How does Virgin Blue rate in the continuing, if gradually clearing, crisis computer crisis that started yesterday morning and wrecked travel plans right across Australia?

It seems to depend on which live-cross-to-air you watch. It can be “it’s not their fault”, “they are trying their best” and “we’ll get there in the end”, at one part of a terminal, and seething anger, such as “the web site is useless”, “I’ve been told to ring back in an hour for six hours” and “the staff haven’t a clue” at another.

This is Australia’s worst ever airline reservations and check-in computer system failure. It is a taste of what happens in the US each winter, when a severe storm at ONE airport strands enough jets to cascade the delays countrywide.

The similarity is that it is an event over which airlines claim to have no control, although there may have been an early warning of this last Monday afternoon, when this reporter was among “many” others who had the Virgin Blue reservations system malfunction and lose the plot at the click-to-pay stage, something that took 75 minutes on the phone to fix.

Whether it’s snow or blank screens, anything that prevents flights from vacating the gates at a hub airport such as Sydney or Melbourne, never mind ALL  Virgin Blue’s cities at once, is going to paralyse an airline.  If flight’s can’t be dispatched, everything goes cactus.

Which is why today remains really bad for Virgin Blue flyers, because a large number of those who were on 116 flights known to have been cancelled yesterday are trying to get on to flights today, and Virgin Blue, like its competitors, is booked nearly full, so even if everything runs like clockwork today, not everyone who was stranded yesterday will find a seat immediately.

Virgin Blue is scoring well when it comes to promising compensation, at least on media reports.  It is promising replacement flights for those unable to fly yesterday and today. It is picking up hotel and transfer costs and other expenses, with an allowance of $220 being quoted by some passengers.

However, the claim “form” on its website is totally vague. It doesn’t specify amounts, and sets the displaced with a need to scan or photocopy a range of receipts arising from the delays.

The form is weird in that it could save an awful lot of mucking around by just asking displaced passengers to enter their PNR code, which is a unique combination of six capital letters or numbers that appears on every reservation.

Which raises the terrible thought. If this crash by the external software used for bookings and check-ins has corrupted the passenger identifier codes, Virgin Blue is in really diabolical trouble. No, make that Accenture, the parent company for the Navitaire computer system, which is about to be sent to hell.

While Virgin Blue may get high marks for stepping up quickly to compensate the displaced, it can be argued it is very aware of the situation in the US and EU and UK, where fierce legal penalties are now enforced on airlines in similar situations because of their past resistance to compensating passengers for cancelled or severely disrupted flights.

No Australian airline would want to cause similar laws to be enacted here.

Don’t be misled either by reports of a total of 116 flights being cancelled yesterday, or the 13 that were listed as cancelled today. All flights, cancelled or not, are impacted by these delays. Check your flight status on the  Virgin Blue web site, and keep all flight and delay-related receipts.