Stranded in an airport for 24 hours, the only ghost from Australia I saw was between passengers | Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Wwhen I board the long-haul flight across the Pacific for a birthday or for Christmas, Qantas is a big part of the whole nostalgic ritual. l to do still call Australia my home, I like to hear accents of home when I board, I like to drink decent tea with breakfast. I like to stick my nose to the window for the view of Sydney that Clive James so beautifully described, “yachts racing on the crushed diamond waters under a sky with the texture of powdered sapphires”. In a more homesick moment, I hung a Qantas calendar in my office because it reminded me I was going home. Qantas is the only brand that has ever elicited such saccharin loyalty from me. Until today I thought it was deserved.

This is what happened. Two days ago there was a mechanical failure on QF8. Time for one of my favorite verbs; to get off the plane. Go to the baggage claim to collect your belongings. It’s 2:30 a.m. so it’s annoying, but mechanical problems do arise and if they do occur, you’d rather be on the ground – Qantas’s safety reputation is a reason for my loyalty. I like to grab the armrest during turbulence and play the scene from Rain Man in my head: never had a crash, never had a crash, never had a crash.

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

Finally, a woman in uniform handed out scraps of paper to tell us the flight was canceled (yes) and there was nowhere to sleep (we know). There were no accommodation arrangements; keep your receipts so you can get a modest refund for a hotel you found yourself, we were told. Being herded to the baggage claim area cut us off from the hotels within the airport designed for 24-hour check-ins. I had been googling rooms when I heard “disarm the doors”, but I could only find a handful, miles away. A one-way Uber from a passenger was $100.

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

The paper stated that our flight would leave at 11am and that we had to check in at 9am. At 9 am, no one from Qantas was in sight. Airport staff tried to tell us to move our bags and when we bragged that this was exactly what we were trying to do they made a couple of phone calls – “Qantas isn’t picking up, we don’t know why”. What had been a Qantas agency yesterday was now Lufthansa. Perky recently showered people who checked in on time. How we hated them. An hour later and still no Qantas employee showed up.

Some passengers received text messages informing them of additional delays; others don’t. Some people’s Qantas profiles showed that they had already taken the canceled flight, so they didn’t have an “active booking” for customer service to recognize. It was rumored that the plane would depart at 7 p.m., but that could not be confirmed online or by phone. There was no digital trace of the flight, we had ended up in a logistical Bermuda Triangle. Three hundred people clustered around their bags of children or their mobility aids, waiting for instructions from an airline that wasn’t there.

I don’t mind sleeping on a cold floor, I’ll survive. It’s annoying to miss a flight or a meal, but we’ll live. What bothered me was the feeling that no one at Qantas cared that this was happening.

Minimal acts of decency pay a huge return when things go wrong – a blanket, a coffee bar, someone clearly assigned to help families with children. An information sharing plan, someone who shows up when they said they would. Instead, it took another five hours for Qantas to tell us we would be delayed another eight hours.

In a moment of hot-headedness, I tweeted plaintively. I was shown hundreds of similar Qantas stories – not only about mistakes, but also about contempt. People say that their luggage has been lost with no response, that they have waited three months, six months for refunds from emergency hotels, that they are also stranded in airports in Singapore, Dubai, LA.

In all these stories, the anger came from the same source. No serious attempt had been made to involve these people as humans. Just the tone of the school counselor of the selectively responding Twitter: “DM us if you have any questions† Here’s my question: what has? happened to this airline?

The only “spirit of Australia” I saw at that airport was between passengers. People translated calls for panicked strangers, gave their snacks to cranky children, lied to hotel restaurants open only to guests to sneak lunch together, shared lodging and information when Qantas didn’t provide it. These were nice and decent people who had chosen to give their money to Qantas. I know they are not the only ones who will never do that again.

We ended up staying at the airport for just over 24 hours. But just after we had been cleared to take off, a message came from the PA: someone had forgotten a signature, we had to go back to the gate.


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