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.