October 4, 2022

Daily Mail Australia’s Alisha Rouse (pictured in Melbourne on a more successful, and warmer, trip) was stuck in the city for three days

I’m one of the travellers who has been left stranded at an airport with no idea of what to do or where to go after being caught up in the chaos that is consuming Australia’s airlines. 

What was supposed to be a simple two-hour flight turned into a three-day nightmare. 

And at no point during the entire ordeal we were provided with an offensively simple remedy – a dedicated customer service line. 

My partner and I had booked to fly at 9.15pm from Melbourne Airport to Sydney on Monday night with Virgin Australia – but this flight was cancelled a few days prior.

Instead, we were put on a 7.30pm flight the same night, which was hardly more than a minor inconvenience. 

Our experience began normally, heading to Melbourne Airport 90 minutes early because of the long security queues we had heard so much about. 

We needn’t have worried as there was staff everywhere making sure the process was quick. In fact, the screening was so efficient it led us to believe the airport drama had been exaggerated. 

A glance at the board soon told us our flight was delayed by an hour. When we went to inquire, we were met with a kind Virgin Australia staff member who confirmed the delay, while looking moments away from bursting into tears.

She knew something we didn’t. 

We were stuck watching the plane which was supposed to be taking us home (pictured, right) sit on the tarmac. Three days later, we finally landed in Sydney (left)

Nearly two hours after our flight was scheduled to leave, the screens announced it was cancelled – and there was not a single staff member anywhere to be seen. 

Passengers were shouting, crowding around the gate, with some crying as they realised they were now stuck at an airport with children late at night in a city they didn’t know.

While some leeway must be given to airlines hit hard by a global staff shortages  – not to mention the Federal Government’s seven-day Covid isolation rule that put further pressure on rosters –  the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to speak to someone, anyone, who could help was a shock.

With no real competition, the few major airlines which operate in Australia are being left to run amok, with feeble consumer laws leaving a gaping hole which demands a watchdog with teeth. 

After being told the flight was delayed by an hour, we were among the hundreds of passengers told we’d be stranded in Melbourne – likely for several days (pictured, our gate in Melbourne)

When some unlucky Virgin staff came off an arriving flight, they quickly fastened up their black coats and scurried off, ensuring no one noticed their uniform and tried to ask for help.

A pilot, cornered by a group of upset young women, dutifully told the waiting mob that Virgin couldn’t find a first officer to accompany him in the cockpit as the arriving flight had been delayed and he had run out of legal hours. He added that we should all go home. 

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We spoke to one young family who said the cancelled flight had been their rescheduled flight after having already spent two days living in an airport hotel with their three kids.

A quick look online finds similar stories everywhere – flights cancelled with no notice that has lead to missed weddings, festivals and hotel bookings. 

And worst of all, passengers stranded for days and no-one to offer any help. 

After being sent out into the cold Melbourne night after the cancellation on Monday, I received this message on Tuesday morning letting me know when my new flight was – on Thursday, and via Canberra

When a staff member finally arrived, she announced to the increasingly angry crowd that we were to ‘go home’ and Virgin would be in touch with our rescheduled flights ‘in one or two days’.

She refused to answer questions, saying passengers should ‘ask other Virgin staff in the airport’ – which, at that time at night, only involved attendants trying to board their own flights. 

There was no customer service desk or central location customers could go to to seek help. 

Later that night, I got a text telling me I had a seat on another plane – 67 hours later, and with a stop in Canberra.

Prior to the airport chaos, we’d spent a lovely weekend in the Yarra Valley with two of our closest friends and their Australian bulldog, Hughie (pictured at a vineyard, looking as fed-up as I was by the time we finally made it home to Sydney)

FLYING IN AUSTRALIA: YOUR RIGHTS

Jetstar:

If the alternative flight offered to you after a cancellation is unacceptable, you can get a full refund.

If a flight is delayed or cancelled, leaving you stranded overnight, you can claim $30 per food per day, up to $150 for a hotel room and any ‘reasonable costs’ – which could include new underwear, hygiene products, etc. 

if you’re at your home airport and your flight is delayed or cancelled, you get a meal voucher – but nothing else. 

Qantas

If the alternative flight offered to you after a cancellation is unacceptable, you can get a full refund.

If a flight is delayed or cancelled, leaving you stranded overnight, you can claim $30 per food per day, up to $200 for a hotel room and any ‘reasonable costs’ – which could include new underwear, hygiene products, etc. 

If you’re stranded for more than 12 hours overnight, you get $50 for food.

If you’re at your home airport, you get a meal voucher is the delay is two or more hours, and a cab fare if you have to go home and come back the next day. 

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Virgin Australia

If the alternative flight offered to you after a cancellation is unacceptable, you can get a full refund.

If a flight is delayed or cancelled, leaving you stranded overnight, you can claim $50 per food per day, up to $220 for a hotel room and any ‘reasonable costs’ – which could include new underwear, hygiene products, etc.

Rex 

Rex’s policy is by far the least generous. You get nothing for any hotel you’re forced to stay in after being stranded, and nothing for food either. 

If the alternative flight offered to you after a cancellation is unacceptable, you can get a full refund.

If your flight is delayed by 90 minutes or more, they’ll give you a snack – or maybe a meal voucher. 

Desperate for more answers and to find out what customer care was on offer including hotels, meals and compensation, I called Virgin’s only contact number – only to be told there was no customer service team.

The only way of speaking to a member of customer service was to submit an online ‘feedback form’ and await their dutiful reply – hardly useful to hundreds of passengers stuck in a dark city in the rain with nowhere to go.

At least the poor woman tasked with answering my call was able to book me onto a direct flight nine hours earlier than the Canberra one, although lord knows why that wasn’t my rescheduled flight in the first place.

After an inordinate amount of googling, I discovered what help Virgin can offer – $220-a-night for a hotel room, which is more generous than its competitors, and $50-a-day for food.

All of this has to be paid for out of the customer’s pocket, which racked up a hefty bill by the time I finally boarded my flight home.

Qantas is no different, with shocking recent examples including moving a baby onto a different flight from her own parents and forcing countless passengers to wait days on end for their luggage. 

In the US, Europe and many other jurisdictions, delays and cancellations prompt financial compensation from airlines – something airlines Down Under feel no need to offer.

Why would they? How else are you planning on getting to Broome? 

Under EU law, any delay of more than three hours will get passengers up to $887 each, while in America many major airlines voluntarily offer cash as a way of apologising to customers. 

Here in Australia? They owe you nothing. 

Not a cent for lost work, not a cent for inconvenience, not a cent for their failure to deliver on a very simple contract – getting you to where you want to go in a reasonable amount of time. 

If you fly with Rex, the airline won’t even pay for an overnight hotel – even if the company is solely responsible for leaving you stranded. 

There’s no doubt Covid, as well as the hundreds of thousands of workers who have left Australia since the pandemic, have created a logistical nightmare for airlines here and across the world.

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Qantas sources say the company is recording a sickie rate of a staggering 20 per cent every day.

Part of this is driven by the fact pilots can’t wear masks in the cockpit for safety reasons, so often they are forced into isolation when they or a pilot catch Covid.

But after two-and-half years, shouldn’t these multi-billion dollar companies be better prepared?

I got off lightly compared to other Australian travellers. Qantas moved the Braham family’s 13-month-old baby girl (pictured) onto a separate flight after they were left stranded in Rome

This couple spent more than 20 hours on hold across 55 calls to Qantas’ disastrous offshore support centres trying to fix the issue

With any other type of industry, customers would vote on their feet – but with only two major airlines dominating skies Down Under – there’s just no competition.

It creates the perfect environment for airlines to run riot, blaming the pandemic for problems they’ve had years to come up with innovative ways to fix.

They could all start by bringing in a dedicated customer service line for stranded passengers, operating at all times when flights are scheduled. 

It really is the least they could do.

STATEMENT FROM VIRGIN AUSTRALIA

We sincerely apologise to any guest impacted by delayed or cancelled services and we are working tirelessly to ensure all guests reach their final destination.

We are not the only business experiencing the unintended knock-on effects of increased sickness present in the wider community, as we continue to deal with increasing flu cases and COVID-19 case numbers.

There have also been a number of weather events primarily in New South Wales and this comes at time when airports and airlines globally are also experiencing huge demand and challenges as travellers return to the sky as pandemic restrictions ease. 

The number of travellers flying with us over the school holiday period had increased by 15 per cent in comparison to 2019 levels, which is significantly higher than the recent Easter holiday period.

Within our daily airline operations, sometimes short-term unforeseen adjustments to the schedule are necessary, but lead to some disruption, and we sincerely apologise to our guests impacted by these events.

In line with the Virgin Australia Guest Compensation Policy (where guests are delayed or disrupted overnight) Virgin Australia offers:

o The cost of hotel accommodation up to AUD$220 per room per night.

o The cost of airport transfers (e.g., taxi, Uber, train, ferry, or bus).

o Meal costs up to AUD$50 per person per night (if you are not at your home port).

o Costs incurred for reasonable personal items (if you are not at your home port). 

Our crew continue to work hard including picking up additional duties, to help our guests get to their destinations during this busy period.