I just spent over two days in the (sadly inept) hands of Qantas Airways--about 50 hours of hellish customer service. This trip was one of the most grueling I’ve ever had to endure. Since 1960 (when I made my first trans Pacific trip), I’ve sailed across and flown over the Pacific many (too many) times. I’ve flown there in a 707 in the late 60’s courtesy of the US Army—landing at Cham Ran Bay. I flew to Hawaii on a 707 and on a window-less KC-135 landing in Saigon from San Francisco via Hickman, Guam and Manila. I’ve traveled stretched out on the strap seats of a C-141 along with a couple of broken jet engines and in coach, business class and first-class seats. I’ve also flown to Europe via India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Madrid. Too bad I couldn’t get frequent flyer miles for those trips. More recently, I've flow to Sydney twice (before this trip), to Japan (several times), to Beging and Bangkog (and back).
A few months ago I was invited to speak at VSLive in Sydney and because my (and Fawcett’s) budget was tight, I chose to find a low-cost carrier. My first mistake was to accept the gig. My next mistake was to not insist on an upgradable ticket so I could fly business class. I chose the Qantas flight from Los Angeles and Qantas to Christchurch, Auckland and back to LAX.
The trip down to LAX (on Alaska) was uneventful. We checked in at the Alaska desk at SeaTac and they didn’t blink when I said I was carrying on my 20” roller bag and laptop bag which has traveled with me for a decade. Alaska actually let us take an earlier flight (for no additional charge) to make sure we were there for our LA / Sydney connection—thanks.
When we arrived in LA the transition to the international terminal was… well, interesting and a challenge in itself. There was no one to show the way and if it was not for a helpful TSA guard (who would have guessed), we would have never learned the secret handshake and hidden door to use. The signage at LAX is challenged at best. Once in the International terminal we ferreted out the Qantas gate. It was only by chance that I asked at the desk about our seat selection. It seems that Alaska had not filled in the right information on the computer. It took them almost 10 minutes of questioning to get this process completed—this process had to be done for dozens of other passengers. Why this was not done online when we filled out the application for the tickets, I’ll never know.
The flight from LAX to Sydney left late but not terribly so. Our seats, however were a nightmare—the worst I’ve ever experienced on a flight this long. The only redeeming grace is that we had an unsold seat between us. Their “coach” configuration put the seats so close together that my knees grated on the wire bale used to hold the 5 lbs. of magazines in the seat pocket. I removed these to maintain circulation in my legs. I expect the airplane was carrying 500 lbs of extra weight in airline magazines alone. Yes, I’m 6’1” and have long legs, but I still expect reasonable seat configurations. The Qantas planes cram 315 economy seats on their 747s. In comparison, United Airlines only has 270 coach seats for their 747 international configurations and only 231 on their 777-200 international flights. American Airlines does not fly 747s any more but their 777 Pacific configurations only have 163 coach seats.
Our problems began again as we boarded our flight from Sydney to Christchurch. The ticket agent announced that our carry-on bags could not exceed 7kg (15.43 lbs) each. However, they let us take on one (15kg) bag so we only had to check the roller bags. I carried on my wheeled computer bag without problem. They had little chance to lose the bags which arrived with us--thank goodness.
However, when we checked in at Christchurch for our home leg (Christchurch to Auckland to LAX to SeaTac) the agent again said each of our carry-on bags had to weigh less than 7kg and we could not get boarding passes until they did. I had to dig out the important stuff from my computer bag and suitcase that I could not have lost and repack it all into a spare bag I got at the convention. This included the laptop, extra hard drives, and other important papers. I guess we didn’t know how to play the game. What we should have done is approach the counter individually with a small sham bag and say we were not going to check anything. That way we could have gone to the gate which was too busy to check for overweight luggage. It seems that lots of people were getting on (in coach) with very large (and heavy) bags—I guess they knew how to play the game. This silliness (that none of the US-based airlines require) cost us dearly at LAX. When we (finally) arrived, the bone-tired mob at baggage claim was as ugly as I’ve seen except for that sold-out rock concert in the 60's. The luggage took over an hour to unload—it came out in dribbles as passengers trying to make connections got madder and madder and more frantic. They could not make other arrangements as the area had no cell service or airline agents. It also seemed that “priority” bags were treated no differently than the cattle-class customers. If we had been able to carry on our small bags (that we always carry on), we (and those like us) would not have to wait and hold up those with giant bags.
Each seat in the cattle class section had a tiny video screen and a selection of movies and games. That was okay, but the system to support this was kept in a 8”x12” box under the aisle seat—right where my feet were supposed to fit. I had no chance to use my laptop as the seat in front of me was far too close. With no power in the seat it would not last long anyway. But I was lucky, the exit-row seat in front of me on the outside had no leg room at all—the evacuation slide blocked it. The seats themselves were also narrower than a typical coach seat. The bulkhead and exit row seats also had hard walls that meant that you could not leave coins or keys in your pocket without leaving the plane with bruises--I got one of those seats on the (thankfully) short leg from Christchurch to Auckland. Fortunately, the middle seat was not sold on the LAX/Sydney outbound (15+ hours) so we were able to stretch out a bit more. Unfortunately, on the return (Auckland/LAX), they put us in the middle and aisle seats so we had to sit on top of one another for the seemingly endless flight.
The Qantas onboard service was also pitifully substandard. The flight attendants were abrupt and woke me several times by bouncing my seat and kicking my foot as they passed (“Alice” did most of this without an apology). The passengers moving up and down the narrow aisles seemed to know how to walk without disturbing every person they passed—why can’t the flight attendants learn to be more courteous?
The food was not as bad as I’ve had on an airline, but I would have chosen a box of “C” rations cooked over a C4 fire in lieu of their offering on a couple of occasions. They seem to think that highly or strangely spiced food is somehow better for passengers. Folks, most of us don’t expect “gourmet” recipes and appreciate simple food that settles well on an unsettled stomach. I don’t know how many people like spice seeds in their bread, but come on, I’m still tasting that “ham” sandwich 36 hours later. I guess that's why passengers were buying their own food (in bulk) and carrying it on.
The serious problem they had was making water available to us. Being on the aisle, I could get up and forage for water from time to time, but the people on the inside did not have that opportunity. On the outbound leg the flight attendants passed by several times offering water, but on the return we were never (never) offered additional water after they put the drink carts away. We were given a sack with a 1 liter bottle of water that was supposed to last the duration—over 10 hours on the Auckland to LA run. I guess we should have bought a half-dozen liters of water to keep from getting dehydrated.
The fact that the flight was several hours late taking off was another issue—not so much for us but for the host of people that had (and lost) connections in LA. As it was we were able to get to the international terminal just (as in just) in time to catch our last LA/SeaTac leg--we were supposed to have a 3.5 hour layover to clear customs and traverse to the domestic terminal. Apparently, the APU on the 747 they call “Longreach” went out in Brisbane and they could not figure out how to cool the aircraft enough to board anyone. I guess we’re lucky we went at all.
We're glad that we're home safe--and a bit wiser. Now I have two airlines on my “blacklist”—Northwest and Qantas. As much as I like Australia and New Zealand I won't be back until someone can afford to pay for a business-class seat.
The diary of the tour of New Zealand is the subject of another blog entry.