Friday, December 28, 2018

Why I've become a pessimistic traveller

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, December 27.)

I’ve become an abject pessimist when it comes to travel. Things go wrong so often that I’ve come to expect it.

It doesn’t take a bizarre occurrence like the recent shutdown at London’s Gatwick Airport to prove that airline passengers are at the mercy of events over which they have no control. It happens to me all the time. And while it’s possible that I’m jinxed, more likely it’s just the way things are. So many people are travelling that airlines and airports can’t cope.

On a trip last month, my wife and allowed two and a half hours between arriving at Sydney and catching an onward flight to Canberra – ample time to have a drink and an evening meal.

Fat chance. Our Qantas flight from Wellington left 90 minutes late – I can’t remember the excuse, and I don’t believe them anyway – and we ended up having to rush lickety-split between terminals to make our connection. Dinner that night came from a McDonald's drive-through in the Canberra suburbs.

Ten days later we were back at Canberra Airport for a Tiger Air flight to Melbourne. I know now, although I didn’t then, that savvy Australian travellers avoid Tiger Air. As well they might.

First, the inbound plane was late arriving, supposedly because of bad weather at its point of origin. Strangely, we didn’t hear of other flights from the same city being delayed.

Then, just as we were expecting a boarding call, we learned that one of the plane’s tyres had to be replaced, and the new one had to come from Melbourne.

Several hours passed before I watched a pair of engineers fit the new wheel. But by that time, the flight crew had exceeded their permitted hours and a replacement crew had to be flown in.

Long story short: we sat in the airport for 10 hours, eventually arriving in Melbourne after 11pm. By the time we got to our AirBnB accommodation, it was well after midnight.

In pitch darkness, we spent 10 minutes trying to get into the wrong property. The occupants of an apartment building in St Kilda are probably still wondering what lunatic was banging on doors and pressing buzzers at dead of night.

My narrative now shifts to Christchurch, where I recently flew for what should have been a cruisy one-day return trip from Palmerston North.

On arrival at the airport in Palmy I drove around the carpark for 20 minutes because there were no vacant spaces. A helpful man directed me to a long-term parking area, but I couldn’t get there because the terminal had been evacuated due to a fire alarm and my way was blocked by fire engines.

I ended up parking on a residential street more than five minutes’ walk away, and barely made my plane. You gotta laugh, as they say.

That evening, we were 15 minutes into the return flight from Christchurch when the captain announced we were turning back because of a warning light.

It soon became clear that none of us would be getting to Palmy that night. We spent more than an hour and a half milling around while four Air New Zealand staff arranged motel accommodation in Christchurch.

They did their best, but it was hard to avoid the feeling that they weren’t prepared for this sort of contingency. Anyone would think it never happened.

There was no seating, so it was no surprise when a passenger collapsed and was taken away in an ambulance. Another woman with a walking frame somehow managed, admirably, to stay upright.

By a happy coincidence I found myself in the company of a cousin who happened to be booked on the same flight. He was a calming influence (I'm not always patient in these situations) as well as providing congenial company. 

We were put in a motel on the far side of the city, so distant from the airport that it felt like I was halfway home already. Most of us went to bed without dinner, although my cousin had an apple which he ate while having a bath.

I eventually got home at 3pm the next day after flying back to Palmerston North via Auckland. As I said, you gotta laugh.

I relate these experiences not because what happened to me was outrageous or even exceptional. I hear of people of being subjected to far greater inconvenience by airlines that left them in the lurch and seemed unaccountable for their failings.

The common reaction from passengers is one of helpless resignation. Most people accept that the contract they enter into when they buy a plane ticket is overwhelmingly loaded in the airlines’ favour. They might get you to your destination on time, but if not … well, tough luck.

What struck me in both Canberra and Christchurch was how my fellow passengers stoically shrugged and accepted their plight as if it were the new normal – which, of course, it is. But I can’t help wondering whether airlines might sharpen their performance if people weren’t so infuriatingly good-natured.


Ron said...

China simply walked around the airline monopolistic practices. Fast trains, city to city at 300 kph plus, leaving and arriving on the second, going to/from the middle of departure and destination cities, no wasted “hours” getting on/off, claiming bags etc. Not jammed for hours in tiny seats - simply awesome. NZ has sea to deal with, but as these trains get more prolific and lower cost, I see them between our cities and under the Cook Strait. Then there will be no internal flights because of redundancy.

NZ will also take a quantum leap forward when eventually dumping our 3’6” track. It staggers me what our fore fathers achieved with pick, shovel and barrow in NZ and yet how impossible everything worth doing seems to be now, and with us having so much resource at the ready.

David said...

I hear your pain, Karl, but despite my absolute belief in Murphy, I have only once experienced anything more than the mildest of delays in all my years of often-frequent flying.

That exception was in Blenheim in 1981 when after a day over there on assignment for work, my Fokker Friendship flight back to Wellington was cancelled because of allegedly severe weather in Wellington. I was given the choice of going to Palmerston North on that plane (which had arrived in Blenheim) or taking a Cook Strait ferry from Picton. I chose the latter, happily, as I do not get seasick no matter how rough the swells.

For years now, only fog closes Wellington Airport, which seems to stay open with planes flying whatever the storms, while the Cook Strait ferries seem to be cancelled if there's anything rougher than heavy rain and mild swells. I know this because I lived at Moa Point for many years till last year and observed the runway and Cook Strait daily. I watched many a spectacular landing and go-around in big storms that caused ferry cancellations, and experienced a few too!

The media always tell us of plane delays, crashes and so on, but never about everything going well. You probably don't know that last year, not one person died in a commercial jet airliner crash anywhere in the world, despite five billion passenger journeys being made in millions of flights. That is how safe air travel has become. The shocking crash of a brand-new latest-model 737 in Indonesia in October has been all over the news since, and for good reason, because it appears to have been caused by the failure of an anti-stall safety feature Boeing installed in this model but did not tell pilots about. But such disasters are nowadays the rare exception.

It's similar with the weather. For example, after hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, not one North Atlantic hurricane made landfall in the US for 11 years (yes, ELEVEN years), until Hurricane Hermine of 2016, and not one major hurricane made landfall until Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last year. Of course, the media trumpeted that these hurricanes were caused by Climate Change, but never asked if Climate Change caused the 12 years without a major hurricane.