Last week I was prepared to give Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon the benefit of the doubt when listening to his opposition to a 5% pay rise for engineers. However having attempted to fly from Brisbane to Sydney on the 10.15am Qantas flight (QF517) on Saturday morning I am not so sure. My experience was like a Fawlty Towers fever dream.

Upon arrival at the airport nice and early with 2 excited children (aged 5 and 3) in tow, my wife and I were notified our flight would be delayed 20 minutes due to the late arrival of our aircraft. Initially we didn’t mind the short delay as we had the opportunity to ensure we were all seated together and calm down our excited offspring. However the delay was quickly bumped out another 20 minutes for good measure. We were then told our plane had arrived but we would be delayed another half an hour while they repaired a water leak in the luggage hold. After 30 minutes we were told we would be delayed further while they “sourced” (their word) a replacement piece of hose.

We were then told Qantas needed a new plane which would arrive in 20 minutes “or so”. The next announcement informed us the new aircraft would leave in 1 hour and ten minutes or “perhaps a little longer”.

Passengers who had connecting international flights were understandably irate and had to deal with a cynical spokesandroid sorely lacking in PR skills (who incidentally, bore a striking resemblance to the Steve Vizard Qantas steward character — he didn’t hum the opening bars to Les Miserables, but you get the picture).

My wife was informed that no refreshments would be provided to our young children, because they didn’t deserve it “yet”. She was urged to “Read [her] contract. We just agree to get you from A to B, not get you there on time.” I must remember to look for that line in the next “I still call Australia home” advertising campaign.

When the plane finally arrived, several flights were squeezed onto the one aircraft, creating mayhem with the boarding passes. Passengers who finally got to the departure gate were sent back to the aforementioned spokesandroid to get new boarding passes; a technicality which had not occurred to management until they invited passengers to board the aircraft.

When we finally got our new boarding passes, I discovered the kids and I were seated about 20 rows from my wife, which had the potential to cause a few difficulties if one child needed the toilet mid-flight. When I pointed this out I was informed by a frustrated screen jockey there were no vacant seats around me and I would have to “deal with it”. By now I regarded this inconvenience as the least of my worries, and happily agreed to do so. But once the aircraft’s doors were closed I was amused to discover an empty seat right next to me which the long-suffering flight attendants permitted my wife to sit in once we were airborne.

Not that we got into the skies in a hurry.

We had to sit on the tarmac for another 20 minutes because (wait for it) … they couldn’t get one of the jet engines started! (I swear to God I’m not making this up) When the cabin crew announced that they needed to find some gizmo called an “air starter”, the entire plane erupted in hysterical laughter. It was a touching moment. The passengers had bonded together in the face of almost comical adversity. By now we were beyond caring and actually starting to enjoy the show.

The next announcement was a classic.

We were told to not worry about the smoke off the starboard bow because that was just the exhaust from the elusive “air starter” and not a sign that the plane was on fire. Even the cynical amongst us started to belly-laugh. One wit seated near me asked if we were actually bound for Yogyakarta. I know the joke was in bad taste but I guess you had to be there.

Eventually the plane took off 3 hours late. You may regard this as just another whinging passenger story but it was so comical as to be a cause for concern. I heard one man complain that his earlier flight was delayed and he was bumped onto our farcical flight. So that was potentially 2 or 3 flights merged into one. I assume there is some sort of cost benefit in that, but there was no suggestion of this being shared with the frustrated passengers.

My wife also overheard the cabin staff saying rolling delays were being experienced as a result of fog at Brisbane airport, but the fog had certainly cleared when we arrived at the airport at 8.30am and we were never informed the situation was the result of bad weather. The cabin crew were understandably pleased that they only had to make 2 flights that day instead of 4. Whether the farce was caused by fog, the late arrival of our aircraft, a leaky hose, insufficient spare parts, a boarding pass stuff up, or a jet engine that wouldn’t start, remains to be seen. Perhaps it was a combination of all of these factors. The messages we received were so conflicting that I will honestly never know.

Whatever it was, it was a PR nightmare, and its timely proximity to Geoff Dixon’s assertions that a 5% pay rise for engineers was something he was prepared to descend into the trenches for made the experience all the more difficult to swallow.

There was however a positive for Qantas management to consider when they review this incident (assuming they ever actually do so). The flight attendants were marvellous. The poor wretches had to handle the antagonism of frustrated passengers and present a smiling face when confronted by the prolonged and embarrassing incompetence of their employer. When the passengers laughed at Qantas, they laughed with us, and who could blame them? They handled their job with aplomb and calmed the situation down admirably.

If only the spokesandroid had been more like the cabin crew.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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