How Qantas Made Life Harder For Stranded Passengers

It's not Qantas' fault that volcano ash in Europe cut off many flights for a week or made planning return routes difficult. But it's entirely Qantas' fault that it made an absolute dog's breakfast of communicating with those passengers once flights resumed, indulging in a mixture of misinformation, confusion and outright lying that's a textbook example of how companies can rapidly annoy (and lose) customers.

(Reader note: while there are some minor travel tips within this post, it definitely falls into the Lifehacker rant category.)

Like many Australians, I found myself stuck in London last week after European airspace was closed down in the wake of Icelandic volcano eruptions. After holidaying with friends, I'd been scheduled to travel back from London to Melbourne on Saturday April 17. When that clearly wasn't going to happen, I contacted Qantas, and was rebooked provisionally onto a flight on Monday April 26 (my friends were split between that and an early flight on April 23). That was a fairly major delay, but at least it represented a definite booking.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when I arose on Wednesday morning to discover messages from Qantas to say we'd all been rebooked on a special service, QF 8230, which was leaving for Melbourne that day at 1220. Having rung Qantas and confirmed we really were all on the flight and it was definitely happening, there was a frantic scramble to jump on a rush-hour tube (no mean feat with seven bags and two children) and make it to Heathrow, but we got there by 0930. Staff outside the terminals had lists to ensure only booked passengers could enter, so checking in and getting through security was a surprisingly peaceful and quick process.

Unfortunately, nothing went so smoothly after that. We'd been told at check-in that the flight had been delayed by an hour (and our boarding passes reflected that), but at 1100 there was still no reflection of that changed status on the information boards throughout the airport or within the Qantas/BA lounge. The staff within the lounge also knew nothing; one staffer repeatedly tried to ring Qantas to get information for us, but could never get through.

Finally, at around 1300, a message appeared for Melbourne passengers: "Board now". This turned out to be the first outright lie. When we got to our gate, we were instead told that all passengers for Melbourne were being transferred to a flight to Sydney leaving around the same time, and that we'd then be placed on a domestic connection back to Melbourne. (Apparently, this wasn't information that could have actually been conveyed to any other staff in the airport, and nor could they issue the new boarding passes in the lounge despite the fact that the seat allocations had already been done. Adding insult to injury, the passengers already booked on the Sydney flight were told boarding had been delayed due to catering issues, the second obvious lie of the day.)

An hour or so of idiocy ensued, in which Qantas couldn't decide which gate we would get our reissued boarding pass from or how the queuing system would work. We'd only just been issued with our passes when the announcement was made to board the flight. We rushed to get on board, which turned out to be a mistake, as we ended up sitting there for three hours with minimal air conditioning before eventually being told around 1830 that we'd have to deplane and reboard for a 2200 departure. Briefly the idea was floated of sending everyone to local hotels before reboarding later that evening, but then that was dropped in favour of sending us all back into the main airport with food vouchers — though we had to re-clear security first, even though we'd never left the building.

The excuses we were offered on board varied. For a long time, the story was that we were waiting for a flight plan, and that one would come in another "20 minutes". (This turned out to be a rather flexible period of time, but it was never shorter than 30 minutes.) Just when the flight plan apparently got approved, the captain told us that ash had been sighted over London, which meant that under Qantas regulations the flight couldn't proceed. Planes from numerous other airlines, including Qantas partner BA, continued to arrive and depart throughout this period. The general mood on board was that we weren't being told anything useful.

Once we got off the plane, we were back in the information vacuum. For several hours, our flight didn't appear on any of the departure boards at all. When it did, it had no departure time. Checking on the Qantas site revealed a revised departure time of 2200, but this wasn't announced in the lounge until 2030, more than an hour after I'd seen it, and took even longer to appear on the boards. How hard is it for a staff member to look up a web site, or for the airport managers to put that information on a screen?

Leaving the plane also served as a reminder of a useful travel rule: while it's tempting to get rid of all your overseas currency once you reach a departure airport, it's wise to keep a little in reserve. Boarding a plane is no guarantee that it's actually going to leave.

As 2200 loomed closer, it became clear that we weren't going to leave on time yet again. Shortly after that hour, we were told that we were waiting on approval from CASA, the Australian regulator, for the flight, which sounded pretty ludicrous on a flight going from London to Singapore. We finally got away after midnight, still with no indication how we'd actually get from Sydney to Melbourne.

That information came just before we arrived in Singapore: our plane would in fact be continuing to Melbourne, eliminating the need for a messy and uncertain domestic connection. That sounded like good news, but turned out to be almost as bad: even though we would be using the same plane, we still all had to clear immigration, pick up our baggage, re-check it, re-clear customs and security, and reboard the plane. No reason why was given. We were handed a letter promising a "dedicated team" to escort us back through customs and five counters exclusively devoted to checking us back in once we'd done that. They certainly should have had time to organise it, as we ended up sitting on the ground at Singapore for an extra 45 minutes while someone counted the luggage. Or something. Who knew what to believe?

There were lots of Qantas people running round the baggage collection area in Sydney, but that was as far as the "dedicated team" went. Once we exited, there was no-one in sight. Having made our way upstairs, we found that there were three counters (and a long queue) for re-checking us. When several passengers pointed out that out to the supervisor that we'd been promised a bigger priority check-in area, she said that the area was supposed to be used entirely for US check-in — essentially implying we were lucky to get even what we had. When one passenger showed her the Qantas letter confirming that the plans had supposedly been in place for hours, she stuck her nose in the air and walked off, never to be seen again.

When we got to the departure gate to fly to Melbourne (after more security and immigration checks), there were no staff in sight, and no indication of a departure time. When a Qantas staff member showed up a few minutes later, I asked what time boarding was expected to commence. "We'll start boarding at 0830 — that's been announced several times," she snarled at me, displaying appalling rudeness and also (as far as I could tell) lying through her teeth, as I'd been inside the terminal almost half an hour at the point and not heard one word about it. We finally got to Melbourne 14.5 hours later than scheduled.

The lack of information throughout led to rampant speculation amongst the passengers. Theories floated included attempting to dodge the curfew in Sydney, alleged high charges for landing in Singapore late at night, a lack of available crew, and an attempt by Qantas to pressure pilots into changing their standard wage conditions. I'm not sure any of those are true, but given that Qantas offered only the bare minimum of information at the last minute, it's not surprising they gained currency so quickly amongst the passengers. Whenever anyone asked a direct question, the staff member would either ignore it or "promise to find out" and disappear, never to return.

I understand that in the wake of a natural disaster, plans may change rapidly. But that's no reason for keeping passengers in the dark for hours on end, and it's absolutely no excuse for lying to them about what's happened, for promising options that simply aren't delivered, or for becoming surly when passengers point that out. Qantas likes to boast about being a premium airline; its behaviour over the last few days has done nothing but tarnish that reputation.


Comments

    i don't know about anyone else, but i don't read lifehacker to find out how many ways its editor can springboard personal complaints.

    angus, perhaps consider applying for a job with consumerist?

    you mention several times in your article that qantas staffers were not aware of what was happening, and even admit that maybe a natural disaster might have something to do with the mess.

    qantas doesn't deal with a backlog of 5 million customers every day, and i'd argue that this is probably the first time that many airports and airlines have gone through something like this. perhaps this is a learning experience for them as well?

    i've found people's reactions to the volcano very polarising. it's a great example of how stamping your foot and yelling can't and won't change anything, but it's interesting to see the people that do so anyway.

      Just one point: I didn't stamp my foot and yell at any stage.

        I have to agree with "butterworm". I do not read lifehacker to "hear" you complain about various issues. In the last month we have had a detailed and decidedly puerile whinge about a bus company in England that very few of us are likely to travel, to a complaint about Qantas, an airline I have flown with numerous times and never found the service to be short of first class.

        If you want a place to vent your complaints, make a personal blog? I read Lifehacker to learn about interesting things and to stay on top of IMPORTANT issues. If this article were an article as opposed the petulant complaints of a child with a website, I would happily read it and move on, but instead we have to read this dribble.

        It's made all the worse by the fact you acknowledge you are ranting rather than showing even a moticon of journalistic integrity, and your flippant answers to people who have commented above just exacerbate the situation.

        It seems so wrong to complain, but someone has to say it. Write articles, keep your whinging to yourself..

        3rd article I have felt the need to say this too. Consider reading your readers comments, we want to see you succeed as much as you do.

          I'm noting the comments. I'm wondering though why you read an article noted as a "rant" if that sort of content doesn't interest you.

          I fly with Qantas frequently, and generally find their service to be excellent, which is one of the reasons I've found their behaviour this week so disconcerting.

            Fair enough. I would have been surprised to hear that you didn't read them. Despite how the above may have come off, I wasn't trying to imply that your journalism is in anyway substandard, just that some of your articles left some things to be desired.

            My biggest concern with these kinds of articles is what it says for the character of the person I am taking tech tips off of. I'll continue to read your work regardless of this or any other posts, and I will continue to take from them what I can/want.

            Apologies if my first post was too brutal..

            Then why not cut them some slack? "Yeah, they have consistently excellent service - except this one time when all of Euro airspace was closed for a week and they had to deal with the backlog. I wouldn't begin to know how to handle that sort of situation, but I'm damn well gonna have a big sook about it on teh internets. I write tech tips, so I'm sure my opinion about dealing with international catastrophes must count for something!"

            Most mature people - people with a broader sense of perspective than "waah, I know people are starving to death, but this international travel thing isn't as luxurious as I wanted and my sense of entitlement has been violated" - probably would've brushed it off as 'one of those things'. Forget that - they'd be grateful to be going home at all.

      I also agree with Butterworm. This is an annoying and largely irrelevant personal complaint writ large onto Lifehacker simply because Angus has the power to do so.

      Labeling the post a 'rant' doesn't make it any less annoying - if you feel the need to attach such a disclaimer, it's perhaps a good indication that it shouldn't be posted at all.

    It's good to see that Angus hasn't changed. Never a good word to say about anything, always complaining. Wingeing about Tech may be one thing, but now wingeing about something he knows nothing about.

    CASA oversea all Australian registered Aircraft, it doesn't matter if it's London to Singapore.

    It had nothing to do with pilot's wages, but to do with legal duty times. How often do you work for 20 hours straight. Think you could land an Aircraft after that?

    At least you made it back alive, next time try some "fly but night operator" that will fly through anything to "get you there on time"!

      If the reason they couldn't fly was that pilots had exceeded duty times, I don't see why they couldn't simply say that.

      as if pilots 'work' 20 hours shifts. thats why they have a copilot. maybe you shouldn't comment on things you don't know about

    While I do agree that Qantas' customer communication left a lot to be desired in this instance, I'm also getting a bit tired of Angus' negative, complaining posts on this site.

    We read lifehacker for tips and hints, interesting tech articles, and links to various useful and fascinating parts of the web, not to keep up with the latest company or organisation that has got on Angus' "bad side".

    While Angus is definitely entitled to voice his opinion on such matters, and Qantas should definitely be called out for their bad communication, this is definitely the wrong forum for such "articles".

    In no way does this post provide any useful information or value, it's purely a complaint and a vent.

    It's almost worth sticking to the US-only lifehacker site, where at least they appear to stay focused and not use the site as a personal complaints forum.

      it was a great story giving me an insight into how qantas works. it's basically a review story.

      like i said, no one is forcing you to read it.

    Well said Butterworm. Angus you may be many things but an idiot you are. You were contacted as quickly as new flights were put on and given as much information by the front line staff as they had to give. Show a bit of compassion and understand as everyone was in the dark. As Jetjoint said "at least you made it back ALIVE!"

    Ahhh I'll just add this to the massive pile of reason why I refuse to travel with Airlines (no problem with flying). And they wonder why they are loosing money?

    What was highlighted by Angus is Qantas' lack of organisation and communication + a slew of broken promises. Considering they have had a week to work out a "flights resumed" plan, i, like Angus, would expect a smoother ride.

    Addressing the comments from butterworm and Jetpoint above, yes, this eruption is an extreme event that has caused emmense disruption to everyone involved, and yes, regulations should (and shouldn't doesn't mean that it does) be adhered to for safe flying. However, neither is any acceptable excuse for not keeping customers (and QANTAS's own staff as it seems from Angus's account) informed of actual events, blantant lying to customers to cover QANTAS's own arse, or outright rudeness from staff employed in a customer service role (if you're employed in a front-facing role that involves customers, you should (and again, should doesn't imply does) have the skills to work with customers).

    As a father myself, trying to rationalise a 10 hour delay to my children who are 1.5 and 3 years old in an airport being shuffled backwards and forwards between different areas with no or continually incorrectly information regarding what is actually happening would have me at wits' end. Consider the implications of this unprofessional conduct to other passengers. While this is a inconvenience to the average joe, consider what this is like for a young family or the infirm.

    While this post may not be interesting to all readers, Angus, I appreciated reading your rant regarding your experiences.

    David.

    Rant away IMO. For those of you sheep who read articles on the net just because it's there in front of you, then complain about them being "off topic" and "whinging", here's a handy tip, when you see a title labelled "How Qantas Made Life Harder For Stranded Passengers", chances are its not a tech tip.

    Move along.

    PS, keep them coming Angus.

      I read it because in the past and on the US LH, a personal rant is very rare and used to turn into a useful post. In fact, if you go to "the LH rants category" (i.e. tag/rants) you get this post and a post about the iPad from Jan 2010 (<a href="http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2010/01/the-problem-with-the-apple-ipad/"here) which is well-written, includes links to other posts/articles and has useful content. But this rant and the rant about the bus has actually made me unsubscribe from LH.

      When I read "How Qantas Made Life Harder for Stranded Passengers" I'm imagining some kind of "here are my experiences and the experiences of others goodness me aren't Qantas incompetent this should be a warning for next time" post. This was "OMG AND THEN IT WENT WRONG AND NOW IT WAS 14.5 HOURS AFTER AND I DIDN'T LIKE IT" written in a "what I did on my holidays" school project style. And yes, whilst there wasn't actually yelling, the tone (and length - 1400 words!) made it read like that.

      In short, it's a great short story but the blow-by-blow descriptions of everyone one person came into contact with are boring, irrelevant and completely out of place on a tech blog. I'm unsubscribing because Angus, as the editor, really should know better.

    As a regular flyer with Qantas, and with lots of friends/colleagues who are as well, I must say I've been hearing from lots of stories around their handling of people during the disruption. I sadly haven't been hearing a lot of positive comments. While I understand that often people at the desk/lounge aren't given that information, they are breaking the cardinal rule of customer service. The most important thing is often just to say that you don't have any update. But you need to say this BEFORE the customer asks, not after.

    Several airlines have been using twitter and facebook for those tech savvy of their customer to keep informed, and I must say I went looking for a Qantas twitter but to no avail. Given the large investment Qantas has made into it's IT systems, something that automated their information being sent our via more services would seem any easy win.

    The main relevance of this is that Qantas is still incapable of addressing customers on a broad scale using really useful tech resources like the web.

    Qantas plainly didn't learn anything from the large scale disruptions after 9/11, making no attempt to make any statement on its web site for many days.

    I was one of hundreds queued outside Qantas House for hours who finally got to talk to someone face to face ( no other options being available ), only to be told to my face: "we're not worried about you, we're only helping Ansett customers. NEXT!"

    I support Angus on this one. He writes a lot of stuff about technology on the move and air travel systems form a part of that technology so I see no fault in Angus reporting his experiences, albeit garnished with a degree of personal interest and frustration.

    I see this as one of those wheat versus chaff moments for Qantas. Qantas generally do a great job when things are operating normally. When things fall apart, as they have over the past few days, their contingency plans and procedures are all they have to carry them through until the situation returns to normal. These plans and procedures are enacted by staff that are, hopefully, well trained, calm, patient and informed about the situation. It sounds like Angus encountered none of these qualities during his adventure.

    Similar thing happened to me a few years back with a late night QF flight out of LHR to SNG. We boarded around 2330 then sat on the aircraft at the gate with the doors open for 6 hours while engineers tried to rectify a faulty engine bleed-air valve (controls cabin px and engine anti-ice). Finally, after many versions of the situation from the cabin staff, we deplaned back into the terminal and were sent off on buses to various hotels , arriving at 0300 (yes, that's 3 in the morning). Right from the first report of the fault by the Captain, through to the eventual departure on a replacement aircraft at midday the next day, the QF staff did an appalling job of keeping the pax informed with consistent and reliable information.

    I wrote to Qantas when I got back to Brisbane and pointed out in a non-emotive and constructive way some of the things they could have handled better (including communications with the pax). Qantas sent me a nice apology letter and a AU$400 travel voucher for my troubles.

    Angus chose to use this website I suspect in part, to not only vent at Qantas but also inform his readers that maybe Qantas struggles a bit when the chips are down (or a volcano erupts..). Perhaps take from Angus' tale of events that if you find yourself in a similar situation then expect and prepare for the worst-case to occur and then be pleasantly surprised and a wee bit thankful if it turns out better than you expected.

    Seriously, you think that this article calls into question Angus' character? And how does having a bad experience with Qantas and writing an article about it call into question his tech tips? Not to mention the fact (as others already have) that lifehacker isn't just a tech site and his article falls well within the purview of the site.

    Keep up the good work Angus.

    Hi Angus,

    Very well put - I was on the same flight to Melbourne and agree whole heartedly that it was appallingly handled by Qantas. I understand completely that it was a unique set of circumstances, but the treatment of us all was appalling. Not only on the day of the flight, but also during the numerous telephone calls back to Qantas in Australia from London through the week.

    On a personal note, as a Platinum flyer with a seat booked (paid for) in Premium Economy, I was extremely annoyed to be bumped down to Economy on the crucial London to Singapore leg. Two of us traveling together were separated and allocated middle seats for this flight and during the 3 hour on board waiting ordeal. No consultation, luggage already checked 4 hours earlier, no recourse and barely an apology.

    I would love to get the bottom of the whole Melbourne flight being joined with the Sydney flight thing. Surely they must have known this all along- the communication at this point was dreadful. It did appear that they were out right lying to us and contradicting them selves and some of the decisions were down right bad. (the customs thing in Sydney???- dragging our luggage around the airport, when some passengers were in transit - what was that about???)

    I wish I had have stayed in London a bit longer

    Dave

    Airlines never seem to have a good system for informing passengers about delays etc. It always seems to end up with a mob of disgruntled travellers hounding one or two airline ground staff. It is impossible for one or two staff to respond to a hundred or three hundred people at one time. Usually, people just want to know what is going on. The staff usually also do not know. Surely in this age of great tech, a simple solution would be to have computer screens (in addition to the monitors showing boarding info) at boarding gates and other suitable locations which would show the current situation and explaining what options are available. Whoever makes the decisions, again not usually the ground staff, could post the information. Information could also be made available via a website viewable on one's mobile phone.
    The current situation with the ash clouds is extraordinary and people should be forgiven for being frustrated, whether staff or travellers. Why do some posters feel the need to brutalise Angus with their comments? Just because you do not agree with someone is not an excuse to give them a verbal beating up.

    This is typical Qantas modus operandi. They treat their customers like mushrooms. Staff are generally stuck up and sneering. I avoid flying with them at all cost.

    I agree with Angus here - why can't they just be honest with their customers and be up front about what the problem is. There might have been a volcano in Iceland, but I'm sure it didn't play havoc with the loud speaker systems in airports as well.

    I gave up on QANTAS years ago. Poor service, totally inflexible for changing travel times, virtually impossible to use Frequent Flier points (they can fly you out but never get you back home) and generally entrenched superior attitude. I prefer Singapore Air for international flights (newer, better equipped planes and better cabin service) and I use Virgin and their cramped but cheap seats for domestic flights. That reminds me, I better cancel my Frequent Flier membership now that I have to pay for that "privilege".

    Be honest this new is not surprised me.. Qantas always like this come on. I understand they have their hard time as well. BUt they didnt deal with it good.

    To those who came here to complain about the article (and in particular butterworm, Alan, Jetjoint and Frequent Traveller):

    I don't know what else to ask other than what is wrong with you? As said by others, if it doesn't interest you, STOP READING! NO PERSON HAS FORCED YOU TO DO IT! It's like a man who sees a turd on the side of the road, eats it, and then complains that it wasn't particularly delicious. And that's not to say that this article was a turd, but apparently it was to you. To me, it is people like you who are the very dregs of society. Intelligent enough to form a decent argument, but then wasting it on complaining about issues that are totally unimportant in the grander scheme of things. I honestly wish you had written as if you were unintelligent, and maybe then I'd be more inclined to understand your ungracious and rude behaviour came from.

    Yeah, I'll agree with you on the fact that I don't come here with the intention of reading articles like this, but you know what? I skipped to the comments and decided I HAD to read it because it seemed to make people so unnecessarily RUDE

    Are you really that self-absorbed to think that this man owes you anything? He does you a service by writing about things you want to read. What have you done for him? Complain about when he writes something you don't like to the point where it borderlines on personal attacks. You selfish people absolutely disgust me, and if that's how you treat people who do you a service, you do NOT deserve that service.

    Angus, I think you're a hero for putting up with these cretins and I hope you continue to write about whatever you wish to.

    "but i don’t read lifehacker to find out how many ways its editor can springboard personal complaints."

    Oh I do, particularly if the editor has Platinum Qantas Club membership; as it means the bloke does a bit of flying with Qantas.

    Angus, I appreciate what you have written and it make's a change from what Giz/LH serve up from the US. It's just a pity I don't follow your specialised travel blog that you have, more often. Any local content added in either by you or Nick is needed. I honestly don't know how parents cope with kids in travel moments like yours - thinking the negative posts miss that important point.

    I never realised there was a rule that subscribing to a blog meant you had to read every post, but I do thank butterworm and co for making me aware of that rule. Thanks butterworm!

    Having read the article, and not complaining from the fact, it strikes me the entire situation could be summed up in a simple sentence. "Major delays and disorganization on the Quantas flight back, 'caused passengers including myself some headaches."

    By all means mention it to family and friends, god forbid, if the subject of travel comes up.

    Certainly, it is a blow by blow account, the only details that appear lacking are the meals you ate and the clothing you were wearing, but at the end of the day why revisit it, it will only lead to high blood pressure and further feelings of frustration after the fact, I'm not complaining about the article persay, or knocking you personally for writing it, having read it, I just wondered why, time is so precious you could have spent the time doing something you really enjoyed for the 20 - 30 minutes it took to write the article, and after that 20 - 30 minutes, feel totally refreshed and relaxed with thoughts on other more important things, or things to be greatful for.

    I'm pretty nuetral on this, and to be fair, I'm just going through the latest articles, reading for the sake of reading, but the comments are really so polarised.

    That's what flying is guys. You were going to leave when you were going to leave, regardless of what they told you. I've sat through hours and hours of delays in my life, kicking up a fuss and bitching about it does nothing. If anything, it only slows and frustrates the employees more; which in turn makes them want to be less helpful to bickering customers.

    When the plane and flight plan is ready, it's ready. The End.
    Working in customer service myself, having a line of people coming up and bitching about their personal needs because of a natural disaster is not thrilling to deal with. Sick back and wait. Period. Shit happens.

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