to fill each position.
The problem on this flight was that out of ten crew, seven were still in or just out of their probation. Another was on his first working flight back having been on a ground placement for a year.
The code ‘JR90’ notifies onboard managers that a crew member has been with Virgin Atlantic for less than eighteen months. This helps with allocating working positions and makes them aware additional support or guidance may be needed.
When deciding who is most suitable to work up, the FSM (Flight Service Manager) usually asks the most experienced crew member. This is determined by length of service. With that said, discretion may be used if they feel someone else may be more suitable.
Since joining Virgin Atlantic in 1990 it has always been a requirement that working positions (areas of responsibility) be allocated by the Flight Service Manager. The vast majority however including myself usually allowed the crew to choose their own working position.
That always worked well until I returned from long term sick in March 2018. Whilst off, Virgin Atlantic combined the Junior and Senior ranks which meant all cabin crew could work in any cabin on the aircraft. Up until then Juniors worked in Economy and Premium and Seniors worked in Upper Class.
Senior cabin crew was a promotion and the role came with an increase in salary. When the two ranks were combined, instead of the Junior salary being raised, the Seniors had to take a pay cut or were offered voluntary redundancy.
At Virgin Atlantic the hierarchy on the aircraft was Junior, Senior, Cabin Service Supervisor (CSS) Flight Service Manager (FSM) First Officer, Captain. The combined Junior and Senior rank subsequently became known as ‘Cabin Crew’.
Although I was in favour of combining the ranks there were problems with the way it was implemented.
Upper Class is a much nicer environment to work in so some crew began arriving at check-in very early to secure a working position in that cabin.
Some FSM’s were allocating working positions themselves but were doing so in seniority order. The most senior crew would be given positions in Upper Class to ensure there was plenty of experience in that cabin.
Whilst that seems like a great idea, the problem was that many of the junior crew were not getting the experience they needed to work there.
Working in Upper Class was very different to Economy and the galley position in particular required some level of expertise. The galley is at the heart of the Upper Class service. The way it’s run is reflected in the way services in the cabin are delivered.
I had done a few flights in recent months where none of the crew had ever worked in Upper Class. Working with an entire team unfamiliar with the service and environment made the flight very difficult.
I decided from then on to start allocating working positions myself. This way I could ensure all crew had the opportunity to gain experience working in all three cabins.
Whilst trying to decide which two crew would be most suitable to work up on my flight to Atlanta, a crew manager came to speak with me. She said one of her team who had been with the company for just over a year had come from another airline where she’d been a cabin manager for about twenty years. She said she wanted to mention it because she may be suitable to work up. It was music to my ears.
I now had to decide who to ask to work the other Cabin Service Supervisor position. Out of eleven cabin crew only three had been with Virgin Atlantic for more than fourteen months.
I had flown with one crew member several times previously and didn’t feel he was suitable to work up. I therefore placed him in the Upper Class galley.
I was initially going to ask Lottie to work up as Upper Class CSS (Cabin Service Supervisor) as she was the most experienced member of crew. Having been told I had someone who had been a manager at another airline for twenty years, I decided to ask her to work up instead.
That way Lottie could work an aisle position in Upper Class. We were one crew member down so I intended to work in the Premium cabin which meant I wouldn’t be able to be in Upper Class as much as much as I would like. For that reason I wanted an experienced crew member working one of the aisles.
That meant the only person left available to work up as Economy CSS was the crew member who had been on a ground placement. He had been with Virgin Atlantic for several years but this was his first working flight back. I had received an email from him a few days earlier;
I decided to speak with him when he arrived at check-in and would take things from there.
In the meantime Katrina who had flown previously arrived and we had a conversation about her working up. Although apprehensive she said she was happy to give it a go. I placed her in Upper Class.
When crew member T arrived we spoke for some time. Having explained the situation and asked whether he would like to work up as CSS in Economy, he agreed and seemed enthusiastic.
He told me he had recently applied for promotion to Cabin Service Supervisor but had not been successful. I said working up would be great experience. He said two of the cabin crew on the flight were his friends so would give him plenty of support. They turned out to be Mia and Bart’s fiancee Anna.
The first time I applied for Flight Service Manager I was unsuccessful. On the day I received my rejection letter I was told I was required to work up as Flight Service Manager on my next flight.
Having just been turned down for that role, I wasn’t over enthusiastic. Having spoken with my manager she said it would be good experience and would look good on my file when I next applied for promotion.
I have always remembered that and put it into practice many times over the years.
It was my second time working up. During a busy lunch service two of the crew in Economy started having a verbal altercation with each other in the middle of the cabin.
After returning home I received the following letter from my manager;
On another occasion soon after being promoted to FSM (Flight Service Manager), I checked in for a flight only to find we were three crew down. One of those positions was CSS or Purser as the rank was known at that time.
Miami was a notoriously busy flight so after a discussion with the only present CSS, I decided to ask an experienced Junior crew member with whom I had flown many times whether she fancied working up. In those days it was unheard of for a ‘Junior’ to work up as Purser.
Sheryl was confident, had heaps of experience and did an amazing job. Many years later she become a Cabin Crew Manager.
I wrote a lengthy performance review on her and subsequently received the following letter from my manager;
By the time I started the pre-flight briefing for my Christmas Eve Atlanta with crew member Bart, I’d allocated all working positions and had spoken to both cabin crew members who were working up.
With the exception of crew member Bruce who was working in the Upper Class galley, I had not flown with anyone else before.
All of the crew except for Bart had come and spoken to me prior to the pre-flight briefing to introduce themselves. I used the opportunity to tell them which working position they had been allocated.
The first time I saw and spoke to Bart was in the pre-flight briefing. What I didn’t know until some time later was that he had already taken a dislike to me.
As unbelievable as that may sound, the reason was because he hadn’t been given the opportunity to work up. He had only been in the company for eleven months and had never flown as cabin crew prior to joining Virgin Atlantic.
Although Katrina who I had asked to work up had only been in the company for slightly longer, she had many years of flying experience behind her.
The following is an extract from evidence I submitted to the company. “Performance management” relates to the performance review I wrote on Bart following the flight.
The crew member with four years experience was Ven who had been called from standby. He boarded the aircraft whilst passengers were getting on. I had literally been told as we were leaving our check-in area for the aircraft that someone had been called out. By that time I had no desire to start changing working positions around.
I allocated him the position I was going to work in the Premium cabin. I could see he had been in the company for a few years so felt with him working there, he’d be well placed to help out in both Economy and Upper Class if required.
The person with eight years experience was Lottie. I wanted her to work an aisle position in Upper Class to support the service.
The crew member who had been flying for Virgin Atlantic for seven years was Bruce. I had allocated him the Upper Class galley position because I didn’t feel he was suitable to work up in a managerial role.
If you’re thinking it was unfair of me not to give him that opportunity, take a look at the following photo;
It was taken when crew member Mia approached me during the dinner service at the bar area in Upper Class. She was working in Economy but had come to the front once they finished their service to help out.
She wanted to draw my attention to the Christmas dinner. Her concern was portion size not presentation. The Upper Class food comes out the ovens in foil trays and is plated up by the crew member working in the galley, that was Bruce.
These meals were on their way to customers who would have paid serious money to fly with Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class.
I took the photo because I wanted to send it to the catering department. I then went into the galley to speak with Bruce about how the food was being presented.
For point of reference, Bruce was one of two crew members who didn’t return their witness statement.
When I walked in he was busy plating up food. He drew my attention to one meal that couldn’t be used because it had been overcooked. Bruce was responsible for cooking all of the Upper Class food.
Mia seemed like a nice person. I had done a drinks service with her in Economy on our outbound flight to Atlanta. I was impressed by the way she engaged with customers and shared that with her.
With this being a Christmas trip she had brought a companion with her. Both of them joined us on Christmas morning for breakfast in the hotel. They sat opposite me and whenever we spoke, it was warm and friendly.
When she came to Upper Class I asked her to help Bart on the right aisle as he was struggling to keep up with the service.
The following screenshot comes from her witness statement. The first question asks about the relationship between me and crew member Bart.
Meet this lovely chap who’s now a Flight Service Manager with Virgin Atlantic. He’s someone who takes pride in his work and presents food the way Virgin Atlantic expect it to be presented. I think that’s an Upper Class serviette on his head!
Dealing with a Spurious Grievance
The grievance filed against me by Bart dragged on for more than a year and broke me completely.
I suffered with debilitating depression and anxiety and there were more days than I care to remember when I felt ready to bring my life to an end.
My new manager and cabin crew manager Hayley who was dealing with the grievance were fully aware of the situation with my mental health.
Not only had it been less than a year since I had returned to work after having been off for eighteen months, but the reason I had swapped onto this flight was because my dad was in the final stages of his life. He passed away just over a week after I returned home.
Instead of being able to grieve, I had to deal with a grievance investigation from crew member Bart who had accused me of bullying, harassment and inappropriate touching.
Having spoken to him several times during the flight about the way he was delivering the service, I felt it was something I had to do. In line with company policy that’s exactly what I should have done.
Performance reviews are usually written and delivered during the flight but for reasons I’ll explain in due course, I wrote his the following day once I was home.
Although I’ll talk in depth about the grievance investigation and subsequent disciplinary meeting, for now I want to fast forward to the letter I received advising me of the outcome.
The email was sent to me by cabin crew manager Hayley on the afternoon of Friday 27th September 2019.
True professionalism from this relatively new Performance and Development Manager. She had been with Virgin Atlantic for less than two years and in her current role for fifteen months.
I was subsequently told both verbally and in writing by senior manager xx who dealt with my appeal, “she was a very experienced manager”.
I later found out this was the first disciplinary hearing Hayley had conducted since joining Virgin Atlantic.
Ironically in the first screenshot she says “If you’re a senior employee or a manager, we’ll look to you to lead by example”. She wasn’t exactly setting a very good example herself.
Having been advised I would have a final written warning placed on my file for bullying, harassment and inappropriate touching, I submitted an appeal on the 1st October 2019 to senior manager xx.
During the meeting that took place three weeks later, I told her although she would have been fully aware, that I had been suffering with debilitating depression as a result of dealing with this matter.
I then asked her whether she knew how many men of my age commit suicide each year because of depression. She confirmed that she did.
Although minutes were taken from the beginning of the meeting, this comment was omitted.
Despite being fully aware of the situation with my mental health, she then pursued a second grievance against me. It was in regards to a completely different matter that had taken place a couple of weeks earlier.
In Virgin Atlantic’s staff online forum known as Workplace, I had written an informative and interesting post. It ended with what I considered to be a cheeky comment and was followed by several emojis. These clearly demonstrated the fun nature of the comment.
This was a private room set up by the Service and Delivery department for on-board managers (FSM’s and CSS’s) operating the newly launched Tel Aviv route. Its purpose was to share feedback, ideas and suggestions.
There were 43 members which included the manager of the Service and Delivery department, one of his team and someone responsible for onboard catering . Two Virgin Atlantic directors had also joined the group. Apart from them, I knew everyone else and everyone knew me.
We had all been with Virgin Atlantic for many years and two training courses had recently taken place which gave us the opportunity to catch up.
Several days later I received a message through Workplace from one the directors. He said he had taken offence to my comment and asked me to remove it. A few more messages were exchanged between us which will be shared later in the blog.
Three weeks later less than twenty four hours before the official Tel Aviv press flight which I was on, I received a call from cabin crew manager Fred. He told me I was being taken off the flight and senior manager xx had asked that a grievance investigation be initiated.
This director was due to travel on the flight with Richard Branson. I believe he looked at the list of cabin crew operating the flight and having seen my name, reported the comment that I’d posted three weeks earlier.
It’s worth mentioning shortly after posting the comment, I had second thoughts and subsequently deleted it. Or thought I had. I signed into the forum on my iPhone and deleted the comment but for some reason, it didn’t delete.
The following screenshot is one of the messages I exchanged with this director;
By the time of this incident I had already operated the first flight to Tel Aviv which had gone some weeks earlier.
The investigative grievance meeting for this second complaint was held on 29th October 2019 at 9.30am. Senior manager xx had asked for it to be dealt with as a final written warning.
My appeal meeting with her for the complaint raised by crew member Bart was at 2pm that same day.
With two final written warnings on my file, in line with company policy I would be dismissed.
Despite telling me she would try to come to a decision as quickly as possible because of the length of time the matter had already been going on, it took her almost two months to reach an outcome.
The result of her investigation was sent to me by email five days before Christmas on Friday 20th December 2019.
My appeal had been unsuccessful so the final written warning for bullying, harassment and inappropriate touching was to be placed on my file.
She had dismissed three further complaints confirmed she could find no evidence of collusion.
Despite having taken her almost two months to complete her investigation, all she had done was read through the case.
I had told the company from the start that crew member Bart’s allegations were nothing but lies. I had also exposed lies being told by those who were supporting him. The most obvious thing for her to do would have been to speak with him. She could also have spoken to the crew who worked alongside us both in Upper Class. Their statements were honest and told a very different story. She spoke to nobody.
Part of my evidence in this case included a copy of a WhatsApp conversation that I’d had with an FSM friend following the flight. I had forgotten to include it with my appeal and couldn’t see it in the final outcome document sent to me by cabin crew manager Hayley.
I sent the following email to senior manager xx;
Despite making reference to this WhatsApp conversation multiple times in the appeal paperwork, senior manager xx had not asked to see a copy. I had originally sent it to cabin crew manager Hayley via her work WhatsApp account but she had not added it to the case notes.
The days that followed were extremely dark and I sunk back into an agonising state of depression. Ending my life was at the forefront of my mind every single day.
The day after receiving the outcome of the appeal I called my manager to say I wouldn’t be doing my flight to Tel Aviv on the 24th December. He said he would advise the ‘Christmas trip committee’ who would decide how the absence should be recorded.
By late afternoon on the 23rd of December I hadn’t heard back from him and wanted to make sure I had been taken off my flight the next morning. Having called the crewing department they told me they had not been advised to take me off the trip. According to their records I was still showing as operating.
Dealing with a Grievance Whilst Off Sick
Christmas 2019 was a really difficult time. It was twelve months since my flight to Atlanta and despite proving all the allegations were lies, it hadn’t made any difference.
The first anniversary of my dad’s death was also approaching. Although 96 when he died which is a great age, the previous nine years had been very tough.
After suddenly losing my mum in 2010, my dad moved in with me and overnight my life changed. In the years that followed as he became more frail, I struggled to cope as his carer. My entire family was my dad and I so there was no other help.
After four years I had a breakdown and was off work for eighteen months. During that time whilst trying to get better I was still my dad’s full time carer. In 2018 he finally moved into residential care.
I never imagined being able to return to work but finally did with support from my previous manager and help from a psychotherapist.
Stepping back on an aircraft was incredibly difficult because I had completely lost my confidence. It wasn’t long though before I felt relatively comfortable doing the job I had always loved.
Just nine months later and my life would once again be thrown into turmoil.
The complaint for bullying, harassment and inappropriate touching took its toll on my mental health and I was subsequently off sick on three separate occasions.
Having called in sick once again after senior manager xx upheld the complaints for bullying, harassment and inappropriate touching, I knew my time at Virgin Atlantic was coming to an end.
With everything else on my mind I had kind of forgotten about the second grievance matter until I received an email on 11th January 2020 from my new manager.
During the appeal meeting senior manager xx told me she had chosen him carefully because she wanted someone who could give me all the support that I needed. Bear in mind she had requested a second grievance investigation be started for something that had been blown completely out of all proportion. She also asked for it to be dealt with as a final written warning.
When I spoke to my manager I told him I really wasn’t in a good place at the moment so didn’t know when I’d be returning to work.
Later in the conversation he asked when I would be able to attend the grievance meeting. I couldn’t quite believe what he had just said and told him I was currently in no position to deal with a second grievance. His response was to tell me the matter wasn’t going to go away and whilst he could push the meeting back, it would still have to be dealt with.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that conversation and how I felt in the days that followed. The fact that I’m still here to write this blog is pretty amazing.
In every email I received from him over the next few months he said the same thing, “I want to offer you support.” They were just meaningless words.
Here’s the series of emails that I received from the manager who was dealing with the second grievance;
This email was received three days after the conversation with my manager in which he said the grievance matter can be delayed but is not going away.
Despite still being off sick, it was mid February before I felt able to arrange a date for the meeting. Bear in mind this was just before the outbreak of Covid-19;
Despite her kindness and concern for my well-being, this was a complete and utter farce. There was never going to be a good time to deal with this but I needed to get it sorted so I could try to move on.
This matter could well have been dealt with very differently especially considering what I had already been dealing with for the previous twelve months.
On 4th March 2020 I received a call about my flight to Tel Aviv the following day. Despite telling the company I had been off sick since December, three weeks later they didn’t seem to be any the wiser.
Surely someone must have realised I was off sick considering I hadn’t turned up for any of my flights in January and February!
On the 8th April I received a call from someone I’d not spoken to before. He asked whether I would be operating my flight the following day.
Struggling to comprehend what I’d just been asked, I said I was off sick. After a long pause he said yes I can see that but thought you may be returning to work because we don’t have a sick note from you.
My manager had not asked me for a sick note and to be honest, it was the last thing on my mind. I said I’d get one and would forward it by email.
Three weeks later I received the following and replied a couple of days later. I didn’t hear another word from him or anyone else at Virgin Atlantic until the 2nd July. In that email I was invited to participate in a meeting to appeal the decision to make me redundant.