Stuck in an airport for 24 hours, the only Australian spirit I saw was between passengers | Eleanor Gordon Smith

OWhen I board the long haul back to the Pacific for a birthday or for Christmas, Qantas is a big part of any nostalgic ritual. I do I always call Australia home, I like to hear the accents from home when I board, I like to have a good tea with breakfast. I like to stick my nose out the window for the view of Sydney that Clive James so beautifully described, “yachts racing through water of crushed diamonds under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires”. In a more nostalgic moment, I hung a Qantas calendar in my office because it reminded me that I would be going home. Qantas is the only brand that has ever managed to elicit that kind of sweet loyalty from me. Until today, I thought it was deserved.

Here is what happened. Two days ago there was a mechanical failure on QF8. It’s time for one of my favorite verbs; to disembark. Proceed to baggage claim to collect your belongings. It’s 2.30am so it’s boring, but mechanical issues happen and when they do you really prefer to be on the ground – Qantas’ safety record is one of the reasons for my loyalty. I like to grab the armrest during turbulence and play the Rain Man scene in my head: never crashed, never crashed, never crashed.

But that was about the last we heard from Qantas for the next 24 hours. About 300 people went to baggage claim – some elderly people, some families with lots of children, some toddlers with troubled eyes. “Where do we sleep?” we kept asking.

Eventually a woman in uniform handed out papers telling us the flight had been canceled (yes) and that we had nowhere to sleep (we know that). There were no accommodation arrangements; keep your receipts so you can get reimbursed up to a modest cap for a hotel you found on your own, we were told. Being parked at baggage claim we had been cut off from intra-airport hotels designed for 24 hour check-ins. I had started googling rooms when I heard “disarm doors” but I didn’t found only a handful, miles away. A passenger’s one-way Uber fare was $100.

If you couldn’t find a hotel – or more importantly, if you couldn’t afford one – you were on the airport floor. At 4 a.m., a passenger went to sleep on his suitcase; “I’m shivering, the ground is too cold.” A middle-aged couple sat in slow motion nodding their heads in straight chairs. In the morning, a woman asked me if I could watch her bag so she could have breakfast; I broke the news that on this side of the airport there was no food.

The piece of paper had said that our flight would leave at 11am and we had to check in at 9am. At 9am, no one from Qantas was to be seen. Airport staff tried to tell us to move our luggage and when we shouted that was exactly what we were trying to do, they made a few calls: ‘Qantas not answering, we don’t know why’ . What was a Qantas office yesterday was now Lufthansa. Perky recently showered people checked into their on-time flights. How we hated them. An hour later and still no Qantas employee showed up.

Some passengers have received text messages informing them of an additional delay; some don’t. Some people’s Qantas profiles showed they had already taken the canceled flight, so they had no ‘active bookings’ that customer service could recognise. A rumor spread that the plane would take off at 7 p.m., but there was no way to confirm this online or by phone. There was no digital record of the theft, we had entered a Bermuda logistics triangle. Three hundred people huddled around their bags with children or their mobility devices, waiting for instructions from an airline that was not there.

I don’t mind sleeping on cold ground, I will survive. It’s annoying to miss a flight or a meal, but we’ll live. What bothered me was the feeling that no one from Qantas cared what was going on.

Minimal acts of decency have a massive return when things go wrong – a blanket, a coffee run, someone clearly designated to help families with children. A plan to share information, someone who shows up when he said he would. Instead, it took another five hours before Qantas told us we would be delayed another eight hours.

In a moment of impetuosity, I tweeted complaining. I’ve come across hundreds of similar stories from Qantas – not just of mistakes, but of disregard. People say their luggage was lost unanswered, they waited for emergency hotel reimbursement for three months, six months, they were also stranded in airports in Singapore, Dubai, LA.

In all these stories, the anger came from the same well. There had been no serious attempt to engage these people, as people. Only the tone of the school counselor of the responsive Twitter selectively: “DM us if you have any questions”. Here is my question: what has past to this airline?

The only “spirit of Australia” I saw at this airport was between the passengers. People were translating calls for panicked strangers, giving their snacks to surly children, lying to ‘guests only’ hotel restaurants to sneak lunch from each other, sharing accommodation and information when Qantas provided none. They were kind and honest people who chose to donate their money to Qantas. I know they’re not the only ones who never do it again.

In the end, we stayed at the airport for just over 24 hours. But just after we were cleared for takeoff, an announcement came over the PA: someone had forgotten a signature, we had to return to the gate.


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