Peas in your dessert? Airlines don't care

Some airline passengers are being left with a bad taste in their mouths, Sarah Thomas reports.

Among the volume of correspondence Virgin boss Richard Branson receives each day, it must be a rare occurrence that he faces the following question: "Answer me this, Richard, what sort of animal would serve a desert [sic] with peas in?"

This, and more hilarious and pertinent questions, featured in a complaint letter sent to Branson by a disgruntled - and hungry - Mumbai-Heathrow passenger.

The letter, tagged as the world's funniest complaint letter, has since circulated the globe as a viral email. It not only garnered the writer a personal call from Branson but served to highlight the power of the internet as an independent force for consumer rights.

"It's that old adage: if you had good service you'd tell five people, if you had bad service you'd tell 12 people," says the Customer Service Institute of Australia's executive director, Brett Whitford. "Well, now you can tell 12 million people on the internet - and once something's on the net, it's really hard to get off."

There's nothing in law to say that airlines must provide palatable food.

The letter painstakingly describes to Branson the passenger's "culinary journey of hell", complete with accompanying photos and witty observations. Tearing back the tinfoil on the main meal, for example, is described as akin to the disappointment of being a child and discovering your dead pet hamster on Christmas Day.

The writer, later revealed as London advertising executive Oliver Beale, has been offered the opportunity to test food and wine for Virgin but generally there is no consumer recourse for bad airline food.

Travel Weekly news editor and aviation expert Justin Wastnage says the consumer has very few rights when it comes to airline customer service. In fact, he says airlines aren't obliged to give passengers food at all.

"It's just custom that they do but obviously it is a selling point," Wastnage says. "When choosing between airlines, you're either choosing on cost or on service."

He says passengers have some legal recourse with airlines for delayed or cancelled flights or lost baggage but nowhere in the conditions of carriage is quality of service guaranteed.

"If you went to a restaurant and the food is bad, you wouldn't eat there again and that's no different to an airline giving you bad food. The [letter writer] probably wouldn't recommend Virgin to his mates and ultimately people need positive referrals.

"But there's nothing in law to say that airlines must provide palatable food."

There is some hope on the horizon for beleaguered air travellers, however.

Qantas, which has weathered a public-relations storm over service and safety in recent times, has just opened a $10 million Centre of Service Excellence in Sydney, aimed at improving training for staff and setting "world-leading customer service standards".