Dear Jetstar: WTF?

CAMERON WILLIAMSON, TRAVEL EDITOR
Last updated 16:32 01/03/2013

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OPINION: The vagaries of airline travel are legion, but with every take-off, the distance between transport providers and their human cargo seems to widen.

There she was, a shattered mother of a strapping son who'd been shockingly savaged by a shark, desperate to get from Wellington to Auckland.

Jeanette Strange held a fully paid ticket for that one-hour hop a couple of days later, and asked -- quite reasonably in the circumstances -- to use it to get to her family, asap.

Not so long ago, a human being -- perhaps a parent too -- would have heard the enquiry from Adam's mum and drawn on innate humanity and a willingness to help. A call would be made to the check-in desk and a seat on the next flight would be held and offered.

But it doesn't work like that any more.

First point of contact with most airlines is a recorded hold message or a branded browser window. If there's a live human on the end of the line, he or she might well be offshore, reading from a songsheet designed by the marketing department with strict protocols about dealing with passengers.

High-value frequent flyer with loyalty membership? Offer them free drinks in the lounge and a complimentary upgrade.

Regular customer in unimaginably horrific circumstances? Place them on hold, call the supervisor, deliver the news (with apology) that bookings cannot be transferred. No exceptions.

Fortunately for Jeanette, an airline run by humans sidestepped the protocols, found her a seat, ushered her through the lounge and got her to Auckland -- minimising her inconvenience and helping preserve the strength she needed to cope with a mother's nightmare.

My experience a few days earlier doesn't hold a candle to Jeanette's, but it's another reminder of the human disconnect.

Sitting in aisle seat 3C, with two empty rows ahead, I politely asked a passing hostess if, after take-off, I might shift to the empty window seat, 1A. I'm a bit over six feet tall and any extra legroom is a bonus. And yes, I like to look out the window.

No problem, she said, just wait till we're airborne.

As we levelled out and 'bing' the seat-belt sign went off, I made my move, only to be intercepted by a smiling young steward.

"O you can't sit there," he said. "Those are the high-value seats."

And were we expecting some high-value customers to parachute in over the King Country somewhere?

"You can sit there," he said, indicating seat 2A. Sweet of him and all, but it didn't solve the knees-around-my-ears problem, and I said "Forget it, I'll stick with the aisle seat."

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The same week, my colleague had a long conversation with the airline about interrupted travel plans.  He was told the Wellington-Queenstown flight he'd booked for the whole family was now "unavailable". You mean cancelled? "Unavailable."

It took another off-air supervisor-meets-call-centre-operator conference before airline rep was "authorised" to let her customer know that the flight was "cancelled".

Irony aside, this just illuminates that gap where human communication, kindness, courtesy and happiness used to live before they got downsized and made redundant by margin-driven business protocols.

Perhaps you just need a reminder, Jetstar: We're humans, not cargo.

- Stuff

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