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[travel] Why the flights to New Zealand were so messed up - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2013-09-19 07:19
Subject: [travel] Why the flights to New Zealand were so messed up
Security: Public
Tags:child, friends, new zealand, radiantlisa, travel
We left our house about 4 pm on Tuesday, July 30th. Traffic was terrible getting to the airport, and I began to worry about timely check-in, except I discovered via FlightTrack that our flight was delayed. When we got to the airport in Portland, then line to reach the counter was incredibly slow. This was due to the previous San Francisco flight being cancelled, and thus everyone having a problem requiring special handling. In this day and age of low staffing levels and machine check-in, exception handling becomes a disaster for both the airlines and their passengers.

We were essentially the third party in the check-in line, and yet as people at the counter were being helped, the United Airlines agents kept disappearing. We had arrived around shift change, and they were going off one by one. When we finally did get helped, there were two agents left, and the line behind us had grown enormous.

It turned out that San Francisco's airport was on a 120-180 minute air traffic delay due to runway slowdown caused by a combination of heavy fog and smoke from forest fires in southern Oregon. However, long haul and trans-Pacific flights were not on the same delay. This meant our delayed connection would arrive after the non-delayed flight to Auckland had left.

The United agent spent twenty or thirty minutes going through all this with me. The next day's flight was full due to the number of people who'd missed connections that day. We would have to come back two days later. Even then, if the fog and fires were continuing, we might be right back in the same situation. We looked at routing through Los Angeles, Honolulu or Vancouver. Because of the recent Pacific typhoon, Honolulu was impossible, and seats through the other two cities were unavailable due to the overflow from the problems in San Francisco and Honolulu. They could get us to Sydney via a later flight out of San Francisco, but for some reason could not get us from Sydney to Christchurch, which was our original destination. They could get us to Sydney to Auckland.

It was either go to the wrong city 1,000 miles away that day, or come back in two days and take our chances with continuing flight delays. We took the Sydney-Auckland routing.

This is how we wound up going to Australia by accident.

This whole process took better than half an hour, and wound up tying up both available agents as the line behind us grew both enormous and irritated while no one new came back on duty at the United Airlines desk..

The change had some other implications as well. Going trans-Pacific on United instead of Air New Zealand resulted in us being seated in United Economy, which is a lower class of seat than we had on the original Air New Zealand flight. (If you've never flown United, they have an Economy Plus, which is reasonable economy seating with more leg room, and regular Economy, which is cattle car seating.) On arrival in San Francisco, after being wheelchair transported to our United international departure gate, I wound up buying us Economy Plus upgrades to restore the legroom we'd purchased with the original tickets. That set me back almost $600, but I figured 13 hours with our knees crammed up around our ears was going to make all three of us crazy.

Also while in San Francisco, I tried to book Air New Zealand domestic tickets from Auckland to Christchurch, to complete our routing. (Mind you, I'd already paid quite a bit of money for tickets to Christchurch with the original booking.) Unfortunately, by the time I was able to deal with this, I was on the aircraft, and could only use my iPhone. Air New Zealand's Web site is not iPhone compatible, and kept freezing about halfway through the booking process. You might well imagine my irritation at this.

To further compound the issue, when [info]danjite and [info]khaybee tried to book us that same ticket from inside New Zealand after some frantic text messages from me, the pricing for an in-country booking on the exact same flight was more than double the pricing for me to book from San Francisco. I was looking ay $NZ215 per seat, they were seeing over $NZ500 per seat. Which would have been fine, except the Web site didn't freaking work from the U.S. Air New Zealand was forcing us to buy at the higher price.

I held off.

The United Airlines flights from Portland to San Francisco and San Francisco to Sydney were fine in terms of the in-flight experience. Assuming you don't mind spending 15+ combined hours seated in Economy class.

It got complicated in Sydney. We were transiting, so did not need to clear customs or immigration, but we did need to go to the transit desk for our Air New Zealand boarding passes. Air New Zealand does not seem to have any staff in Sydney, as everything is handled by a third party contractor. Our tickets were screwed up due to the re-route, and the counter person at the transit desk had a lot of trouble even getting us the Auckland boarding passes. When I tried to negotiate a re-route to Christchurch per my original ticket, I was told that only someone with access to the Air New Zealand booking system could help me. That included absolute no one in the Sydney airport due all the ground staff being third part contractors. There was literally no one present in the Sydney airport (at least in any way accessible to me or the counter agent) with either access to the Air New Zealand systems or authority to do anything to problem solve. Then they had trouble with our luggage routing. Then they couldn't get my name into the system. My full legal name includes a "Jr" after the "Lake", and this apparently causes fits to the Sydney airport computers.

Much as in San Francisco, this whole process took almost half an hour, tied up the only available Air New Zealand contract transit agent, and generated an enormous and irritated line behind us. And no matter what we tried, we couldn't get to Christchurch. Which was the original destination we'd paid almost $6,000 to reach in the first place. I was told to call the airline's customer service number to discuss my Christchurch routing. Except, not having an Australian capable phone (remember, we went there by accident, so I had not activated an Australian voice or data plan), I could not do so.

When we got to our gate, I used the airport Wifi to finally make my Auckland-Christchurch booking. I spent about $NZ650 to do this, but it at least got us to our destination, about eight hours later than intended, at the overseas price rather than the doubled domestic price.

Combined with the United seat upgrades, I was now out $1,200 in unplanned expenses.

Once again, the in flight experience was very nice. Much better than any U.S. airline I've flown, ever.

On arrival in Auckland, it got weird again. We came in at the international terminal. I'd requested a wheelchair assist which came in the form of a very pleasant young man named Chris. We got through immigration just fine, eventually collected our bags, but got hung up in biocontrol. Lisa Costello had a pair of hiking boots we hadn't properly declared on the forms. This got us pulled aside by a polite and methodical Detective Inspector for an interview and the shoes being taken away for processing and decontamination. Lisa is now in the New Zealand biocontrol database as an offender and was sternly warned that a repeated offense would have substantial penalties. Apparently, the fact that we were let go without paying a large fine was an act of generosity on the part of the Detective Inspector.

All of this, however, soaked up an immense amount of time. I was pretty worried about making the connection. This is especially true in Auckland, where the international terminal is completely separate, and due to the nature of our bookings, we couldn't just pass our bags through the transit area and continue on. Instead, we would have to exit the international terminal, proceed to the domestic terminal and check in from scratch.

No disabled access was available between the terminals, my wheelchair aide could not take me there, and the intraterminal shuttle had been discontinued. This is kind of a problem. Lisa Costello and [info]the_child took the luggage on trolleys and walked the ten or fifteen minutes. I waited for the city bus, which eventually came, then dropped me at the other terminal.

Domestic check-in was a nightmare.

Air New Zealand operates on a very low-service model, even more stripped down than US airlines. This again means if exception handling is required, too bad for the passenger. We were nothing but one giant exception.

First of all, the check in machines would have nothing to do with us. I'm not sure if this was the recency of the booking or our US passports or what. There was only one person at the service counter, and a line of about twenty young women — a volleyball team, I think — was waiting there. At that point, we had less then an hour to make our flight. The women were very nice to let us cut in front of them.

Our local tickets were not much of a problem, though my "Jr" seemed to give them more issues, but our luggage was. When we'd originally booked and packed, we had an international ticket all the way through to Christchurch. The international weight limit is 23 kg per bag. That's what we packed for. The New Zealand domestic weight limit is 20 kg per bag. Absolutely no exceptions. No option to pay overweight fees. Because this was a separate booking, due to the earlier in-flight issues, we were stuck with the 20 kg limit. This involved some significant and urgent repacking. The reasons we'd arrived with a 23 kg bag were happily irrelevant to the Air New Zealand counter rep.

Then either we were given the wrong instructions for delivering the baggage to the carousel, or we misunderstood them. We dragged our bags over to the bag checker, but were not in proper form with the tags. They were rather brisk with us, then ostentatiously began a long personal conversation with another employee while we were trying to ask for help in getting things right. Eventually we go sorted despite the passive-aggressive rudeness of the Air New Zealand baggage handler, and trundled off to our flight.

Again, the in-flight experience and cabin service were fine. Arrival at Christchurch was fine. But the whole trip experience…?

Most expensive tickets I've ever bought. $1,200 extra in costs along the way. Abominable customer service from Air New Zealand and poor customer service from United Airlines. Terrible airport systems designs that are profoundly punitive to anyone with an issue that doesn't fall neatly inside the anticipated workflow. Eight hours late with an accidental trip to Australia.

All in all, the worst flight experience I've had in many, many years. Neither United Airlines nor Air New Zealand is responsible for the San Francisco flight delays, but all the issues and expense that flowed out of that problem could have been handled much, much more gracefully than they were.

I will never, ever fly Air New Zealand again, and strongly urge that anyone considering a trip on that airline reconsider any other possible option.

Post A Comment | 11 Comments | | Link

User: martianmooncrab
Date: 2013-09-19 18:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have a deep and abiding hatred for United Airlines, going back all the way to June 28th 1976 when they wouldnt let me on the last flight out of Honolulu. Their excuse? My luggage wouldnt go on the same flight, I told them what they could do with my suitcase, since I was flying home to Portland because my Grandfather had a stroke and was DYING any minute now. I got out at 6am the next day, and my Grandpa died on the 1st of July.

I would fly a cropduster out of Bumfuck before I would board a UA flight.
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Submarine Bells: backlit
User: submarine_bells
Date: 2013-09-19 20:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That sounds deeply sucktastic, a Perfect Storm of Airtravel Horrible. Ugh.

FWIW, I've flown AirNZ on many occasions and really liked them. To be fair, I've not really had to test their exception-handling skills a great deal, and perhaps I'd feel differently about them if I'd experienced that; but I did have it happen several years ago that I unexpectedly injured my knee while in NZ, and when I got to the airport in Auckland to fly home to Australia, I was in a great deal of pain, tired and confused. The AirNZ staff took me under their wings when I was just about melting down from stress, pain and not-coping. They made sure I got on the plane, and arranged a row-of-3-seats for me so that I could stretch my injured leg out and elavate it during the flight home. Once the flight launched I dosed myself up on painkillers and slept for a little while; when I awoke, I was charmed to discover that the flight attendents had saved a meal for me (it had been served while I was sleeping) and they offered it to me when they saw I'd woken up. They were very kind and helpful, and I'll always have warm memories of what was almost a missed flight home due to pain and fatigue.
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User: fledgist
Date: 2013-09-19 20:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh, wow. I've had hellish flights, but that one was truly awful. I won't fly Delta (the airline from Racism Central) ever again, but you definitely got the short end of the stick.

On the opposite end of the scale, if you really want to be taken care of, the best experience I've had, flying economy, has been this past summer, flying to and from Frankfurt on Lufthansa (which included getting my meals before everyone else because the vegetarian meals were served separately).

Edited at 2013-09-19 08:42 pm (UTC)
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Soon Lee: Saccharomyces
User: soon_lee
Date: 2013-09-19 23:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Whereas a friend had a rather bad experience flying Lufthansa, swore off them for years before eventually giving them another go. It was another bad experience: Lufthansa is now & forevermore on their no-fly list.

There is no satisfying all of the people all of the time but the way an airline responds when things go wrong (especially in a non-standard manner) is a good litmus test of their customer service. In general, Air New Zealand has a good reputation in this regard, but unfortunately for Jay, Air New Zealand were omnishambolic.
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User: lindadee
Date: 2013-09-19 21:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I flew Qantas to Australia for the Worldcon in 1999. It included a side trip to New Zealand. There must be some sort of rivalry between NZ and Oz however, because they were very concerned about soil contamination when we got to Oz (and boy, does it sound strange to write that). The weight limitation within Australia is also strictly adhered to, and many of us on the tour did a lot of repacking to lighten loads.
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User: msconduct
Date: 2013-09-20 05:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Cerainly both NZ and Australia are very, very hot on biosecurity. We have to be, considering our agricultural industries. A lot of overseas visitors arriving seem to think we can't possibly mean it, despite the extremely clear signage and warnings as you come through Customs. We do.

Weight limits are similarly a surprise to visitors more used to laxer interpretations overseas. The particular whammy when flying with Air NZ is that although most airlines claim to have a weight limit on hand baggage but never enforce it, Air NZ enforces it vigorously. Since I know a professional musician who lost his career when a heavy bag fell out of the overhead locker onto his hand, I have no objection to this.
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User: msconduct
Date: 2013-09-20 05:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Huh. Nasty. That must have been an extremely unpleasant experience. However, I’m surprised, given that you’re advising people never to fly Air NZ, that you think it would have gone better with any other airline. The United Airlines clusterfuck that followed a storm in Chicago, for example, resulting in me being literally trapped (as in guarded by men with guns. Guns!) in a tiny departure lounge at Winnipeg for sixteen hours without any idea of what was happening, followed by an unexpected and expensive overnight rerouting via Denver, followed by a connection so tight we were actually sprinting through the airport, seems rather similar and about what I expect from modern air travel. In the quest to keep prices low, service is at rock bottom everywhere and exception handling seems uniformly abysmal.

Similarly, while it’s deeply annoying that the Air NZ app kept freezing on your iPhone, I’m amazed you were able to book domestic travel from outside NZ at all. I can book domestic travel in the US with only a very few airlines, as most demand a US credit card. The thing about the domestic price being twice as much booking within NZ is also something that happens the other way round, as I know, for example, that I can travel from Seattle to Fairbanks at half the price it costs domestic US flyers.

As for the price to fly Air NZ, I’m sure it seems expensive to non-Kiwis. But it’s an expensive leg to fly given the distances involved and one that, despite the price, it’s actually hard to make a profit on, hence the pulling out from the LA-NZ leg of airline after airline over the years. Comparatively, I regard it as a bargain given that it hasn’t gone up a great deal in the 30 years I’ve been travelling. But as Kiwis we have a different mindset when it comes to the price of travel. We know we’re a long way from anywhere and we’re used to taking the consequent hit.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-09-20 16:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
First of all, note that I really like ANZ's in flight experience. But as horrible as airline customer service is in general ANZ is literally the first airline I've ever flown that had absolutely no one available who could solve problems. There was absolutely no one in the Sydney airport available to either me or to the contract counter agent to help. That is an utter nadir of customer service, and an excellent reason to never fly them again.

My complaint is specifically about their completely inability to manage exceptions to the expected traveller workflow.
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User: msconduct
Date: 2013-09-20 23:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, I definitely agree that that's dreadful - bizarre, even. Unfortunately, however, I've been in several similar situations where the upshot - absolutely no available help - was the same despite access to staff. In my forced sojourn in the Winnipeg departure lounge, for example, there was someone on the desk, but she refused to engage with anyone who approached, sending them back to their seats. (I was sitting close and heard every encounter.) There might as well have been no one there at all. Similarly, when I was ticketed through from Auckland to San Francisco (flying Air NZ to LA, then United to SF), United arbitrarily changed the flight and I could find no one in the entirety of LAX who could tell me how to correctly direct my luggage. I had to drop it in the transit area and cross my fingers. As expected, it arrived in SF the day after me. This seems to be the state of modern air travel.

Other things that happened to you, though, are not only bad but puzzling. I was surprised, for example, that you weren't offered the option of paying excess baggage fees on domestic baggage, because that didn't sound like Air NZ's normal policy. Sure enough, the official policy is that you will be asked to repack bags over 23 (not 20 kg) and they state the excess bag charge ($60 for a bag over 23 kg). So the ground agent did an appalling job.

I'm also deeply disappointed that you were not helped to the domestic terminal, because Air NZ normally is terrific with passengers who need assistance. My partially sighted business partner loves them because not only are they helpful, they don't treat her like a child.

I see you've heard from other people who've been treated better by Air NZ when it comes to exception handling, and that's my experience too. Although I'm resigned to bad service in this area from other airlines, to be honest I expected more from Air NZ. I'm really disappointed you had such a perfect storm of bad service. Is it worth the spoons/time to you to tweet them with a link to your blog post? They should know what their ground staff (and lack of ground staff) are doing in their name.
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Zoe Sotet
User: Zoe Sotet
Date: 2013-09-21 22:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
An accidental trip to Australia...
That's mind boggling...

However for domestic travel we don't exactly have many other options.

Edited at 2013-09-21 10:16 pm (UTC)
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User: cissa
Date: 2013-09-30 03:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, this certainly removes an7y temptation I may have to ever go to NZ! Thanks, I guess.

More seriously- when they punish people for wanting to visit their country, they WILL lose tourism. Fact. I really wonder why Hawaii is so blase about punitive airline policies and practices, because they are very dependent on tourism and the government and airlines are making it SO unattractive to fly anywhere if one can avoid it.
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