A 25-hour, multiple-flight journey with a toddler in tow is up there with many parents' worst nightmares, but when Sydney couple Ben Craig and Amy Barnett set off for a family Christmas in London with their 15-month-old son, they had none of the usual concerns.
Originally from the UK, the couple had made regular trips overseas in recent years and this was Cooper's third trip abroad. His mum said on those previous long-haul flights, he'd been a dream.
But the family hadn't prepared for the nightmare journey that was ahead of them when they boarded Qantas flight QF1 on December 23.
The next 50-plus hours would include about 15 hours with no food, an emergency landing, hours trapped in a grounded plane, a Christmas Day spent mostly in the air, missing luggage, plenty of tears and screaming — not just from the toddler — and, according to Craig, no apology or sympathy from the airline.
After a pleasant flight from Sydney, the nightmare began just before the plane was due to land in Dubai before continuing on to London.
Instead, passengers were told, because of weather conditions at Dubai airport, the pilot had chosen to land at 1am in Al Ain airport in Abu Dhabi to refuel and would make the short journey to Dubai when it was safe.
Initially understanding, Craig said his concern didn't begin to kick in until fog rolled in while the flight was grounded and it became clear they would be stuck on the tarmac longer than expected.
Craig said his family and fellow passengers were instructed to stay inside the plane — where food had apparently run out — and were given multiple reasons why they couldn't be released into the small airport's terminal.
"They said an engineer was supposed to be sent by helicopter and would be there soon. Then it was that the airport couldn't handle the 450 people coming off the plane, and then they told us it was just more comfortable on the plane," he said.
"The story kept changing and we started to think we were being lied to."
It was only after about 12 hours trapped in the grounded plane, with hungry children crying and others on board growing anxious, that passengers were finally told they could go into the terminal, the couple said.
"By this point we'd run out of snacks and Cooper hadn't eaten anything substantial for 12 hours," Craig said. "When we got inside and we found a mostly empty terminal with a closed canteen and finally after an hour and a half were handed packaged croissants filled with chocolate — hardly suitable food for a toddler."
After an hour in the terminal, they were sent back to the plane — "the pilot said he didn't know why we had been sent back there", Craig said — and after a further hours-long wait, passengers were flown to Dubai only to be informed the second leg of their journey had been cancelled and they would have to spend the night at an airport hotel and complete the journey the following day.
Craig said he couldn't understand why the flight had been cancelled and claimed he hadn't been given an explanation.
Released from the airport more than 30 hours after leaving Sydney, Craig said passengers weren't given their bags and he and his partner had to scramble to buy nappies for their son, then beg for room service because the hotel they had been accommodated at told them to eat in a restaurant nearby.
The delay also meant missing family Christmas in London. The flight that was due to land in Heathrow early Christmas Eve would now not get them there until late afternoon on Christmas Day.
When they finally arrived in London, they were told their luggage hadn't made it onto the flight from Dubai. They were collected by family about 5pm on Christmas Day, hardly in the mood for celebrating. Their Christmas presents were in the missing bags anyway.
Bennett said she found the experience "traumatic", but said the most disappointing element was Qantas' response.
Before news.com.au contacted the airline, the only communication the couple had received was an email explaining the delay and acknowledging the inconvenience the couple had been through, but no apology.
The couple said they believed the airline had "failed miserably" in its "duty of care" to passengers by not providing suitable food for their toddler and other children on board, as well as the lack of communication and explanations from staff throughout the journey.
"The issue with the food, as a parent, was definitely my main concern. I just think that the experience itself was really traumatic," she said.
"The not knowing, I felt like when we were going through it all they weren't being really transparent about how long we were going to be delayed for. There were so many different stories and there was just utter confusion.
"It was really quite stressful to all of us."
Craig said he believed the airline had failed in living up to its values.
"They say they're about bringing families together, working together in an inclusive manner," he said. "That's not what we saw."
Bennett added: "Had Qantas maybe made a goodwill gesture or even offered some sort of explanation or apology, I think we would be happy to say, you know what, it was a difficult situation, but what we've had from them has been quite the opposite."
A post on the airline's Facebook page from Craig explaining the situation and asking for the couple's frequent flyer points to be returned has attracted dozens of sympathetic comments from outraged people shocked at the experience but, Craig says, has failed to elicit a satisfactory response from Qantas.
A spokesman for Qantas told news.com.au the airline, like others, had been affected by heavy fog surrounding Dubai and had to be diverted to Al Ain. The spokesman explained that while the plane was on the ground a mechanical issue was detected, which resulted in further delays as an engineer and spare part were brought from Dubai.
"During this time, customers were given all the food and drink available on board and when the delay continued, they were given the option to disembark where more refreshments were made available," the airline said.
Qantas said "several options" were offered to customers travelling on to London, including overnight accommodation and moving onto the next flight.
"We're happy to reach out to Ben and we understand how frustrating the delay was especially occurring at Christmas," the spokesman said.