Qantas announced last year that it would close airport service desks and sales counters as part of a cost-cutting drive.
Many Australian frequent flyers were concerned that this would lead to disastrous consequences during disruptions or when urgent assistance is needed. Rather than having airport staff on hand to help, customers would be forced to deal with a call centre which is grossly understaffed and not always able to help.
“Ouch, so if you have no status with QF, what you suppose to do if there’s a flight disruption? It take hours for people with no status to get through to the call centre,” one AFF member wrote at the time.
“What are people supposed to do now… wait on a phone line for hours instead. Even with a dedicated urgent phone line, I can still see problems occurring including people missing crucial flights,” another member said.
Qantas dismissed these concerns at the time, telling staff they “will have a team available at the airport to support time sensitive flight management and exceptions”, and that the call centre would be able to handle urgent enquiries.
But that was not my experience last week when I tried to buy a last-minute ticket out of Perth. In fact, it was a total disaster.
My futile attempts to book a Qantas ticket
Last week, on Monday night, I had recently arrived in Perth and was planning to travel onwards to regional WA. But my plans were thwarted when the WA government announced a snap lockdown beginning at midnight with around three hours’ notice. I was no longer able to continue my trip as planned, so decided to simply return to Perth Airport and take a redeye flight that night back to my home on the east coast.
At least, that was the plan… but booking a Qantas ticket proved impossible. (Unfortunately, Virgin Australia & Jetstar had no flights out of Perth that evening.)
With just under 3 hours until the 11.50pm Qantas flight to Melbourne was due to depart, I jumped onto the Qantas website and tried to book a Classic Flight Reward ticket. The Qantas website showed that seats were available, but I kept getting an error message when trying to book.
I gave up and instead tried to book a paid Red e-Deal ticket online. Again, I received repeated error messages and never made it to the payment page. I tried everything but simply could not make a booking on the Qantas website, so travelled to the airport in the hope I’d be able to buy a ticket there instead.
The scene at the airport was utter chaos when I arrived with around an hour until departure. There were only three Qantas staff in the check-in area. Two were on hold trying to get through to the call centre in order to help other customers. Several other passengers were also on hold, trying unsuccessfully to get through to the call centre to sort out their own bookings.
I approached the other staff member, who was helping customers with the self-service check-in kiosks. This staff member informed me that nobody at the airport was trained in ticketing. There was no sales desk and nobody at the airport was able to sell me a ticket.
The staff member instead gave me the phone number of the Qantas ticketing desk. I’m sure they would have helped further if they could, but that was the extent of the assistance they were able to provide.
I called the ticketing desk and waited, waited and waited some more on hold. I was still on hold when the flight closed and I ended up watching the flight depart without me. There were plenty of empty seats.
Ultimately, I had to leave the airport and find a place to stay in Perth just as the city was about to enter lockdown. I wasn’t the only person at the airport who couldn’t make it onto a flight that night.
Meanwhile, I had also contacted my travel agent who was able to make a reservation but couldn’t get it ticketed. He also tried calling Qantas, as a Platinum member, but it took 38 minutes for the call to be answered. By that time, the flight had closed.
Airport sales counters closed with no adequate alternative
I’m still not sure why I wasn’t able to book a ticket on the Qantas website. According to section 14.2.2 of the Qantas Frequent Flyer terms & conditions, “Classic Flight Rewards may be booked up to two hours before the scheduled departure for domestic flights” when booking on Qantas.com. Furthermore, the ticketing of revenue airfares should be possible until 30 minutes prior to departure. I started trying to book around 2.5 hours before departure.
By the time I contacted my travel agent, there was just under an hour until departure. According to the fare rules for a Qantas Red e-Deal ticket, that should have been fine as ticketing should be possible up to 30 minutes before departure in cases where a reservation is created less than 90 minutes before departure.
However, it seems Qantas has filed its red e-Deal fares incorrectly as ticketing was ultimately not possible within 60 minutes of departure. That’s likely why my travel agent was unable to ticket the booking 54 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
But, ultimately, this disaster could have been avoided if Qantas had not closed its airport sales desks without replacing them with an adequate alternative. Directing customers to the call centre is not helpful when it is not staffed appropriately and nobody answers the phone. I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to still be waiting on hold when check-in closed.
What does Qantas have to say about this?
A Qantas spokesperson told me that the website and call centre were experiencing very high demand that evening due to multiple state governments announcing border restrictions around the same time. The airline acknowledged that some people were unable to book tickets due to the large number of people trying to book within a short space of time.
“Last week was far from business as usual, with a large number of state borders closing on short notice,” the Qantas spokesperson said.
“Unfortunately this put huge pressure on our contact centres, website and airports teams as thousands of customers tried to change their travel plans quickly.”
Qantas says it has made a number of technology improvements since the start of the pandemic to make it easier for customers to manage their own travel. The airline has also recently made some changes in an attempt to fix the call centre, and says that more staff are currently being trained.
That’s well and good, but selling tickets is a basic function of any airline. I find it staggering that it was impossible to buy a ticket online, at the airport and over the phone.
Inevitably, more customers will be caught out in the future when needing to book or change their travel plans urgently – potentially leading to disastrous consequences for some.
Sorry, Qantas – this was an epic fail.
You can join the discussion about Qantas’ decision to close airport sales desks & service counters on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum: Qantas to shut airport service desks, force customers onto self-service