Saturday, September 21, 2013

Enough of the quirky shtick - just get us there on time

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 20.)
IT’S ALMOST a condition of citizenship that we shouldn’t criticise Air New Zealand. The national airline has much the same sainted status as Dave Dobbyn, Sir Peter Jackson and (as of a couple of weeks ago) Dean Barker.
We are conditioned to take pride in Air New Zealand as the quirky little carrier that out-performs the big international players and delights passengers with its hard-case safety videos and idiosyncratic livery.

But right now, I’ve had Air New Zealand up to here. In fact I’m well on my way to developing a full-blown Air New Zealand phobia.
Just when I’d finally forgiven them for the occasion several years ago when they offloaded most of the baggage from my flight to Tonga because the plane was overweight, then casually informed us of this fact as we were approaching Nukualofa, a recent run of bad experiences has left me convinced the national carrier is often complacent and lackadaisical.

Every time I check in these days, I brace myself for a delay due to “engineering requirements” or any of the other euphemisms Air New Zealand routinely uses to gloss over its failure to get passengers to their destination on time.
A common excuse is “late arrival of the aircraft”, as if this were some force majeure over which the airline has no control.

(A novel announcement earlier this year, on a night-time flight into Masterton which had already been delayed leaving Auckland, was that the pilot couldn’t find our destination because he had lost his satellite signal.)
In several instances when my travel has been disrupted, matters have been made worse by a failure to keep passengers informed.

Most people accept that planes can be delayed for legitimate reasons, but they find it much harder to forgive an airline that can’t be bothered telling them what’s happening.
Neither can they excuse the offhand response of some airline staff to the predicament of people whose plans have been thrown into disarray, often resulting in inconvenience and expense – as happened to me recently when a trans-Tasman flight was delayed by several hours because of a mechanical fault, which meant I missed the last bus to Canberra and had to stay overnight in Sydney.

On that occasion, after the initial announcement of a delay, Air New Zealand ground staff in Wellington magically vanished rather than deal with passengers’ questions. We were later consoled with vouchers for $6 which we could redeem at a café where nothing remotely edible cost less than $7.
An almost comical example of communication failure occurred on my most recent arrival at Wellington Airport, when it was decided the southerly was too strong for baggage handlers to unload the plane. (Strong winds at Wellington? Who’d have thought?)

Air New Zealand’s inability to keep people informed was pitiful. What struck me was the patience, or perhaps I should say resignation, of the passengers milling around the stationary baggage carousel. Perhaps we’re like stoical Soviet-era Russians, so accustomed to second-rate service that we accept it without complaint.
You can’t help wondering whether Air New Zealand could afford to be so slap-happy if it didn’t enjoy a monopoly on most of its services.

ALL OF WHICH brings me to the national airline’s gimmicky safety video featuring Bear Grylls.
The first time you see it, it’s mildly diverting (that is, if you don’t mind Bear Grylls). By the second viewing, it’s already starting to grate. By the fifth or sixth time, you’re ready to run screaming for the emergency exit.

Air New Zealand is at risk of overplaying the cute, quirky shtick that has become part of its brand.
No doubt it keeps a lot of bright young advertising things in work, but I’m sure most travellers would opt for dependable service – such as planes that get them to their destination on time – over novelty safety videos featuring Hobbits and All Blacks.

Besides, isn’t there a risk passengers will be so distracted by the visual cleverness that the safety message will be lost?
AND SINCE I’m on the subject of air travel, there should be a special place in Hell for the architects who designed Wellington Airport’s supposedly edgy international terminal.

Most of the controversy over the building arose from its external appearance, which one critic likened to dog turds.  But it’s the interior that matters most, and Wellington’s international terminal is gloomy and uncomfortable – as you discover when you have hours to kill waiting for your delayed flight to Sydney.
Airport terminals should be designed for comfort and convenience. They should be bright and airy, as the best overseas terminals are. Architects who want to make a creative statement should stick to public toilets.

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