They say the world looks down on the bureaucrats… My letter of complaint to QANTAS: You cancelled my ticket, then made me sort it out.

After a harrowing experience trying to get on my flight, here’s my complaint letter to QANTAS’ customer care.

I guess there are two parts to my complaint.  First, QANTAS staff have informed me that you have a weirdly Kafkaesque policy which causes the automatic cancellation of a booking if the first flight of a sequence is missed.  In my case, this meant that my rescheduled flight was cancelled and I only found out about it on the day I was supposed to fly out.

The second part of my complaint is really the reason why I’m complaining: there were several points during my infuriating experience with my booking where QANTAS could have intervened to assist me.  That QANTAS missed every opportunity to help me before it was too late is what has upset me and I feel QANTAS acted unreasonably.

In late November, I booked a return flight from Canberra to Melbourne to attend a family function in early December.  There were two flights: one on the Saturday morning and one on the Sunday afternoon.  For whatever reason, I missed the Saturday morning flight.  Knowing that I had to fly again in January, I went to the ‘Manage my flight’ section of the QANTAS website to reschedule the Sunday flight.  I found that I could only reschedule for a Melbourne-Canberra flight (which I thought was weird at the time and, in hindsight, should have made me realise something was wrong).  I went through all the online steps.  I was expecting to receive an e-mail confirming the change.  When one didn’t appear, I worried that I’d done something wrong and logged back in to the ‘Manage my flight’ section.  The January date I wanted was still listed, so I figured that everything was okay.

In January, I booked a Canberra-Melbourne flight, effectively giving me a return trip: Friday night out; Sunday afternoon return.

On Friday morning, I received the e-mail asking me to confirm my flights.  I found that I could get into the ‘Manage My Booking’ for the Canberra-Melbourne flight, but I couldn’t use the existing booking reference to get into my rescheduled Melbourne-Canberra flight.  Instead, I received an error message telling me to ‘contact [you]’.

The error messages on your website do not give any clues about how to contact you.  Instead, I had to bury through the website to find details.  Should I call reservations?  Should I call one of the other numbers?  Should I try the webform even though it says it will be answered in a few days, and I was expecting to fly out that evening, not knowing if I could get back?  When I received the error message, QANTAS was basically telling me to broker a solution by myself.  Instead of being given the details on how to resolve my problem with the error message, I had to work it all out for myself even though I had none of the tools I needed.

This attitude is a recurring theme throughout this complaint, and is basically the reason why I’m complaining.  If it were just that my flight got cancelled, I’d have stoically paid for another flight, grumbled a bit, and you’d never have heard from me.  Instead, I repeatedly came up against this attitude that customers have to sort out their own problems without assistance from QANTAS.

I found the reservations number and figured it was my best shot out of the available numbers.  I spent half an hour on hold before I gave up.  I tried again later in the day.  After being on hold for another half an hour, I send a Twitter message to @QANTASAirlines to ask why it was taking so long.  I then realised that @QANTASAirlines isn’t the correct Twitter account for problems.  I should have been messaging @QFcustomercare.  I sent a few messages stating that I was getting error messages on the site and that, by then, I had spent nearly an hour on hold.  @QFcustomercare didn’t attempt to work out what my problem was, or conduct any sort of triage on my problem.  Was I even calling the correct number out of all the ones listed on the website?  I had no idea how much longer I could expect to be on hold.  @QFcustomercare just told me to be patient and stay on hold.

After an hour, I gave up and tried again later in the day, only to stay on hold for another half hour.  At that stage, I figured it would be easier to go in earlier for my flight out and try to resolve the situation at the counter.  At least then I’d be sure of getting service.

Of the entire situation, the woman who was on the QANTAS ticket counter at Canberra airport was wonderful.  She was calm, courteous, and seemed to understand that I was frustrated at the experience.  Unfortunately, it seems that QANTAS has a different IT system at airports to that available to the 13-numbers.  When I needed a solution to the problem — and I still didn’t know what was going on with my booking — she had to tell me to call the 13-number in order to get assistance.  I explained that I’d spent upwards of 2 hours on hold by then, and she informed me that one of the call centres had been down, but she was unable to help.

So I had to stand at the airport and call the company whose front desk was barely a few hundred metres away.  It’s like ordering a pizza for pickup, going into the shop to pick it up, and then being asked to call head office when they don’t have the pizza ready and don’t know how long it will be.  Again, the customer was expected to work out the solution for themselves; there was no way for me to go to one part of the organisation and have it escalated over to the correct part of the organisation for attention.

To be honest, if the woman on the desk had said ‘Look, there’s nothing I can do, but I can take the details and forward them to the correct people.  In the meantime, you’ll need to buy another ticket for the Sunday, but if we find that there was a problem that was our fault, we’ll refund you the money’ I would have been fine.  I would have been annoyed, but at least I would have known that QANTAS was dealing with the problem.  I would have at least known that I could get back from Melbourne in time for work.  Instead, I had to go back on hold; again, I had to work out a solution for myself.

I was on hold for another twenty minutes on my mobile.  When the call was finally answered, I was elated at first — then I discovered that I’d been delivered to the most obstructionist person possible.  She told me that I was incorrect: I had never tried to reschedule my flight and that there was nothing she could do.  I confused the terms ‘flexi-saver’ and ‘fully flexible’ (I only remembered the ‘flexi-‘ part), which seemed to annoy her.  When I tried to work out why the website would indicate that I’d changed the details, she became flustered at me.  Somewhat bafflingly, she changed the subject to say something about paying $40 and the difference between the missed flight and another ticket for the weekend, but when I tried to return to the question of why the website would show the details, she hung up on me.

I don’t think that I was discourteous (but I’m probably the worst person to judge given the situation).  I admit to being flustered, but I didn’t swear or personalise the issue.  I think I even said at several points that I realised the issue wasn’t the fault or problem of the person on the phone, but I was baffled by the situation.  When she hung up the phone, I was disgusted by the treatment and I wasn’t going to spend another indefinite period of time on hold.  Worse, it felt like, even if I could get back through the limbo of being on hold, there was nothing that the call centre could do for me.  They’d just tell me that I’d never tried to reschedule my flight and that, as far as they were concerned, was that.

So I went back to the tickets desk.  When I said that the reservations help desk had hung up on me, she seemed shocked.  She found the number of somebody who could help and discussed the issue with them.  It was then that I learnt of the automatic cancellation of my second flight when I missed the first.  Apparently, the second flight was cancelled four hours after I missed the first and the only way to stop it is to call QANTAS.  I thought it was really weird that I wasn’t notified by an automatically-generated e-mail that my booking had been cancelled outright: after all, if I’d received that e-mail, I could have sorted this situation out months ago, rather than right before I was about to board a flight.

She then told me that the only people who could help me with the problem was @QFcustomercare.  I laughed when she wrote it down on the post-it note (and uploaded a photo to Twitter); the people who had been fobbing me off all day were the only people who could resolve the issue, and they wouldn’t be back in the office until the day after my flight.

The woman on the tickets desk was wonderful and she helped me to find an available flight, which cost me an extra $350.  I said at the time that I’d be lodging a complaint, and she seemed to think that was the best idea.  Once again, I was forced to escalate the problem myself.

I’m annoyed that my booking was cancelled, but I’m more frustrated by the way my problem was handled.  There were plenty of opportunities for QANTAS to take ownership of the problem and resolve it for me.  When the website returned an error, I should be able to leave my contact details, a short description of my problem, and have somebody e-mail me or telephone me to let me know that my booking no longer existed.  At the very least, immediately after the words ‘contact us’ should be the telephone number on which you’d like me to contact you.  When I was on hold, there was the opportunity to let me know what the estimated hold time was (or at least inform me that one of the call centres was down causing the delay, and when it was expected to come back on-line).  When I sent a Twitter message to @QFcustomercare (who ended up being the correct people to contact), they could have taken slightly more interest in making sure I was on a pathway to getting my problem resolved.  Even some basic triage would have helped here.  When I approached the tickets desk, they should have been able to escalate the problem for me, rather than asking me to escalate it through another channel.  When I spoke to the call centre, they also could have escalated the problem for me to work out why my situation occurred.

Regardless of how this gets sorted out, I’m likely to fly QANTAS again.  When nothing goes wrong, I much prefer to fly QANTAS than the other airlines and even despite the recent press.  It’s just that when something does go wrong (such as in this situation, which — to be honest — is rare; I’ve only had a few problems over the past few years), it feels like QANTAS isn’t interested in helping customers to solve the problem.  I feel like QANTAS is unreasonable in its ‘hands-off’ approach to problem resolution and, given that the company’s business is helping people get through the most stressful aspect of travel, I feel my expectations weren’t met.  You have my money, you have the planes, you have the computer systems, but you made me — the person with utterly no power in the situation — try to work out how to solve the issue.

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