Friday, November 13, 2009

Qantas Cleans Up

Round Two. We had tried to fly from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles, California the day before with the brand new A380 on Qantas. Like all new technological marvels this one was grumpy and didn't feel like flying that day. After nearly six hours on board between boarding, take-off, landing again and deplaning, I and 400 new nearest and dearest friends managed to make it from Sydney to Melbourne, nearly 500 miles in the opposite direction of our destination. After a night at an airport hotel, our continuing saga picks up here:

Saturday, November 7th, Melbourne, Australia (Friday, November 6th, Dallas, Texas)

0839 - I rumble awake after a thoroughly restful night at the Mantra Tullamarine Hotel just five minutes from the Melbourne Airport. A call to the front desk informs me that buses will be around to collect the stranded starting at 1015 for a 1300 departure.

1030 - I'm on the first of several buses back to the terminal and am relatively close to the front of the line for check-in. The regular Melbourne - Los Angeles service on Qantas, a 747-400, was experiencing a rush in business from over 100 diverted passengers who either wanted an earlier flight or nothing to do with the Airbus A380. More room for the rest of us, I said.

1320 - Boarding begins. All of us were far more rested after a night at the hotel than we were yesterday on the original flight. I'd been up seven hours before even boarding the flight at Sydney while others had traveled from as far away as Perth, on the west coast of Australia, to make the connection at Sydney. All around the restaurant at breakfast I observed new friendships and light conversation over our adventure thus far as if on some grounded cruise ship. We shared our stories in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

1339 - The Captain's first announcement and we're a little leery of his voice which thus far has only brought bad news. All systems go, the plane is both cleaned and "clean" and I settle in to my new seat, 83K, for what will be the longest nonstop flight of my life at 8,026 miles. The middle seat is empty and I share my row with a cheerful Canadian TV brand manager on her way back to Toronto after being in Cairns for a family wedding.

We share a laugh over the absolute paucity of television programming options in the South Pacific relative to the US and Canada. On top of that her husband, originally planning to go, had to stay behind for work and ended up enjoying three weeks plus an extra day of hockey season bachelorhood. He doesn't cook so she knew at least the kitchen would be clean but what about those pizza boxes?!

1404 - Lift off. Where I'd booked the flight just to experience the new A380 I was now enjoying my second fully loaded take off in as many days. We take off to the north and bank to the right towards Canberra, the Australian capital city and break out over the ocean between Shell Harbour and Wollongong, 50 miles south of Sydney, a sense of deja vu sweeping over us. Back where we started after an hour of flying and 13 hours to go. Completely re-catered, the menu was either braised lamb or chicken szechuan and this time the bar was open for good.

Between the meal and four movies I chat with the flight attendants and heap praise on them in all seriousness for their professionalism. By their labor agreement half of them did not have to take the trip on the 2nd day. For whatever reason they all agreed, however, and saved all of the passengers at untold additional hours of waiting for replacement staff to get to Melbourne to work the flight. They shared a little dirt with me that of the four A380s in the Qantas fleet, three of them were out of commission on that same day! One was stuck in London, ours in Melbourne and the third, expecting to fly from Sydney to Singapore, had cancelled all together.

We all understood that new airplanes come with teething problems. In this case, fuel was not transferring evenly across all of the tanks. Either the plane would have been "flying wonky (lopsided)" or would have burned too much fuel, never a good thing and especially not on a 14 hour flight! While annoying and costly, the problems eventually get solved and the new planes ultimately turn in to solid workhorses for the airline. I felt safe with both the A380 and with Qantas. Despite the delay and even sitting in coach, the flight was over too soon.

0857 - Touchdown! Sitting in the back of a two-deck airplane and 400 people I'm in no hurry to deplane at Gate 123 in the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Being one of the last to leave actually allowed me to sincerely thank the cabin crew again and chat convivially with the pilot whom I ribbed good-naturedly about his wet runway from the night before. I may not return to the Land Down Under for another two or three years but I let them know they had not lost me as a future customer.

0940 - Customs and Immigration at the notoriously jammed and abrasive LAX was in fact a breeze. Being the last off the plane I'd found a sweet spot between my flight and the next arrival, an All Nippon Airlines flight from Tokyo. I made it through in less than 15 minutes, baggage included.

It wasn't over yet. I still had to go over to the American Airlines terminal to find a flight home to Dallas. Chaos reigned here thanks to the arrival of our delayed flight where a large number of us discovered Qantas had done nothing to rebook onward travel. In both Sydney and later in Melbourne the mindset was "Get to L.A. and deal with it then."

Profit-wise they'd lost their collective shirts on this flight. All the fuel burned in leaving Sydney and returning to Melbourne, flight crew salaries, spoiled catering, hotels and meals and all of this before having to compensate other airlines for protected travel on flights other than those originally booked. I'd paid American for roundtrip transportation only to LA and back but Qantas made me miss my flight home. That meant that they would have to pay American a negotiated flat rate to get me back to Dallas. Discounted maybe, but still more money they were out of pocket for not operating on time.

I was the first such passenger which alerted American to what became a far larger problem, including a few I spotted who must have taken the earlier flight from Melbourne to try and avoid this headache!
Even this, however, didn't really perturb the professionals at American too much. They created a separate line to process the "QF11" people separate from their normal traffic to give everybody a chance to make their flights on time. Since the problem was all on Qantas we were given boarding passes for our respective flights to get us on our way and told that the two airlines would clean up the accounting and paperwork between them later.

1210 - AA#2444 departs for Dallas/Ft. Worth, I'm in 9C, the exit row aisle at the front of the coach cabin, the entire row to myself as a newly minted AAdvantage Gold Frequent Flyer with Priority Access on a flight that was only about two-thirds full.

1655 - Smooth landing in Dallas twenty minutes ahead of schedule and I'm starving, having had nothing to eat since breakfast on Qantas before landing. Dinner on me with a friend who picked me up at the airport at a favorite BBQ restaurant (like there was any other choice?) and I walk through my door over 52 hours after waking up in Sydney two days before.

I'd do it all again in a minute!

Gotta go!

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