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Welcome to this blog, the story of a great big Australian adventure. It documents my travels, life in Australia, and a subject close to my heart – environmental conservation. 

Delaysia Airlines: an everyday tale of poor service

Delaysia Airlines: an everyday tale of poor service

It was the first time we'd all been together in five years. The more excitable among us had been counting weeks, then sleeps, until Christmas in Brisbane could finally begin. Our family were flying in from the UK and Victoria.

The first contingent (of three) was due on Sunday evening. The first hint of trouble surfaced as we went to bed the previous night. The first leg was London to Frankfurt: then take-off for Kuala Lumpur an hour or so later at 10 pm our time (midday in Germany). They appeared to be still on the ground at 11, but I assumed it was a glitch with my flight tracking app, and went to sleep.

We awoke to the news they were still in Frankfurt, holed up in some bleak, cold airport hotel, without access to luggage. A computer error message had grounded the plane. It was difficult to find out from the airline, at their end or ours, when they were expected to reach Brisbane.

After about three hours I finally got hold of a man in Malaysia who told me our travellers' onward journey would resume on Sunday at 1 pm, not the scheduled time of that day's flight. In the meantime, my friend had discovered that, following a ruling in the European Court of Justice in November 2009, passengers would each be entitled to €600, following such a long delay within the EU.

We were constantly wondering. Given the number of flights there must be each day from Frankfurt – a major European hub – to even more important KL, why weren't seats being found for the stranded on alternative carriers? The 1 pm Sunday flight was using the original plane. How long can passengers be reasonably expected to wait for a plane to be repaired before another one is substituted?

It was harrowing tracking the little plane on the screen the rest of the journey. My tracking app seemed to have given up the ghost by Monday lunchtime as flight 135 was due to leave KL. I suppressed rising panic while trying to confirm it had taken off. The thought of further delay was intolerable. We'd already lost a precious day of our all-too-short time together. I needed them here, right then.

Only later did I remember the small fortune paid months earlier for flights at this time of year.

Unfortunately, there was worse to come. As time passed and our family did not emerge into the arrivals hall at Brisbane International on Monday evening, I sensed a problem. Eventually unsmiling faces appeared. Our visitors were carrying very little. It took a few moments to process the fact that the airline had added insult to injury by losing their luggage.

It transpired that the luggage belt in KL had failed before loading was completed. A decision was made to proceed without 30 people's bags in order not to delay the flight. Were they serious?

Talk about taking the edge off the start of a holiday. The bagless were given instructions for collection 24 hours later, off the next day's flight. (It's OK to just add that much additional weight to a flight, is it? Think how much you get charged if your bag is a kilo overweight. When I asked this question, I was told other cargo would be left behind.) In the meantime, we had to conjure up much-needed changes of clothes.

The following evening we returned to the airport and congregated with others by the baggage handler's office at street level. We had not been able to get through to the office to confirm arrival, as instructed. We spotted one case immediately, and another arrived shortly from immigration. But the final trolley was not bearing the third. That was still in Frankfurt, having lost its tag. (I've always wondered about those tags.) I was amazed my youngest daughter didn't cry: I would have done; I nearly did.

How hollow sounded the promise that the straggler would arrive on Tuesday evening's flight. I couldn't leave it at that, and asked to see the airline's most senior representative on site. She was on the fourth floor, overseeing check-in, and she looked surprised as we rolled up, obviously unhappy and mistrustful. Her sidekick tried to get us to wait to one side. I don't think so. I asked for a call to be made immediately to determine the precise details of how the third bag was going to materialise. She said she couldn't do that there and then, but would find out and email me next morning. Only three-quarters of the way through an increasingly heated conversation did she offer my daughter an 'emergency' $70 to buy 'essentials'. She was keen to get rid of us: the queues of passengers had gone quiet.

Next day, I was somewhat relieved to learn that the bag was being flown by Singapore Airlines, my preferred choice for the kangaroo route. Later in the day she confirmed it was on its way from Singapore, and explained it would be met and escorted through immigration by one of her staff and put in a cab for delivery. I would receive a call when it had arrived safely in Brisbane.

The Singapore flight was due at 7.30 pm but landed ten minutes early. How long would you, could you, have waited for that phone call? I lasted until 9, which I thought exhibited extraordinary fortitude. I had my contact's direct line from the email. She was caught on the hop: she didn't know if the bag had landed. She'd text and find out. Text? 

Less than five minutes later my angst was building nicely when a taxi rolled up outside, with the bag. Do you know what? I didn't phone her back to let her know. As if she cared. I never received a call-back to make sure we had got it.

As the homeward journey loomed, no one wanted to fly Malaise-ia. I had one final managerial person to deal with prior to check-in, to retrospectively collect 'emergency' dollars for the other two initially bagless passengers, which had been offered by email. (They made the payment method difficult, but I'll spare you more detail.) Turned out it was the unsmiling sidekick. Nothing ventured, nothing gained: I asked for an upgrade for our intrepid travellers. The sidekick refused.

'I'm unable to do that.'

'Why?'

'That is not our policy.'

'Why not?'

'That's just not our policy.'

'But wouldn't it be a nice gesture after all the inconvenience and stress my family have suffered?'

Not a nice face and no more comment.

The delayed outbound passengers had been issued with complaint forms on their way through KL. I wonder how many of them followed through? Or could be bothered, their anger and frustration having been diluted by good times? In lost luggage situations, I believe airlines bank on the fact that you're dealing with baggage handlers or airport staff with little information and no authority; that you won't ask to speak to a senior airline representative, especially late in the day. And that you won't be aware of legislation that entitles you to compensation if you are seriously delayed; or be persistent about your rights when they later try to fob you off with a lot less than you deserve.

Which is what happened. The fob-off, that is. A clearly intentioned letter of complaint and claim was met with a derisory offer: free flights from London to KL. As if they'd ever use that airline again. A strongly worded second letter reiterated their right to compensation under European law and threatened appeal to civil aviation authorities (and perhaps an alert to the press).

The airline's first response completely ignored the European Court's ruling. Their second agreed to compensation (in the ultimate paragraph, I believe) as a gesture of goodwill. They accepted no liability. There was a lot of blah-blah about punctuality and maintenance records, and passenger safety, of course. They regretted our travellers had not accepted their offer of free flights. There was no apology. The accompanying paperwork for signature by the claimants included a promise not to share their experiences.

And payment was, let's say, tardy.

There can be no compensation for losing precious time with a family you rarely see, or the stress of not knowing, albeit temporarily, where your belongings are. At least they had each other during those wretched hours in Frankfurt. And they had support in Brisbane when they arrived with only the clothes they stood up in.

The airline's response to my family's experience was woefully inadequate, from a lack of information in Frankfurt to an extraordinary decision in KL, to a failure to act swiftly and effectively in Brisbane. The luggage fiasco was avoidable. A baggage check in Frankfurt, where they were changing airlines, would have prevented an additional 24 hours' stress.

I'm sure my family only received the 'emergency' funding because I made a fuss, and they only received compensation because of knowledge about passengers' rights. How many others on that nightmare flight got nothing? How much money did Delayasia save by keeping schtum about their obligations?

It's two years since I last wrote about a bad airline (see Jetstar. No stars. Nuls points, January 2012). I have never used that airline since, and I hope I've dissuaded other people from doing so. If you wish to fly between Australia and Europe, you have many options. Choose wisely. 

This post was last edited on 11 March 2014

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