What happens when your Qantas flight is delayed more than twelve hours? You get some decent fish and chips and a pint.
In this trip report, I also get to go to Athens, and back, without incident.
The flight attendant looked at me with abject horror, and fell to her knees.
But that was after I got on this plane, one of the slightly nicer A330-300s, on this trip from BNE-SIN with Qantas, Australia’s national anger flashpoint: the company has just got rid of its CEO, Alan Joyce, who many say gutted the airline in the pursuit of profit, and, we’re told, left it significantly worse than when he took charge. He trousered a massive bonus. Two days ago, on her first day, his replacement - the former CFO, so hardly blameless - released a hand-wringing video statement apologising for everything in very vague terms, and planning to fix it, whatever it is. The press has focused on Alan Joyce as the baddie, though: presumably so that Qantas’s undoubtedly large advertising budget remains unharmed.
For this flight, I’d already got the slightly impersonal text that said “Sorry, sunshine, no upgrade for you”. The actual text is “We were unable to confirm your upgrade Reward request to Business on QF51 this time. We are looking forward to welcoming you onboard” which looks as if it could benefit by having a copywriter take a look at it. But I was quite happy really - I’d checked the night before the flight, and I was in 27A economy, with a Platinum Phantom next to me. The relatively short eight hour flight to Singapore is fine in economy really, if you’ve an empty seat next to you.
As I board, I look at the boarding pass with renewed interest. It doesn’t say 27A. It says 25K. I’d been moved (albeit still to a preferred window seat), and there is someone sitting next to me.
That someone seems a bit bloody annoyed. I soon discover why. After takeoff, her male partner walks down from business, and ostentatiously gives her the big water bottle you get in business, as a gift.
“I don’t want it,” she says, looking straight ahead.
Bloke asks whether her headphones were OK. They look brand new and potentially a consolation gift from the duty free.
“I don’t know yet. I’d only just put them on.”
Bloke walks back to his business seat with his tail between his legs.
Lucas, a very well-kept young man with a healthy suntan and bright teeth, comes to give me my WP welcome (as well as many others on this flight). I’m assured that if I want anything I should just ask. I never see him again, until he comes round to pick up the rubbish before we land.
Drinks start coming round. The flight attendant asks me what I’d like to drink. And it was here that I terrified her: by asking her for “a beer - a Pacific Ale, please”.
Qantas flight attendants have no training about beer, and if you ask for beer, it exposes that. She gets down on her hands and knees and scrabbles about in the bottom of the trolley. After a little bit she comes up with three cans, and timidly starts to show them to me. “The blue one,” I say - to her obvious relief. The blue can that says “Pacific Ale” on it in big letters, I didn’t say.
The beer choice on Qantas hasn’t changed in five years, as far as I can ascertain. (For Air Canada, it hasn’t changed in more than 15). Because airlines take such little pride in the beer menu - snobbiness, perhaps, or maybe it’s because unlike the wine they don’t sell it by mail order - they don’t know the first thing about it. I’m sure that had I asked for advice on the Shiraz or the Merlot, I’d have had a fulsome explanation of the grapes, the growing conditions, and the vintage, and what the vineyard was, and the name of the grower, and their five children.
Bloke comes back after dinner. Slightly more repentant. He brings the amenities bag. She doesn’t want it, but she seems a little less annoyed. Perhaps it was the gin and tonic she had. Or the second one.
Later, the pre-landing snack is brought round - a chicken panini which is quite good - and I overhear one FA say to the other: “he’s buggered up the breaks and we’ve not got much time”. Sure enough, they only started serving the meal 45 minutes before landing, but they do a good job in coming through and taking the empties before we start to dive down to land in Singapore. Often they start doing it at 90 minutes before landing, which I’m not such a fan of. Whoever buggered up the breaks can, as far as I care, bugger them up every time.
Normally when I’m coming through, I sit and work in the Qantas First lounge, the best in the network. But today is Sunday, and I don’t have work that needs to be completed, so I make a beeline for the immigration line, which takes three minutes - and out into the humidity of an overcast Singapore. The MRT now takes contactless cards, so I jump on the train, getting off at Eunos and walking down Joo Chiat Road, which has a bewildering amount of pet hotels, as well as restaurants (which I’m sure aren’t related to the pet hotels), and “pubs you can’t see into”, which also appear to double-up as places where young ladies can learn to pole dance. Very inclusive.
The road has some lovely old buildings, and I walk down to the bottom and have a beer and a snack, before hailing a Grab back to the airport, since it’s ten minutes in the car or 45 minutes plus that long walk again on the train. It was nice to get two hours out of the airport - it’s an amazing airport, but it’s also nice to not be in it.
I head to the First lounge, for spicy noodles. Very noticeable how many people came to the manager, an Asian lady with bright blue hair, to thank her for her hospitality and looking forward to seeing her again. You don’t get that in London, or in Sydney. I then go for a walk, ending up in the BA lounge for a bit. The BA lounge has a choice of the dutch Heineken or the japanese Asahi; the Qantas First lounge, at least, had a number of Australian beers.
On Thursday morning, I got a text message with the inexplicably excellent news that my upgrade for this sector had been successful. An almost 14 hour flight, which connects with the masses in Sydney, in the school holidays, on the newly refurbished A380, and I’ve managed to get an upgrade. This is why I went out for a walk earlier, safe in the knowledge of a good night’s sleep on a lie-flat bed.
This sector is staffed by British crew, and Fiona - a heavily pregnant FA from the Wirral - adds a bit of levity and personality to the proceedings. This is her last flight before going on maternity leave.
I’m sitting in 12K, which is the second from the front on the top deck. But through some curtains in front of me is a large, dark space. I assumed it was First Class, but on asking Fiona - no, that’s “the lounge”. I have flown in business many times now, but never knowingly been on a plane with a “lounge”. I resolve to visit it at some point.
Fiona delivers a Pacific Ale. A man called Shai comes around with the WP welcomes. He wakes up the person in front of me, who doesn’t sound very impressed. He tries to make small-talk. “Ah, you have a Little Creature. Have you had it before?” Sigh. I decide not to tell him that the brewery is Little Creatures (with an S), and the name of the drink is a Pacific Ale. Or, in words you’d understand, it’s a Shiraz, not a Margaret River. I just nod in an amiable fashion as Shai shyly finishes his WP welcome and shuffles away to awkwardly wake someone else up.
After a good dinner - noodles and wonton, which were excellent - I finished off with a cheese plate and some dessert wine (poured by Fiona as a “northern measure”). Shai awkwardly wandered past. “Ah, you have a sticky!” I’m no good with small-talk either, Shai.
QF1 is the flagship Qantas service, and it shows, with great attentiveness from the staff, all of whom, even the awkward Shai, were excellent. They’d not loaded the right menus, but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone. The breakfast was excellent, with toast that was actually toast and smoked salmon with eggs. This is a very good service.
Then I remembered about “the lounge”. I was curious about it - why would you put a large space in an aeroplane that you couldn’t fill with paying passengers? I never knew about it before, and I cannot think of a time when I’ve ever seen Qantas promote it. So I went to have a look.
Of course, the A380 is a plane with two decks; and “the lounge” is the quite cold space at the top of the front stairs. There’s a very large TV, and three tables surrounded by comfy leather seats (the kind of seats you’d find in a bar, but weirdly with seatbelts, power connections, and individually controlled lights). Behind glass on one side is a selection of drinks. It’s an interesting use of space right at the pointy end, and I’m guessing that it would be difficult to fit paying passenger seats there, since you’re overlooking the stairs, which I suppose have to be there for safety reasons and for access.
I sit down in “the lounge” on one of the tables, with my book and my bottle of water, which I’d brought as something to do in “the lounge”. But my own cocoon seat is nicer than these seats. So, after looking at “the lounge”, I decide that the reason this is here is purely functional; and go back to my warm, adjustable, seat. Earlier I was learning about Australian Prime Ministers; my copy of the book runs out in Scott Morrison’s second term. Now, Cory Doctorow is shouting at me about copyright.
Fiona comes to say goodbye. Since it’s her last flight for a while, she gets to sit in the flight deck and watch the landing. She’s due in December.
Nobody at Qantas has questioned how I’m flying to London, on an Australian passport, without a valid tourist visa. I find this a bit odd. Surely at one point, someone would have pointed this out? I enter the UK with my UK passport, of course; but I’ve not shown it to anyone at Qantas. Hmm.
London is much as I left it. I get to the hotel at 7.45am with the intention of dropping my bag and checking in later; but my room’s ready (possibly one of the perks of my loyalty to the chain). I have a few hectic days.
One thing that surprises me is the hardness of the seats in the Piccadilly line. They look comfy. They’re not. Given that I commuted daily on these exact trains twenty years ago (and no, they’ve not had any work done on them since), I’m surprised that I’m surprised.
I’m also surprised that the local food place (a LEON) is selling “CBD-infused” drinks to over 18s.
I’m flying Aegean for the first time. It’s a Star Alliance flight, so it leaves from Terminal 2, “The Queen’s Terminal”. Terminal 2 is relatively new - I’m not quite sure why the Queen liked Terminal 2, when her airline flies from Terminal 5, but it’s not my place to question the dead.
I arrive at 8.45am, having checked-in online on the train. I get my bag tagged at a machine. It offers me two earlier flights, which are both later than the flight I’m taking, so that’s nice.
I need to wait for the automated bag dropoff machine to open at 9.15am, which is something I don’t really understand. Terminal 2 has no seats in the check-in hall (presumably by Royal decree), so I sit on the floor.
Check-in gives me a Google Wallet boarding pass on my Android phone. It’s the first time I’ve used one of these. I’m quite impressed - Google itself adds more information at the bottom; when the gate is unveiled at 11.30am, it adds that info, and also tells me if the flight is delayed. When you get close to boarding time, you get a permanent notification, so it’s a simple one-button press to get the boarding pass visible. It’s very impressive. Qantas doesn’t offer Google Wallet boarding passes. I shall suggest they do.
Bag dropoff completed - they have lots of signs for the business queue but leave economy passengers to just guess - I go through the Slowest Security Scan In The World. There are hardly any queues, but the scanning itself seems to be done by a lethargic sloth who is on a go-slow.
I then find some space to work for a bit, before finding the gate. We get shouted at to herd us in a queue; and watch one of the premium passengers gets charged £50 because they have more than one handheld bag.
The A321-neo has wifi; though no seatback IFE. The wifi is free to people with gold status, or people flying business or “comfort flex”. I happen to be flying comfort flex; so I get free wifi. Or I would if it worked, which it doesn’t, unless you want to look at the Aegean website, which I don’t.
To my surprise, we get a fully catered meal - “beef or pasta” - the beef was a minced beef steak thing, probably a Greek speciality, accompanied by potatoes and carrots, and enveloped in something that looked suspiciously like oil. A side of a salad made from capsicums also appeared. Cutlery was wood; the meal was in plastic though. After taking the empties, we’re given a chocolate Greek snack, and then land at Athens airport, where I use my Aussie passport (because it makes no difference but makes me feel less Brexity, and I’m collecting the stamps).
A friend of mine texts me: “In general I was not too impressed with Athens, seemed like a slightly upgraded version of Nairobi.”
It’s just as hostile to the pedestrian as Kuala Lumpur is, that much I can tell you with some certainty. Sidewalks appear and disappear without notice, and you find yourself walking on the road or scampering over to the other side. The hotel is on the side of a busy highway which is impossible to cross except using badly-lit tunnel subways. The conference I’m here to attend is in a graffiti-strewn, part-derelict old industrial area, 40 minutes walk away from the hotel. Everywhere stinks of cigarettes.
And let me tell you about the hotel. It has a bar on the roof, which (because it’s in Athens and is seemingly the law) has a view of the Acropolis. Wanting food once I’d got in to the hotel, I went there. I was the only customer; but even then, I was forbidden from sitting on the tables overlooking the view. “Those are tables for many people, and you are just one.” Fuck you very much, lady.
The second night, I went out, had an unsatisfactory burger, and then found (thank you, Google Maps) a bar serving real beer.
The hotel thinks of itself as being very fancy. I’m not given a room key - just a four digit PIN to get into my room. I am not a fan of this; nor a fan of the fact there’s no way of locking the door when I’m inside; nor a fan of the fact that when you pull the door closed to lock it, the handle comes off in your hand. On the plus side, the room is about six times larger than the one I had in London, which wasn’t large enough to swing a cat, even if I had a cat, which I don’t. Not any more.
A large Australian woman with more plastic than real face sits, wearing sunglasses, chain-smoking during breakfast, shouting to her ignorant friends on face-time. We’re all treated to her ignorant friends thanks to her tinny phone speaker. Like everyone else, I have to smell her cigarette smoke and I have to listen to both sides of her dumb conversation. I hate her.
I’m walking round the centre of Athens later on, when my phone buzzes ominously. It’s a text from Qantas; the upshot of which is that the flight home has been delayed by just over twelve hours; it now leaves Monday morning at 9am.
They instantly rebook the SIN-BNE leg via a third-world airport called “Sydney”; giving me 90 minutes to change, which seems optimistic.
It’s a bit confusing. Part of the Qantas website tells me that QF2 is departing Sunday night at 8.55pm. Part of it says 9am on Monday. The iPad app says 9am Monday. The Android app says 8.55pm Sunday. I get an email from Qantas saying 9am Monday, and, later, another email saying it’s almost time to check in, saying 8.55pm Sunday. TripIt says 8.55pm Sunday; so does Google Flights. Twelve hours later, not much has changed.
Qantas wants me to check in, but when I try on the website it won’t let me. But when I try on the Android app, which still thinks the flight is leaving at 8.55pm, it gives me three boarding passes. I notice I’ve a seat right at the back for the SIN-SYD route. Naturally, upgrade requests have failed.
I’m sent an email saying that I can book a hotel room for up to AUD$300; and can have “meals and incidentals” of $50. The email doesn’t say that EU law (which is still valid in the UK) requires that I get cash compensation too, of €600 (AUD $988), and that travel from the airport to the hotel is also covered. For 484 passengers on this plane, that’s a lot of money. No wonder they don’t tell us.
ATH - LHR
Athens airport is jam-packed full of people. Someone in front of me in the queue for the gate is confirming the terms of the “whoops, we’ve oversold this plane, please come back tomorrow” - sounds like EUR 400, plus a hotel night, plus travel.
I have an irritating €2.50 on me in coins, but succeed in finding a chocolate bar for €2.40.
On the way back, the wifi worked for a while, then stopped for some reason. The food was fine. Aegean is fine really.
I save Qantas some money by catching a bus to my hotel. I’m in the Courtyard, which was nice enough; just in the Qantas $300 budget, with the benefit that it’s a new(ish) hotel in the frequent-stayer program that I use. It’s probably got the best bar for plane spotters - a rooftop bar, with an outside bit, and apparently a full view of the runway. I have quite a bit of view from my room, look. It’s fearesomely noisy here, since it’s right here that the thrusters are turned on full blast.
I went for a walk into Harlington. There are two pubs there - the first one, which I peered into, looked like an old man pub with the two cask ale beer pumps turned round, the universal language for “ain’t got none of that, mate, wanna Carling instead?”. I kept walking, to find a very nice Fullers pub with decent food, comfy seats, a pub dog, a nice old bloke behind the bar, and everything good in the world. I come in under budget for Qantas, with fish and chips and a pint of London Pride. (I may have had another pint but felt that was probably being cheeky to add that to the bill).
A bus back to the airport. I’ve checked in on the app, but ask for printed boarding passes from the machine when I check my bag in. Good job I did, since the app later decides to remove the boarding pass for the SIN-SYD leg altogether.
The plane was supposed to have taken off at 9am, but doors were actually closed at 9.30am, and it takes another 25 minutes before we can push back.
The trip is long in economy; particularly since we start with breakfast (and coffee), and so possibilities of sleep diminish without a large meal and a beer.
Much, much later, when the main meal comes round and I ask for a beer (“A Little Creatures, the Pacific Ale, please”). To conform to Qantas FA rules, the FA genuinely looked unsure. “The one in the blue can.” I add. She replies “Oh, I’m glad you said that!” and hands it over. You might think I’m making this up at this point, but I assure you I’m not. My neighbour asks for a red wine, and she confidently quotes the two varieties they have on offer today.
We’re to land in Singapore at 6.08am local time. My boarding pass tells me that we’re boarding SIN-SYD at 6.20am. That clearly isn’t right. The Qantas app tells me SIN-SYD is at 7.30pm. That clearly isn’t right either. It’s a two hour stopover, so I guess if we’re landing at 6.08am and are still an hour late we might be taking off at 8.05am so boarding at 7.20am? I assume we’ll be told. But the long announcement about landing in Singapore doesn’t contain that information, so I press the “ask a flight attendant” button for the first time ever in twenty years of flying to ask. “It’s the same plane so you won’t miss it,” comes the snappy and unhelpful answer. “It would be really helpful for many of us on this flight to know,” I ask. “You’ll be told when we land,” she snaps. I appreciate she doesn’t care - in 35 minutes she’ll be off-duty and resting before a flight back in the next few days. I won’t be, though.
It’s slightly complicated by needing to do my normal daily job - writing a newsletter and recording/uploading a podcast - by 9pm Brisbane time on Tuesday, ie tonight. It doesn’t look I’ve the time to do it in Singapore; or in Sydney. I might have to do it on the SYD-BNE plane - whenever that is, since I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll not be catching the 7.35pm flight from SYD. I do have all the equipment to record it on the flight though, and it’ll be a fun gimmick perhaps.
As we get off the aircraft, we’re told that the First Lounge is closed, because of course it is.
The business lounge has, inevitably, a massive queue, so I skip it and go off in a search for runny eggs and Kaya toast, though disappointingly so has the rest of the airport. I find a less popular place for it with the improbable name of Heavenly Wang. It also does a nice breakfast set.
I then come back to the gate, to discover that the flight is delayed further.
TripIt tells me that QF2, my flight, is now cancelled; I suspect because this is now officially QF2D according to the IFE and to Singapore airport (presumably because there’ll be a QF2 later today as well). It also tells me that my flight is delayed.
QF2 is leaving at 0750, which means the gate closes at 0720. TripIt now tells me I have 5m to change in Sydney, which seems unlikely to happen. In any case, we don’t leave at 0750 - we leave rather later, thanks to a delay cleaning the aircraft, which seems eminently forseeable, given it was late to arrive.
SIN - SYD
After takeoff, my WP welcome starts with “Hello, Mr Cridland, how is your flight so far?” asking me about a flight that is more than thirteen hours delayed, and taking me to Sydney, where I don’t want to go, and then making me change for a further flight to Brisbane that currently I don’t think I’m likely to actually get. I suggest that it’s not great, given the circumstances. She seems disappointed in my answer to her stupid and deeply unsympathetic question. Try harder, Qantas. It’s not difficult.
The flight is entirely full. Once more, we get breakfast first, and the main meal is later in the flight. This is a cost-cutting exercise, it occurs to me: this way, you don’t get an additional drinks service, so “breakfast first” saves the airline a round of drinks for the entire plane.
I notice that the much-trailed wifi-when-over-Australia isn’t on this flagship service; nor is it on the BNE-SIN flight either. I wonder where it’s actually available.
If there’s one bright spot, it’s that this is the first flight out of four where asking for a can of Pacific Ale doesn’t panic the FA. She knows what it is, and sends her colleague (who looks a bit like Jeff from the Wiggles) back to get some.
We’re scheduled to land at 6.35pm, so exactly an hour to connect to a domestic flight: unlikely, you’d have thought, given the need for bag collection, and then trundling out to the Sydney Shed of Shame, checking my bag in again once more, before the Bus of Disappointment. But I know it’ll be fine, and that I’ll be looked after.
SYD - BNE
Landing in Sydney, I shuffle through immigration, get my bag, and trundle off to the Qantas Shed of Sadness. My flight is boarding at 7.15pm, and it’s now 7.20pm. But, there are three minutes left for me, apparently, so I get my bag checked in again, and go to the bus, where the doors close in my face but the driver reopens them just for me.
I’ve been in planes for over 24 hours by this point. I got 45 minutes in Singapore to myself; and a little less than that in Sydney airport - literally walking from one place to another. This is much less glamorous than my lazy trip out, and reminds me why actually I rather like the slow, lazy six hour layover in Singapore rather than the rushed 45 minute one.
On the plane, I am offered a drink and some food. The beer is 150 Lashes, which is fine (there’s a choice of 150 Lashes or nothing on this flight, and I’m fine with it).
I write the newsletter, record the podcast, edit it, but I can’t upload it from the plane since it’s a bit too bandwidth-constrained to deal with that. Time is on my side - I can do it from the car on the way home. So I do.
And once I get home, I put in a claim to Qantas for AUD $1,345.97 - the hotel/meal bill they told me about, and the EC compensation they didn’t. Let’s see if that gets paid.