What Airlines Should Do To Make Flight Delays Less Of A Hassle For Passengers

I have just experienced a single Qantas flight that was so epically delayed the airline was forced to put passengers up on two separate nights in two different cities. Flight delays are a reality all air travellers have to deal with, but at this stage in the game airlines still make lots of avoidable mistakes when dealing with the aftermath. Here's what they need to fix.

Picture: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

QF12 from Los Angeles to Sydney was supposed to leave Los Angeles around 10PM last Saturday night. Mechanical issues and a forced crew rest period meant it instead took off at 11AM Sunday, with passengers sent to LAX hotels overnight. Bad weather in Sydney a couple of hours before our descent meant we were diverted to Brisbane to refuel, and then a breakdown in the plane's emergency lighting which was only detected after we landed meant the plane couldn't leave Brisbane anyway. Having landed at 6PM on Monday night, it was after 8PM before we were able to get off the plane, and after 11PM before we could leave the airport for the second Qantas-funded hotel in as many nights. (Passengers to Sydney were then booked onto a flight leaving Brisbane at 0630AM the next day from the international terminal, so most would have been lucky to get even four hours sleep before reboarding. At least that flight departed Brisbane on time.)

I'm certainly not arguing against an emphasis on safety, and even with a fully-functional and serviced plane the weather is something no airline can control. Delays and diversions will happen. What always irritates me on these occasions is the sloppy communication skills that airlines demonstrate.

I understand we'll have to queue for a while — even a half-empty A380 like this one easily has 200 people on it — and that much of the planning is necessarily on the hop. But that doesn't excuse transmitting highly inaccurate information to passengers, ignoring them altogether, or treating them like thieving alcoholic scum. Let's review what goes wrong that could be avoided. I'm basing this list both on what happened this trip and a handful of previous different experiences (all with other airlines). These issues are particularly relevant to full-service carriers, but even bargain airlines need to get the basics right.

Don't Give Out False Info

I'm listing this first because it's the worst and most common form of airline behaviour. As we queued to await our hotel assignment, a Qantas staffer roamed the queues to explain what was happening. "You'll all be rebooked on domestic flights leaving from around 8am. We'll send faxes to the hotel with flight details for you which will come under your door and will also have information about your transfer arrangements."

This was virtually all incorrect. The Sydney passengers all got booked onto the domestic leg of an international connection departing Brisbane at 0630AM (annoying given the need for an earlier arrival at the airport, and doubly annoying because the staffer had specifically said it would not happen). No faxes or information ever arrived at my room. The letters we got handed for insurance purposes when getting hotel assignments listed flights (in some instances) but nothing about transfer buses. The hotel staff thought there was just a single bus at 4AM, but no-one knew for sure, and that arrangement seemed ridiculous for people booked on flights later in the morning. Our hotel turned out to be near a Brisbane CBD station, so I decided to avoid all that uncertainty and use the Brisbane Airtrain, but I shouldn't have to do that or pay for it and many passengers wouldn't know it was an option.

On board the plane, the captain only came on when there was very specific information to impart; there was no attempt to impart false hope. That approach would have been more helpful in the line. More to the point: if you have five hours between when a plane lands and when people leave the airport, you should be able to offer accurate information about bus arrangements and transmit that to the hotel where people are staying. It would only take one phone call.

Be Precise When Naming Hotels

In Los Angeles, the chosen hotel was near the airport and serviced by a regular hotel shuttle bus, so that particular hassle wasn't going exist — or so I thought at the time. It turned out that when the check-in staff told me I was staying at the Sheraton, they didn't mention that there are two Sheratons at LAX, the Gateway and the Four Points. The same bus services both, but I had no idea which one I was meant to get out at. I chanced into guessing the right one, but that problem would have been really easily avoided if the staff had communicated precise information originally.

Tell Your Lounge Staff What's Happening

I had checked in to my LAX-SYD flight from Las Vegas, and on landing in Los Angeles I headed straight from Terminal 4 to Tom Bradley, through security and to the Qantas lounge — my usual routine. My boarding pass was scanned on entry to check my eligibility, but no-one mentioned that the flight I was on had already been delayed by half a day. I only found out because I went to check the gate assignment, couldn't see it listed and looked it up myself online. How hard would it be to have the staff member check the pass on entering and say 'sorry, that flight has been delayed?', or to list that fact on a board in the lounge? (There was no indication on the main airport boards either; the flight simply wasn't visible.)

Don't Set Ridiculous Hotel Food Conditions

As well as paying for the room, Qantas gives you vouchers/credit to cover meals at the hotel; $46 in the US, $35 in Brisbane. So it should, and I understand that there'll be a fixed value attached. What's irritating and offensive is the conditions attached to these: you're told you can only order at specific venues, that you can't use room service, and that you can't spend the money on drinks or the mini-bar.

The room service point is ridiculous if you're going to be forced onto a bus before the buffet breakfast begins (and staff in both hotels said that in practice you could use the voucher, though $35 doesn't go very far). And the other conditions make no sense at all. By the time I reached my room, I had been queuing one way or another for three hours. I didn't want a meal; I wouldn't have minded a nightcap and a snack, and that would have cost Qantas a lot less than $35. It's a pointless intrusion at the end of a process which the airline has already made needlessly awkward and time-consuming. What possible difference does it make if I spend airline money on an overpriced packet of crisps and a beer rather than an overpriced hamburger? Doesn't the airline have bigger issues to worry about?


Finally, a quick reminder for passengers: you'll achieve better results by being nice to the staff on the ground than by being angry. Also: always travel with a fully-charged phone if you can. You'll definitely be using it.

How would you like to see airlines handle the inevitable delays that happen with air travel? Tell us in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman still shudders when he remembers the 24-hour delay on a flight that was only supposed to take an hour. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


Comments

    THIS. Is an excellent overview of the ways in which an airline can alleviate some of the stress and concern these delays cause. We spend a lot of time on process improvement in my business and it is considered mandatory (usually hidden behind health and safety reasons). How can airlines, who have faced with these situations through the history of aeroplane travel, still make cardinal sins?

    Communication, nay correct communication, can dis-way a vast majority of the travelling public from getting angry or OTT when faced with delays.

      Same disclaimer on the post below. My views, not speaking on behalf of any airline, blah blah.

      An airline makes money by having it's entire fleet flying as much as possible. You don't have multimillion dollar aircraft sitting around idle in each port as backup strategies, that would send you into bankruptcy tout suite.

      If your aircraft can't take off and can't be fixed or staffed in a reasonable time then you quite simply wait until a new plane can be diverted to your location and take you.

      The gate staff though don't do that work and they don't have supernatural powers either. They can only work on what they expect in the SLAs.

      Most of the time what they expect comes true because we are all trying to make it happen, sometimes it can't so they might seem to you to be "lying" but it's not intentional and not their fault.

        True but it seems like whatever procedures they have in place to handle the customers during inevitable delays aren't setup correctly (or at least not to any consistent standard between airports). As though there are a heap of things being worked out on the go by the staff members directly involved which could be handled way better.
        I mean you'd imagine once it becomes clear you're not leaving within a certain amount of time you'd have someone from the airport come out, at the airline's expense, and handle your group personally while working with the airline to keep everything on track. They know the specific airport, hotels, travel systems and FAQs (ie, they'd know to inform people which Sheraton in the article).
        From there they could even setup proper communications networks for displaced passengers (faxes to the room? That's nuts). A big place like LAX could loan anyone staying long enough to require a hotel room a phone that can take calls from the airport and make them to whoever they need to check in with.

        I dunno, the situation is handled poorly enough that there's got to be room for improvement in there.

    Totally agree. My partner and I were delayed travelling from JFK to LAX, and missed our connecting flight to Sydney. Prior to departing JFK, Virgin America assured us that accommodation had been organised at LAX and that there would be someone waiting in the lounge (because of our tickets they were obligated to do this). Bullshit. They basically dumped 15 Aussies at LAX at 3am with nowhere to go and a connecting flight that didn't depart for another 24 hours. A cleaner helped us out. We ended up staying at the Four-Points Sheraton too. To Virgin Australia's credit, they gave my partner and I a few hundred dollars in flight vouchers.

    I feel for you. I recently was on an epic delayed flight from San Francisco to Sydney on Air New Zealand - which involved two separate nights in two separate countries! The communication was extremely poor - when in San Francisco I contacted the ANZ help desk information line and they didn't even know the flight was delayed! The website was not kept up to date. We checked in and were told first it would be 1-2 hours delay which kept on stretching longer and longer until finally we were all bussed to hotels surrounding the airport. We received a free breakfast voucher for the hotel breakfast buffet - which opens at 6:30 am - however, we had to catch a shuttle to the airport at 5:00 am. The boarding was a shambles - and the in-service food was ridiculous as they kept the same menu for an overnight flight (where most passengers would have been asleep) for a daytime flight - so most passengers were starving by the time the flight finished. Once there - it was too late to fly into Sydney - so yet another overnight stay. Getting to the hotel was a bit of a shambles - as they didn't have people guiding those who needed to continue on from New Zealand - and you needed to ask the help desk after you passed through immigration and customs.
    Getting a bus from the hotel to the airport again was a problem - as it couldn't manage all the passengers AND their luggage. I really felt sorry for those with young children as they had to do so much juggling of luggage and children.
    Once home I sent a detailed letter of complaint (including more details) and received a form email back that had nothing to do with my complaint in the first place! ANZ is normally quite good - but they don't seem to be able to effectively handle problems.

    Definitely be nice to the staff. They're usually without information as well. Xmas 2011 I was stuck in Singapore overnight and slept in the floor in Heathrow for 2 nights when it was basically closed for a week due to heavy snow and ice. There were no hotels left in London. Local bed and breakfasts were price gouging right on time for Xmas (£400 per night at one pub).

    The airline staff were faced with thousands of iterate customers, but ultimately they weren't being told anything by the airlines either. No point yelling at them.

    Oh, to the airlines and Heathrow management that implemented a policy of not letting people back into the airport if you didn't have a confirmed flight when there were no hotel rooms left at all; morons. Thankfully the ground staff were smarter and realized locking people out with no where to go in freezing conditions was probably a bad idea.

    Being updated is what matters the most. I don't mind waiting as long as the plane doesn't fall out of the sky. We're lucky to have such first world problems!

      Fully agree, It is very frustrating and tiring when these delays occur. But, better than floating about(if you are lucky) on the ocean some where.... I got offloaded from a Icelandic flight at Stansted in the UK due to a problem with the aircraft's mechanical condition while taxing out. Considering the cold ocean we were going over for several hours, no one seems to mind the choice of staying until the aircraft was fixed, or in our case, replaced. In the end, they gave up repairs, but another aircraft was not available until next day. After the initial shambles sorting out hotel accommodation and who went where, groups of us were assigned an airline employee, who took us to a bus, which took us to a great Best Western Hotel some where near Stansted. The airline employee sorted out our accommodation with hotel clerk. We were given vouchers to use in the restaurant, which was anything on a "specially" prepared menu for us. (I noticed the bar fridge was open when we arrived, but centrally locked when we returned to our rooms) Airline employee arranged for early morning calls to our rooms because we had to be back at the airport by 6 am, it meant leaving at 5 am. Buffet breakfast was from 6 am. So, the hotel brought in their catering staff early and made every passenger a breakfast of hot croissants and meat/cheese filling, with Danishes, orange juice, fruit and coffee/tea.. Then because of the journey back to the airport and long check in, they made every passenger a morning tea bag to take of muffins, fruit juices and real fruit. So, our experience was not too bad. HOWEVER, the airline was a small charter company. Maybe is it had been one of the big airline, then I am sure it would have been a disaster, as they seem to have lost touch with the passengers needs, only their ability to take passengers money works well. The flight on the other aircraft went well, with no problems. Iceland is a strange place, but well worthy of a visit.

    You've told Qantas socialmedia people all this have you Angus? A quick tweet or an FB comment would get good attention I suspect, being a QFF person myself.

    The point about restrictive food vouchers is a good one. My sister-in-law got stuck in Sydney for three days with delays etc with two toddlers on her own. The only "allowed" food options was a buffet which was totally impractical on her own with two little kids. Other passengers helped, but being allowed to use room service would have made it much easier. I ended up arranging for a friend to go in and stay with her to give her a hand as it was becoming a nightmare. The hotel also said they weren't "authorised" to provide a cot so she was stuck with trying to get two toddlers to sleep in a regular bed. Crazy! She finally got on a flight by bursting into tears at the check-in counter, dumping a grumpy snotty unwell child in the arms of the unhelpful airline staff member and telling him to deal with the bloody kid for another night if she couldn't get on a flight for ANOTHER 24 hours. Seems to have worked as she got a business class seats on a flight leaving an hour later!

    To disclaim this I am strictly and utterly speaking for myself, not on behalf of any airline, so these are just my views as someone who knows what really happens behind the scenes when a plane can't take off.

    First of all, if you are talking about a budget airline please don't expect first class service because you are - to be brutally honest - prioritised after people who paid full price. However for the full price airlines, and because this article touches a full price airline, then there are clear service standards to work towards.

    I will repeat the advice not to abuse the poor ground staff. They already know you are upset. They and all people behind the scenes want these issues to be over and have you flying without disruption.

    It can be very hard for the ground staff. They can only give the information that they know and having 200 or 300 or more people calling them rude names, apart from being totally unproductive, just makes it unpleasant for everyone.

    "Honey catches more flies than vinegar" after all.

    Trust me, the gate staff are not being spiteful towards you nor trying to punish you for some unknown sin. They really do want you to be calm and comfortable and in the air, or failing that where you should be, but they really have very little power.

    Delays happen for a myriad of reasons. Maybe the aircraft is mechanically unsound to take off or there is a staffing issue or maybe a volcano or the weather has made flying unsafe.

    If the plane can't be made ready in a reasonable time for whatever reason then the operations area will start the process of finding alternate arrangements.

    But until that area has done that work all the gate staff can work on is the documented service standards everyone tries to live up to. Sometimes that might not become possible.

    Every single plane that can't take off has the highest visibility for those behind the scenes.

    We know. Oh boy, do we know.

    I think the point of this article is not that delays don't or shouldn't happen, as there are a multitude of factors outside of anyone's control, it's how the airline should manage it once it happens. Airlines should have plans for delays and how to manage customers on the ground in a reasonable fashion. Letting people know (including ground and support staff who will be in the front line) ASAP the details and extent of the delay and the plan to handle it would be a good start.

      Airlines do have plans to manage the delays. Most of the time those plans go off flawlessly and nobody gets their nose out of joint. But like anything the worst experiences, or those with a wide audience and snubbed over not being allowed to redeem alcohol are the ones recalled instead of those times the delay went smoothly.

      Sometimes stuff happens that just stretches the plans a little too much.

      As Mr Abbott remarked about the soldiers dying in Afghanistan "Shit Happens".

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