Editorial: Blame shared for flight fiasco

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Anyone who has sat on an almost-full aircraft, parked and waiting for a single obstinately late traveller to show up, will have a distinctly qualified sympathy for the Jetstar passengers barred from boarding a flight this week.

The budget carrier closed its check-in gates to at least eight ticket-holders on a flight from Auckland to Wellington last Saturday because, it said, they reached the check-in counter too late.

There is some dispute about the numbers involved: one of the aggrieved passengers says she arrived moments before the check-in deadline - 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time; an airline spokeswoman told the Herald on Sunday that the passengers had arrived 22 minutes after the deadline and eight minutes before the departure time.

The next day she said that she had transposed the figures - the passengers showed up eight minutes late, 22 minutes before departure. This was an arithmetical blunder hard to credit under the circumstances; this was not quantum mechanics and the airline, under pressure to explain, might have been expected to get its facts straight.

Conflicting stories about whether the line of waiting passengers was "combed" before the flight was closed and whether some customers waiting in line behind the barred passengers were allowed to board seem unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved.

But even if the stranded ticket-holders' version of events is entirely true, it is plain that they were, to use an apt aviation metaphor, pushing the envelope.

The arrival of budget airlines has made careless fliers of us all. What was, less than a generation ago, a special experience, is now commonplace. Even with the security checks of the post-9/11 world, short-haul flying has transformed, in the traveller's mind, into little more than an aerial bus trip - and it's often cheaper than travelling by bus. We book and check in on-line, and, if we have no baggage to check in, walk straight to the departure gate.

But a simpler - not to say cheaper - passenger experience is achieved only by massive increases in efficiency on the airline side. Cutting costs without cutting corners requires procedures that minimise exceptional occurrences. When everything that has to be done before the aircraft doors are closed and the wheel-chocks removed can be done according to a prescribed and predictable pattern, when systems are not disrupted by people who break or stretch the rules, everyone's happy; when it doesn't happen that way, the results can be painful.

Even an occasional watcher of the British reality TV show Airline is familiar with the passenger who wants to fly half-way across Europe for £9, while being treated like a VIP. There is no suggestion that the passengers left grounded at Auckland on Saturday were of that particular species, but neither are they birds of an entirely different plumage. To put it plainly, the budget passenger is entering into an unspoken and unwritten agreement with a budget airline, above and beyond the legal contract implied by the issue of a ticket. The terms of that contract are these: the airline agrees to fly the passenger as cheaply as possible; and the passenger agrees to make it as easy as possible for the cut-price operator, by not bringing overweight baggage - and by not cutting it fine by turning up at the terminal at the last minute. Making a budget operation work is a two-way street.

All that said, Jetstar's management of the matter has fallen a long way short of the ideal. After a rocky start to its operation, which included unconscionable delays and abrupt changes to timetables that had been poorly planned in the first place, it should have realised that it was on the brink of a full-blown PR catastrophe. If it was intending rigorously to enforce check-in deadlines which, as it must have known, passengers had become accustomed to regarding as elastic, it could and should have made it plain during the blaze of publicity that accompanied its launch.

It is not enough to say that they are playing by the rules. In the competitive environment in which airlines operate, goodwill is too precious a commodity to waste. Jetstar may yet find that price is not the only factor that customers take into account when exploring their options. After the events of last weekend, it has much ground to make up.

- Herald on Sunday

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