The Downside Of Flying No-Frills – No Plane! (Part 2)December 30, 2011
Well, there wasn’t going to be a Part 2. I mean, the Pythonesque debacle that was Jetstar’s JQ36 Bali to Melbourne flight scheduled for Thursday 22 December surely could not happen again? Unfortunately, yes – it could, and did.
My return flight to Bali on JQ35 was scheduled for 6.45pm on 29 December. I should have realised that I was again about to be trapped in the Low Cost Carrier vortex when I tried to increase my checked luggage allowance. I had already paid $40 to raise the ludicrously low limit to 25 kg, but knowing I had overdone things in the purchasing department during the break, I wanted to go to 30kg. That will be $40, thanks, says the website. Ye Gods! Charging $8 per extra kilo is obviously not a disincentive for overloading the plane, because an extra 10 kilos costs the same.
So there I am at the airport, waiting for the check-in counters to open at 3.45pm – and the place is looking deserted. I go to the airline information desk. “When does check-in open for JQ35?” I ask, already sensing the answer will not be to my liking. “Never!” says the delightfully good-natured lady. Airline humour. “You know the flight has been delayed?” she goes on without missing a beat. My heart sinks. “It’s now scheduled for 10pm,” she says. My heart plummets into my shoes. “We did notify everyone,” she continues sternly.
“Well, I didn’t get an email,” I say just as sternly. She laughs. Not the effect I was looking for. “Of course not. We never send emails! We send everyone an SMS.” I groan. “I didn’t get an SMS either.” She is unperturbed. “Of course not. You have a foreign mobile number. We only send SMSs to Australian numbers for flights from Australia.” Being an argumentative type, I point out that when my previous week’s flight from Bali was cancelled, then delayed by six and a half hours the following day, I received no SMSs either. I also point out that I actually did get an email just before my cancelled flight, which supposedly confirmed my booking. “Oh that!” she said. “That’s a completely different system.” Right, that explains it. Who handles your IT systems, Jetstar? It may be time for a change.
“Anyway,” she went on, “we’re still going to open the check-in counters at 3.45pm so at least you don’t have to lug your bags around. I am obsequiously grateful, in the hope that I will get an upgrade, preferably to the cockpit. She then goes on to say that as compensation for the inconvenience, we would all be given a voucher for food and drinks to help pass the additional three hours and fifteen minutes. “The staff at Departure Gate 3 will arrange all that.” I increase my level of obsequious gratitude, and mooch off to wait for 3.45pm.
At 4pm, staff start drifting in to man the check-in desks. There is no hurry obviously – the damn plane isn’t leaving for another six hours. Check-in is smooth, except the scales fluctuate erratically between 29.1 and 31.9 kg as my bag is weighed. The check-in woman is perplexed, and I foolishly try to reassure her. “Oh, that’s just my dog in there. He’s restless because of the delay.” I come perilously close to being bumped from the flight, and decide that airline humour is best left to airline staff.
The specified Gate 3 is handling passengers for New Zealand. However, Gate 5 displays the information that JQ 35 is scheduled for departure at 6.45pm. I stick around just in case the departure board is right and the staff are wrong. At 6.35pm, the board at the unmanned Gate 5 starts urgently flashing “Final Call”. A number of us start looking around for an invisible plane. It’s Jetstar, anything is possible. Ten minutes later, the board goes completely blank. There is not a staff member to be seen, and not a single announcement about the status of our flight. Needless to say, there is no sign of the promised food and drink vouchers either.
By 9.45pm, there is still no plane at the gate, and the assembled passengers are getting restless. Then, several of them suddenly gather their belongings and disappear. Then a few more scurry off, until there is just me and one other puzzled unfortunate left. Apparently those lucky enough to have an Australian mobile number are getting text messages telling them to go to a different gate. The under-classes are kept in the dark. Once we have assembled at Gate 14A, we continue to hurry up and wait. There is no announcement, but the departures board sneakily changes over to a new time of 11pm. We finally push back from the gate at 11.30pm. Those of us without a Jetstar-approved phone number have now been waiting at the airport for seven hours and forty five minutes. Did I mention there were no food and drink vouchers?
Except for a nasty little thunderstorm, the flight is uneventful. Bali Airport is basically deserted and the formalities take no time at all, at least for those of us with a KITAS. The customs guys are even more torpid than usual, barely managing to lift a hand to wave us through without inspecting anything. I could have brought in three bottles of Scotch. Grrr. The one on the X-ray machine is far more interested in his iPhone than anything on his work screen. Who can blame him?
Outside, the taxi booth is closed, but there are plenty of airport taxi drivers quoting outrageous prices to weary and baffled new arrivals. I listen to some of the ridiculous quotes. “Batu Belig? You go to Batu Belig? Ooh, very far. 500,000 Rp.” And “I take you to Tuban. Only 250,000 Rp. One quotes me 150,000 Rp to take me to my villa – a 60,000 fare. I snort in disdain and try to haggle, but he stands firm: “Very late. Cost more.” Yeah, I can see that. I wander off, thinking that I’ll walk to the exit gate and catch a Bluebird. Then I realise that the crazy changes to the airport mean that the gate is now about two kilometres away, it’s 2.30am, my bags are very heavy and I’m bone tired.
But before I can turn back, the cabbie senses that he is about to lose a fare altogether and chases me with an offer of 100,000 Rp. I know I’m getting skinned alive, but I agree anyway. He must feel guilty because he grabs my suitcase, not realising how heavy it is, and wheels it off towards the car park. I have a momentary flash of unashamed joy as he loses control of my 32 kg bag as he tries to get it down a steep ramp, and short-steps desperately across a road before ending up in the bushes. But he thinks that this is uproariously funny, thereby cheating me out of any petty satisfaction.
As we drive home, I reflect on the perils of travelling Jetstar, and Low Cost Carriers in general. I wonder why airlines believe that no-frills means no communication. I wonder why customers are treated not as people, but as numbers – mere entries on someone’s balance sheet. Sitting in this extortionately-priced taxi, I wonder why my life has dished out two horrific Jetstar flights in a row. I like to think that this is a normal response after enduring a seven hour delay and a six hour flight.
Then I suddenly see the driver’s ID and number on the dashboard, and it is a veritable epiphany. His number is 42 – Douglas Adams’ famous answer to the question: “What is the meaning of Life?” And it all becomes clear. Delays, cancellations, disappointments, rage, uncommunicative corporations – and the way we handle all this shit – that is the meaning of life. It may be just because I am delirious with fatigue, but it seems significant.
I thank you Jetstar for this opportunity to achieve a measure of Zen enlightenment. But I will never fly with you again.