Forget airline awards, passengers deserve a prize for surviving ‘hell’

By David Cohen*

Comment – Stranded at LAX at midnight, what was supposed to be a joyful return to travel became the season from hell.

Air New Zealand may have won awards recently, but its staff were missing in action when David Cohen needed help with finding a replacement flight.
Photo: AFP

It was about midnight and I was standing around haplessly at Los Angeles International Airport when I heard Air New Zealand had done impressively well in the latest Excellence Awards.

While it was named best premium and best economy carrier, I was hoping for assistance after missing one of a number of flights I had booked with Air New Zealand (or one or other of its partner airlines) during a four-week international trip.

Alas, nobody from the award-winning airline could be found to help sort out the problem, which by this late hour not only involved getting a replacement flight but finding a roof for the night.

Sure, the carrier has a dedicated helpline, but this wasn’t much help: the average wait time to speak with an agent was about four hours.

Welcome to the wonderful world of international travel in the time of Covid-19.

Anyone who follows these things – including Kiwis championing at the bit to visit friends, colleagues and relatives abroad – will already know something about the chaos currently engulfing the travel industry.

All around the world the sector is groaning under the weight of “revenge travel” as millions of passengers look to return to the skies.

Across Europe generally, and Britain especially, the sector is in crisis as it copes with, on the one hand, this tsunami of pent-up customer demand and on the other, severe labor shortages brought on, in part, by the industry’s colossally stupid decision to ax millions of jobs during the darkest of the pandemic months.

People standing in a queue at Schiphol airport in Netherland as holiday season puts a strain on airlines.

People standing in a queue at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands as the holiday season put a strain on airlines last month.
Photo: PHIL NIJHUIS / ANP MAG / ANP via AFP

These logjams have well and truly taken the shine off what was supposed to be the aviation industry’s great recovery from the pandemic lows, which saw it loose $400 billion Because of lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Nor has New Zealand been immune from the flow-on effects, as local reports of lost luggage, missed connections and non-existent call-back services multiply.

Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran has described the current period as “a challenging time for everyone”.

What was supposed to be the (northern hemisphere) summer of travel’s joyful return might better be described as a season from hell.

Airlines, airports and governments are accusing each other of bearing ultimate responsibility for the fiasco, but really, there’s enough blame for everybody.

Take Britain’s busiest airport, Heathrow, which I’ve flown in or out of four times in the past month. Each visit topped the last in terms of general madness.

Suitcases are seen uncollected at Heathrow's Terminal Three baggage reclaim, west of London on July 8, 2022. - British Airways on Wednesday axed another 10,300 short-haul flights up to the end of October, with the aviation sector battling staff shortages and booming demand as the pandemic recedes.  (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP)

Unclaimed luggage at Heathrow Airport earlier this month, as airlines try and cope with staff shortages and high demand for travel.
Photo: AFP

Boarding my final Virgin Atlantic flight out of London to Los Angeles last week felt like a particular ordeal.

The initial check-in process chewed up nearly four hours; security checks required nearly another couple of hours. The flight itself was then delayed for another 90 minutes because, as the captain helpfully explained, only two baggage handlers were at work loading the fully booked jumbo jet.

Arriving in California, I was told to contact Air New Zealand to request a new flight to Auckland, my scheduled one having long since boarded.

The money I paid for the ticket through a travel agency (which itself said it was unable to contact Air New Zealand) seems to have been seen as a donation, which is interesting because Air New Zealand also seemed to think it was a charity when it called for staff to “volunteer” their time at airports recently.

Given the impossibility of reaching anyone at Air New Zealand, I ended up paying for additional nights of accommodation and having to purchase an entirely new ticket back to New Zealand by way of Hawaii.

Happily, at least, the flight I booked did at least arrive into Auckland.

Unfortunately, owing to circumstances presumably beyond Air New Zealand’s control, a connecting flight to Wellington was cancelled. And so the now-familiar circus began all over again.

There ought to be some kind of award for this sort of thing.

*David Cohen is a Wellington journalist who writes frequently about travel.

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