Monday, November 9, 2009

Qantas: Quandary or Quagmire?

OMG, what an adventure! I've just returned from a long-anticipated vacation to New Zealand and Australia. I'm exhausted but very relaxed at the same time. Exhausted, as one might expect, from a combined travel time of over 52 hours, but relaxed from the overall effects of a wondrous two week journey through the South Pacific.

Yes, I said 52+ hours of combined travel time which included two hotels, two airlines, four airports and about 25 hours of sitting on and flying in airplanes. When I travel on vacation I have no worries and take most everything in stride. I had three days to get home and back to work on time so it, the return journey, starts here:

Friday, November 6th, Sydney, Australia (Thursday, November 5th, Dallas, Texas)

0800 - Rise and shine at the Sydney Travelodge Hotel. Have to eat, dress, check-out, return the rental car and check-in for the 3PM Qantas departure on the new A380 to Los Angeles.

1030 - Arrived at the airport to check-in but was told the counters only open four hours before departure. By 1115 I'm checked in and running the gauntlet of duty free shops to the gate.

1410 - Gate 9 finally opens for boarding. Similar to the check-in counters, gates open only just prior to boarding for departures to the U.S. for security purposes.

1430 - Boarding begins 40 minutes prior to scheduled departure for a 1-million pound airplane configured for 450 people in four classes of service over seven zones on two levels. My seat is 70A, a window just at the trailing edge of the impossibly massive left wing.

1520 - The first public address announcement stating why we have not pushed on schedule at 3:10PM: There is a problem with the Fuel Management System. Ok. Fuel management is fairly critical for a 13 hour flight over open water but I had built more than three hours of time in to my transit at LAX so I wasn't particularly worried. We push back at about 1600.

1615 - Back to the gate. Captain still not satisfied with the repairs and wants another look.

1700 - Push again, and nearly two hours from scheduled departure. I'm wondering if the United flight, scheduled only 15 minutes after Qantas but with the venerable 747-400, left on time.

1715 - Southbound take-off, over Botany Bay, slight right hand turn until we clear the coast then left for a northeast track to California. Dinner is served and I went with the beef in red wine instead of "Greek Chicken."

1930 - Roughly halfway across the northernmost reach of the Tasman Sea and due south of Noumea, New Caledonia comes the captain: "I hope you've enjoyed a nice dinner," he says encouragingly. I smell set-up, however. Sure enough, the Fuel Management System has essentially failed. The choice was either divert to Fiji or return to Sydney - we're turning around, he says, and going back.

Some chuckling but mostly grumbling through-out the plane, not only for having to turn around but because the more exotic Fiji was not selected as a place to relax and wait for Qantas to get its act together. Sydney was really the best choice for a host of reasons. We were not in an immediate life-threatening emergency, the maintenance base was at Sydney and, exotic as it may be, the chances of Fiji having enough hotel rooms for a planeload of stranded passengers suddenly dropping in were not as high as Sydney, a city of four million people.

2100 - We're doing "Lazy-8s" just off shore waiting on clearance to land. Rains to the north have shut down Brisbane who has diverted all traffic to Sydney so the skies are full of stranded flights by the time we arrive.

2130 - Rain showers have moved to swallow up Sydney as well. The captain comes on again to announce his decision to divert to Melbourne, another hour away. Why? Because - wait for it - "the runway is wet."

Fits of laughter and outrage fills the plane as we swing southwest and home in on Melbourne, some 450 miles away. Not only that but the cabin crew inform us that the bar is closed. The carts were sealed for landing in Sydney and, once sealed, by law could not be re-opened. They were also on edge and heading in to a defensive strategy, being unsettled at whether or not their airline was being laughed at (yes) or some were just laughing out of good humor (yes) along with those who were bent out of shape over the inconvenience (yes) amid worries about connections at Los Angeles (yes).

2157 - Word has reached the captain that his "wet runway" explanation needed more - a lot more - clarification if he was to save his and the airline's reputation. Were the rains and seas so high that waves were crashing over the embankments and submerging the landing strip? Nope. Simply that wet conditions and a very heavy airplane such as ours don't mix. In just over four hours of flying we had not burned off enough fuel to be light enough to land, including dumping fuel while holding off-shore. The captain explains that he simply did not want to risk being able to stop the plane safely in wet conditions. Melbourne was dry and thus increased his margin of safety. And Melbourne also handled the A380 and would be able to fix the fuel management problem. Fine. The more self-absorbed and indignant among us ate a little crow as we all chuckled for the rest of the flight, still filled with a heady mixture of mirth and madness. Landing indeed, at 10:22PM, took every inch of a dry runway to bring the massive machine to a manageable halt.

2232 - Our gate is occupied. Of course; like anything else could go right this evening? We wait for an Emirates departure to Dubai before parking.

2306 - Deplaning begins. All baggage must be claimed. Where the cabin crew said we would need to fill out "Arrival" forms for Australia we were told by Immigrations that it wasn't necessary since we never truly left the country. "Did Not Depart" was stamped in to our passports and we joined a massive line in Baggage Claim to find out where we would be staying for the evening.

00:52 - I am finally in my hotel room with still no word from Qantas on when we would be departing. We were scooted off to the hotels - our driver needed directions on how to get there - with the understanding that Qantas would call the hotels once they found out the status of the plane and the hotels would inform us once they'd received any word. I knew better than to expect a mechanic at that hour of the night miraculously being on duty or even called in to fix the plane so felt fairly confident we would not be receiving a 6AM wake-up call for an early morning departure.

After a light meal at the hotel restaurant that was comp'd by the airline I went to bed not even bothering to set the alarm or ask for a wake-up call. They could come get me if I didn't wake-up first.

To be humorously continued...

Gotta go!

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