Qantas, turning 90, a Storm, a New System and Winging It!

Happy 90th Anniversary Qantas. Like many Australians I have been a customer of yours for much of my life. For over 40 years I have experienced  first hand, the high quality of service that helped gain your reputation for safety and reliability both nationally and internationally.

A special memory is waving a family member off on a number of occasions as he boarded a Qantas Empire Flying Boat as the band on the wharf poignantly played ‘Now is the Hour’. The Catalina flying boats were a romantic feature of domestic aviation in Australia right up until the mid 70’s and its passengers, who witnessed the sun rise twice during their journey, were admitted to the ‘Secret Order of the Double Sunrise’.

During the late ’90’s when I had to fly up and down from Sydney to Brisbane for three years weekly on a very tight time wise business schedule it was wonderful to rely on the professionalism of Qantas and to always leave and arrive on time. They didn’t falter once and it made my business experience a very pleasant one.

So, for me it has been disturbing of late to hear about the many incidents that seem to have the airline constantly in the headlines. What is going on with our favourite carrier? This week I discovered for myself.

On Monday afternoon I headed to Tullamarine Airport to connect with the 5:15 flight to Sydney. It didn’t augur well that the advertised boarding time came and went without an announcement. When we did board ten minutes late and settled into our seats all seemed to be going well as we joined the queue for take off. We leveled out at 35,000 feet and the Captain confidently announced he would get us into Sydney 10 minutes ahead of schedule. So we settled down to relax and enjoy the flight.

It wasn’t long before we were told to buckle up tight as we rock and rolled through some bad weather patches. The captain came on line to apologize and to also let us know they would be unable to provide the meal, because they had discovered the kitchen on board was not working. He said however we would all receive a $20 voucher to purchase a meal that night on arrival.  A number of groans went on around me from people who had connecting long flights ahead and were facing hours before they would eat.

We had a period of calm before we flew into yet more turbulence and the early arrival disappeared as were informed we had been put into a holding pattern around Sydney. As this is also now a usual occurrence with this busy airport no one seemed very surprised. The rock and rolling started again and the crew came through the cabin urgently asking that computers, iPods and iPods be put away as electrics were lighting up the sky outside. The captain apologized again and told us he hoped to have us on the ground soon.  For 20 minutes of the next half an hour the turbulence continued and then suddenly for, what seemed like ages, we were riding along smoothly.

The young man next to me kept looking nervously at his watch because by now we were well over a half an hour late. I asked if there was a problem and he said he was concerned he couldn’t let his wife know, and added she was terrified about him flying anyway… As my husband had been lost in the highlands of New Guinea for three days when all my children were very small, his plane forced down in bad weather, I could empathize.

At this point I ventured an opinion we were probably on our way back to Melbourne. He seemed alarmed. I explained that one of my sons was a pilot and it was my belief the boys on the flight deck were busy trying to get us safely to a new port and had probably made a decision to head back toward Melbourne. I was happy to be wrong but observed fuel does not last forever and the Captain was busy working through all of his options.

Sure enough after about another 12 minutes the Captain announced Sydney airport was closed and that we were already over the A.C.T. because he had tried to get us into Canberra airport to sit out the storm. Sadly he had been waved on.  This meant we were already on the way back to Tullamarine where we would refuel and have another go.  Everyone was to stay on board while this happened. So down we came and as our wheels touched the ground the Captain told us to turn on our phones and let loved ones know where we were. Now this was an example of technology providing a wonderful service.

I discovered my son, who had been on the way to the airport to pick me up, was caught up in his own drama during the sudden and very violent Spring Storm that had hit Sydney. He was waiting for the NRMA with a waterlogged engine. So we laughed because levity, not anger,  has always been the option for our family when you find yourself in a situation over which you have no control. I also bemoaned the loss of the lovely dinner my daughter in law was busy preparing for us to all share.

Our plane sat for an hour and a half on the Tullamarine tarmac while they took on a maximum load of fuel and some quickly rustled up catering. The phone companies would have done some good business during this time. People on board traveling to Perth from Sydney were offered a chance to disembark and take up places on planes out of Melbourne. Although their luggage stayed with us I have to report they all took off poste haste and the rest of us could not blame them. Then it was time to push off again. However all the special trucks and drivers that help an aircraft go backwards were busy. So there we sat and waited for another half an hour until one arrived. I was glad that I had the company of a good book.

Off we went again heading back to Sydney. The Captain came on and explained that now we were in a race to get into Sydney airport before curfew, which takes place at 11pm. But we weren’t to worry because if he couldn’t land he had enough fuel to return us to Melbourne once more. Everyone groaned. Flying back and forth to Melbourne three times was not really what we all wanted. I have to report the crew and passengers were all terrific. In the best Aussie tradition we decided it was a time to party as free drinks arrived together with a small savoury muffin warmed up by the catering staff at Melbourne airport before we had taken off again.

The flight back was smooth and fast as a tail wind gave us a boost. With 20 minutes to spare we landed but then the next spanner, there wasn’t an arrival bridge vacant. The Captain explained if we didn’t get one before curfew he may still have to go back to Melbourne. As there was already 13 planes trying to take off we were now all imagining we might even spend a night on board. Then suddenly we were moving forward into a bay as our Captain called for precedence over another plane it was allocated for. Then we were asked to relax, because they found there was a problem with the bridge that had to be fixed. Until then the doors could not be opened. It was right on 11pm as we all began to leave.

Downstairs in the luggage hall it total chaos. I tried to find out where our bags were going to be because the electronic boards did not show our flight at all. 20 minutes later after grabbing someone with a two way radio I found mine, thank heavens, and joined the overloaded taxi queue full of frustrated, tired and angry travelers. It was nearly midnight when I arrived exhausted at my destination, because fortunately my son doesn’t live far from Mascot. Not sure about everyone else.

So you might now well understand it was not without some trepidation that I set out for Mascot yesterday to ‘enjoy’ my flight back to Melbourne in the early afternoon. When I arrived at the airport I was greeted by yet another dramatic scene not without some measure of chaos. Hundreds of people were surrounding a group of newly designed check in machines. Apparently this was the first day of a whole new check in system being put in place.

Just my luck I thought.

As an experienced old on line check in broad I thought to myself, well I have already completed that operation and all I have to do is head for the bag drop. Would it have been that easy. So I tried to go past a group angrily talking at the top of their voices at a girl with a badge who was blinking rapidly under the barrage.

As I looked around for where I was to go I noticed temporary screens around the desks where formerly smiling people had welcomed you and sent your bag off safely on its own journey. I pushed through the throng to find a line of all new ‘bag drop machines’ so headed toward those. This will be fun I thought. There was no one around to let you know what was happening as I looked at a screen, which was black. I noticed an instruction to scan your boarding pass here. So I did. But then up it popped and asked did I have my luggage ticket?  Goodness, I thought, when I checked in on line back at home it hadn’t said anything about this option? So I removed my bag and tried to search for help.

Finally after fifteen minutes I discovered another girl with a badge walking away from an angry group and requested her help. Wearily she looked around at me like someone who had been through a terrible storm. Then her face lit up as she remembered her commitment to professionalism and asked could she help me with a smile. It transpired that I was supposed to have printed my own luggage ticket at the new check in machines and attached it to my bag before I headed for the new fully automated bag drop.

So I said quietly I had already checked in on line at home, as previously trained by Mr Qantas. So would she please explain to me how was I supposed to have known that?  She couldn’t answer? Just looked exasperated.

So we waited in a queue together, dialed up my reservation, which said I was already booked in….and offered no other option. She looked frustrated not knowing what to press next. The only other instruction was a button that said continue. So I pressed that and found an option that allowed me to print my boarding pass again and then it was able to issue me with the now required luggage print out. So she issued a huge sigh of relief as we attached it to my bag and headed back to the automated bag drop where together we completed the check in process. Now I am well able to DIM (Do it Myself).

As it celebrates its 90th anniversary we all want Qantas to continue to represent the ‘spirit of Australia’ and build on its reputation for excellence in safety, operational reliability, engineering and maintenance, and customer service. But it is easy to observe that its crews and people are all under great pressure as everyone struggles with the vicissitudes and vagaries of generational change and rapidly improving technology.

It’s not just about wearing fashionable mini dresses to distract everyone any more and I do hope all those management people at the top of the company recognize what their employees are all going through and give them the support they need. Taking on this fully automated check in option without people is I am sure a subject for another debate. One thing is sure. It will require yet another level of patience.

It is my observation that many people are still computer illiterate. I had a young woman of about 30 years of age on the excellent Skybus service going to Tullamarine proudly tell me she is resisting knowing about computers as long as she can, when she observed the on line print out in my hand. To my mind this sort of attitude is not helpful at any age. Change is always with us and in a progressive society change is constant. Only those that embrace change and take up the challenge and commitment to life long learning will ensure that everyone’s stress levels remain manageable.  Otherwise Qantas Rage may become yet another option.

At my stage in life I still find it is best to always go with the flow when things go wrong and just keep on ‘winging it’. Next time I set out to enjoy a journey on Qantas one thing is for sure I will take along that other new technological wonder the Kindle , because it holds more than just one book.

Carolyn McDowall – The Culture Concept Circle 2010 – 2012

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