Pacific Blues: Virgin on the Ridiculous in BaliJanuary 24, 2010
There is a travellers’ glitch that happens so often in Bali that it is almost an industry cliche. Departing flights to Australia often leave just after midnight, so passengers need to be at the airport the day before the day and date shown on their itinerary. Inevitably, after falling victim to the dreaded Bali Relaxation Syndrome after a week or two, some flyers pay scant attention to their outgoing travel documents. Towards the end of a holiday here, one’s need to know what day it is becomes completely irrelevant. Yet for most, the shred of planning ability that still remains impels them to quickly skim their itinerary a few days before leaving. And often they will see something like: Departing Saturday 23 January, 12:05 am. Naturally, in their terminally bewildered state, some arrive at the airport at 10pm on Saturday 23rd, only to discover that their plane left 22 hours ago. Without them.
So it transpires that my friend (let’s call her “M”, because everyone else does) is packing to leave Bali on a Saturday morning. That’s when she finds out, to her great chagrin, that her Pacific Blue flight had departed at midnight the previous night. And of course, she wasn’t on it. She tries to contact the airline – but by some strange oversight, no contact details seem to have been provided on her now defunct itinerary.
Luckily there is a helpful concierge at her hotel, who calls the Bali branch of Pacific Blue, where a sympathetic girl says: “Oh! You poor thing! Come in to our office now and we will fix this”. M doesn’t know it yet, but that was actually the peak moment in the customer service experience. She catches a taxi to the distant airline office at a cost of 40,000 Rupiah, but on arrival, is met with studied indifference by a different ‘customer service’ representative. He acts as if it is a huge imposition for him to be expected to work on a Saturday and dismisses her request for assistance.
CSR: “Sorry, can not help you.”
M: “But you just told me on the phone to come in and you would fix this!”
CSR: “The girl who told you that has gone home.”
M: “Well, can you help me then?”
CSR: “No. This is not our problem.You missed your flight.”
M: “I know that, but what can I do now?
CSR: (Shrugging) “Go back to your hotel. Book a flight on the internet.”
M: “Oh. I don’t have a laptop. Can I book a flight here?”
CSR: “No. Go home. Book on the internet.”
During the 40,000 Rupiah trip back, close to tears, M ponders the logical inconsistencies of staffing a local airline office with customer service representatives who can not fix a problem, provide no useful advice and seem incapable of carrying out a simple ticketing exercise. But mostly she thinks about why they don’t even seem to care.
In the meantime, I locate the airline’s Australian-based customer service number and pass it on. M rings them. No, there is nothing they can do. They politely point out that it is through no fault of theirs that the flight was missed. Fair enough, that’s true. They suggest calling the travel insurance people, who not unreasonably argue that this was a self-inflicted wound and therefore not covered. The helpful helpline suggests rebooking on the internet.
While this is happening, I find a flight for $595 AUD on the internet and phone the details to M, who proceeds to an internet cafe to make her booking. With uncanny timing, internet access immediately goes down across most of South Bali. Wonderful. So for M, it’s back to the Australian helpline to explain the situation. Yes of course they can book her on the flight. That will be $610 USD thanks. An unsavoury aroma of opportunism wafts from the phone, but what can she do? And no doubt there is a perfectly good managerial explanation as to why an Australian company would make an Australian travelling to Australia pay in US dollars, but the reasoning eludes her. She is less than happy.
OK, missing a flight because one misreads the date and time is a little careless, and no-one really expects a free flight. One takes responsibility and gets on with life. An ’empty’, fully paid seat has unfortunately been flown from Bali to Australia, and another one now needs to be bought. But it’s the manner in which the new seat was provided – or rather, not provided – that grates. Customer service, even on a low-cost carrier should not be an optional extra like an in-flight meal. There is an expectation that mistakes, even those made by customers, will be addressed courteously and sympathetically. In this case, there was no attempt to solve the customer’s problem; in fact the problem was actually exacerbated by the ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude of ground staff. A subliminal condemnation process seemed to be in operation – a punishment of sorts meted out to ‘no-shows’, as if they had deliberately set out to offend the airline.
I remember the old days when this airline was noted for its easy good humour and great customer relations. What happened?
The afternoon flight home added insult to injury. M, a vegetarian, asked for an egg and lettuce sandwich, only to be told: “Sorry, they are a bit stale”. She then asked for vegetarian pasta, to be told, “Sorry, none left”. She ended up with cheese and crackers and red wine. Whoopee do. A less than memorable experience.
HAPPY POSTSCRIPT [14 FEB 2010]
I just heard from M. She sent an email to the Customer Service Department, which I suspect was more for personal catharsis than a belief in the possibility of a remedy. But a small miracle has happened. The airline not only responded with, according to her, “a really nice reply”, but gave her a credit for the full cost of her flight home. Nice one, Pacific Blue – that is an excellent outcome for the customer, and a Gold Star for your Customer Relations people.