by Claire, written on 23 January 2013.
What is it that differentiates airlines? Is it service? Is it price? Or perhaps it could be humour? I’ve been deliberating on what makes an airline unique, what makes it stand out from the crowd?
Airlines are highly competitive and it is increasingly difficult to differentiate the enjoyable travel experience from the bland. When an airline refreshingly uses humour, for example, to make the tedious journey more entertaining, it doesn’t take long for other airlines to catch on, and provide humour as a marketing factor for their passengers. The same applies when it comes down to selecting an airline on superior service. I considered the time when only a small handful of airlines offered luxurious economy seating with individual TV’s. Now many long haul airlines offer this particular luxury service to their economy passengers. Lastly, I deliberated selecting my favourite airline based on cheap tickets. Over the years I have observed a variety of airlines monopolise the market for a short period of time, sieving off all those travellers with a limited travel budget. These airlines come and go, each taking their turn at gaining market share based on the offer of cheaper flights. For this reason, I concluded, that it would be impossible to select a favourite airline based purely on the price of affordable tickets. So what is the magical factor that makes an airline stand out from all its competitors?
Then I got it. Without a doubt my favourite airline has to be Virgin Atlantic, and it all started ten years ago when I had been living in the UK for 3 years. One autumn afternoon I received a shocking phone call. ‘Hi, my name’s Ethel. Did Snow-white work for you in Johannesburg, before you left to travel?’ a voice with a very strong South African accent introduced herself, across the miles. ‘Yes’ I replied ‘How can I help you?’ ‘I have some very sad news about Snow-white ... she died yesterday in a car crash. Her family were in the same accident, but luckily they all survived’ she delivered this news as gently as she could, but I felt the colour drain from me. I struggled to hold onto my end of the telephone and sat down quickly before my legs could betray me. Finding my voice I whispered ‘Oh no! How are the boys doing?’ tears welling up in my eyes. Ten year old Dumisani and his sixteen year old brother Jacob sprang instantly to mind. All my maternal instincts came rushing to the fore. I had known Dumisani from 18 months old and met his older brother when he came to live on our property, at 8 years of age. Snow-white was the stabling factor in this family unit, their father Sixpence was a lovable rogue with a tendency towards drink. I was seriously worried about their future.
‘I need some help financially for her funeral, I don’t know who else to ask’ she said. ‘That’s fine I’ll send some money over’ I promised Ethel. This wasn’t an easy offer for me to make, we had recently quartered our family income. Six months previously I had given birth to a gorgeous son and had given up my lucrative job as a contract IT Project Manager to stay home and look after him. My other half reacted to the daunting responsibility of becoming the sole bread winner by giving up his IT Project Manager contract, taking on a more secure permanent job. This had the effect of halving his salary. Finances were tight.
As the days went by, I slowly started to come to terms with Snow-white’s death. I experienced an overwhelming urge that I needed to physically see the boys. I wanted to check if they were OK, and to discuss the options open to them now that their Mother had passed on. I realised that this was not going to be solved over a telephone call. My son was only six months old and, as a new Mom, I didn’t feel confident enough to make the journey from the UK to South Africa by myself without my husband. Also, we really didn’t have any spare money for the airfare. I felt helplessness overwhelm me.
A few days later I experienced a rare epiphany. Why not bring Dumisani and Jacob over to visit us? It may give them something to look forward to, an opportunity of a life time, it may be just what they need to give them hope. Unfortunately a pile of money, the price of two airfare tickets, had not miraculously appeared in a neat pile on my doorstep. My grandmother always used to say ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way.’ With nothing to lose, I decided to write a begging letter to each of the main airlines that flew direct flights between Johannesburg and London, cheekily asking if they would kindly provide the boys with a free airfare. Whilst waiting for their reply, Ethel organised passports for them. She divulged that they were becoming very excited about visiting me in England, during one of the many phone calls we were having discussing the long term options for the boys. Sixpence had vanished and the boys were now being treated as orphans. Their nearest family was an aunt, Snow-white’s sister, but she had her own children to raise on a limited domestic workers salary. Ethel and I were trying to come up with the best option for the boys, whilst still maintaining close ties to their remaining family. I remember closing my eyes, looking skywards, and making a silent vow to Snow-white that I would always do my best for her sons.
Two weeks later I had received all the replies from the airlines. Surprisingly there was only one airline with an offer for the boys. The airline was Virgin Atlantic, they promised 50% off an economy priced seat. Bolstered with this generous offer I was able to gather the remaining amount in generous donations from family and friends. It was now a reality, the boys and I chose a date to suit them and we booked their flights to coincide with their school holidays, just after Christmas.
Before I knew it, I was standing at London Heathrow waiting for the boys to come through the arrival gates. It was a magical moment for all of us and it is thanks to Virgin Atlantic, the airline with a heart, that two South African boys were able to find enjoyment again after experiencing such a tragic loss.
Jacob having already been awarded a full bursary out of 400 applications, whilst his mother was alive, to a well-known Johannesburg private school, went on to receive a Computer Engineering degree from UCT. He is a special young man with a gorgeous wife and delightful daughter, that I know Snow-white would have fallen head over heels in love with if she was still here.
Dumisani we managed to keep out of an orphanage, sending him to a private boarding school through generous donations from family and friends. He struggled to settle anywhere and I always wondered if it was because he was so young when his Mother died. He is a more complicated person than his brother and has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, his medication is helping him focus for the first time ever, and he is starting to explore his amazing artistic talents.