Once glamorous, air travel has dive-bombed into a sea of stress

Taking a flight was once an exciting adventure – now it’s a nerve-jangling raffle, writes Ali Clarke.

Sep 28, 2023, updated Sep 28, 2023
Photo: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Photo: Mick Tsikas/AAP

When’s the last time you flew?

And by that, I should probably rule out the hot air balloons and hang-gliders of the world, and narrow it down to flying on a good old, commercial flight.

With school holidays, the long weekend and the AFL Grand Final upon us, some of you might be preparing for a trip to the airport now. If so, just take a moment and clock how you’re actually feeling.

Is it excitement and anticipation, you’re feeling, or, as I suspect for more and more of us these days, is it apprehension, doubt and trepidation?

So when exactly did one of the great (and expensive) freedoms suddenly become a good old fashioned pain in the arse?

I can remember being lucky enough to fly occasionally with my family to far flung and exotic places like New South Wales way back in the heady days of TAA and Ansett.

I even joined my mum and step-dad on their honeymoon to Fiji (weren’t they lucky) and vividly remember being in a plane big enough for the entire Fijian marching band to be sitting together down the back and somewhere over the Pacific pull out their instruments and play us a set.

To be fair, I also seem to remember some of them smoking.

Maybe it’s the effect of nostalgia or me being younger and therefore less aware of the stress involved, but for such a long time, flying was something of privilege filled with glamour, surrounded by fellow travellers who made Don Draper’s dress sense look drab.

Now it seems like it’s a bogan game of Russian roulette involving unruly passengers, lost baggage, horrendous customer service and cancelled flights.

… there’s a fair bit of work to go on the ground, or in the air if you will, for those of us that fly to regain that trust, not just in Qantas but the entire aviation sector.

I’ve watched with interest as the chickens started coming home to roost for Qantas, landing heavier on the shoulders of Alan Joyce and co, than any of their A380s ever touched down.

It seems harder and harder to remember the good old days today, with shareholders calling for the head of chairman Richard Goyder thanks to employment illegalities, the ACCC’s legal action over ticket sales to flights long cancelled and the former CEO ‘taking off’ with millions in his pockets.

And whilst, the bigger picture might see his departure amid a push for a change of culture, there’s a fair bit of work to go on the ground, or in the air if you will, for those of us that fly to regain that trust, not just in Qantas but the entire aviation sector.

I can only imagine the complexities that exist in running an airline, and to do that in and out of a pandemic must have been akin to stop a seven year-old kicking the seat in front of him,  but just as we’ve all moved on from the days of lock downs, swabbing and social distancing, we’re expecting our airlines to do so as well.

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Especially since it feels like we’re being asked to pay a lot more for the privilege.

And here’s where they are in the perfect storm.

We’ve actually done everything you’ve asked of us.

Sure, we grumbled when you insisted on charging us to pick our seats, you took away the free freezing cold sandwiches and changed our cabin baggage allowance to 7kg (seriously, can anyone remotely normal-size stick to that limit for a weekend away?).

But with that, we should be able to expect flights leaving on time, actually getting to where we want to go and having our bags arrive with us.

The other day coming back on a Virgin flight from visiting family in Brisbane, I received the dreaded late-night text saying my flight had been cancelled with the only direct replacement at 6:05am.

All other options given had me going through either Sydney or Melbourne and would have meant our three kids were left home alone.

That wasn’t an option, so I did my own research, found another direct flight they didn’t think to tell me about it, called in, and asked (politely but firmly with promises of sending them the babysitting bill for the kids if I couldn’t get home) to be on that flight.

I got on and was the lucky one, despite the stress and endless phone calls and hold music ruining my last family dinner. To some that might seem trifling, but considering connecting with my family was the whole reason I had bought a ticket in the first place, it left a taste worst than any airline food.

And that’s one of the biggest problems these corporations are facing at the moment.

When you’re in a vacuum of information, when you feel like you’re not being given all the options, when you feel like flights are cancelled or delayed because they are saving money or haven’t sufficiently resourced their staff and operations, you start getting pretty grumpy and wishing all sorts of brand damage on the offenders.

When you then find out about their billions in profits showing they’ve bounced back post pandemic, but we’re still being asked to tighten our safety-belts, any sympathy and loyalty is gone.

It’s like when the bad guys recalibrated ground level minus 200 feet in Die Hard 2 – the airlines have shifted our horizons, but for a lot of us it’s meant the joy of air travel has crashed into a million pieces of stress, doubt and insurance.

We’ll get the result of the ongoing Senate committee inquiry sometime before October 9 so until then, this is your captain Ali Clarke speaking and saying let’s all stow our expectations in the overhead compartment and hold on as we come in to land.

Ali Clarke presents the breakfast show on Mix 102.3. She is a regular columnist for InDaily.

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