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.