I'm writing this blog for two reasons. Firstly, because I'm sick and tired of lousy customer service from large corporate organizations (particularly major airlines) - and secondly, I need to get things off my chest. Writing angry blogs is therapeutic you might say.
I've flown with Emirates many times over the past decade or so. For my annual trip back to England (to see the family) Emirates has always been my go-to airline. I'm not what you would call a frequent flyer but I'd like to think I at least fall into the category of ‘loyal customer'.
Let's do business class!
In April of this year, my wife and I decided to spend our two-week annual holiday in New Zealand. We'd been there before, loved it and were long overdue a return.
Not many airlines fly from Bangkok to Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island but while doing our internet research, we saw that not only did Emirates fly that particular route (as a partner with Qantas) but they were offering their business class for 95,000 baht a person. This seemed like an excellent deal and Emirates' business class got rave reviews on every travel website and forum we looked at.
To Hell with it! New Zealand was the trip of a lifetime. Let's splash the cash and do it in style we thought. After booking our flights, it's fair to say that we started looking forward to the plane journey even more than the holiday itself. Another reason we treated ourselves to business class was that we were celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary.
So far, so good
Fast forward to Bangkok Airport in early April and things couldn't have got off to a better start. We breezed past a long line of tetchy-looking economy class passengers and enjoyed a painless check-in. We ate our fill of a sumptuous buffet in a deserted Emirates business class lounge, and then once on the aircraft, we settled into our flat-bed seats for some serious shut-eye on the nine-hour flight to Sydney.
On the few occasions we were woken from our slumber, the staff fussed over us with delicious meals, ice creams and extra blankets. The service was exceptional. Nothing was too much trouble.
Our transit time at Sydney Airport was to be approximately three hours before the second leg of the journey - a three-hour flight on to Christchurch and hello New Zealand.
Then, about 90 minutes out of Sydney's Kingford-Smith Airport, it all started to go horribly pear-shaped.
I noticed on the in-flight system that our aircraft had started to veer south. Just at that moment, the captain came on and gave us all the bad news that there was heavy morning fog in Sydney and it would be impossible for us to land. So the plan became to divert the plane to Adelaide, re-fuel, spend about an hour on the ground and finally continue the journey to hopefully a fog-free Sydney.
Time to panic
I did some quick calculations in my head and worked out that we would miss our connecting flight to New Zealand by about 45 minutes. So near and yet so far! However, the flight crew assured us that we would be met on arrival by Emirates ground staff and we'd be well looked after. I didn't doubt it for a moment.
And true to their word, we'd barely taken a dozen steps off the plane and a jolly-looking chap in a crisp, white shirt addressed us by name, confirmed our final destination as Christchurch and told us of the latest developments. We were in luck - the good news was that there was one more flight to Christchurch that day and we'd already been rebooked on it. The bad news was that the flight didn't leave until late in the evening.
A generous cash voucher was handed to us to spend on food and drink (not sure why because our tickets included access to a business class lounge) and we were then encouraged to enjoy the delights of Sydney Airport for the next SEVEN hours. I began to wonder if I had time to nip out and take a stroll around Sydney Harbour. I've always wanted to see The Opera House - and this seemed one heck of an opportunity.
Alas, my wife had no Australian entry visa, so the whole idea was sadly a non-starter. Instead, we killed as much time as humanly possible in the dreadful, overcrowded Quantas business class lounge (where they clearly let almost anyone in it seems) and when we tired of that, we ambled around the numerous airport gift shops before deciding that there are only so many ‘I Love Sydney' boomerangs and toy kangaroos that one can stomach in a single afternoon.
It was also during this period of time that Qantas ground staff issued us with new boarding passes for the later Christchurch flight. Keep this part of the story in mind. We'll be revisiting it later.
Before we leave Sydney Airport (and a very fine airport it is too) can I just put the first black mark next to Emirates' name? Why on earth was the Emirates business class lounge closed for most of the afternoon? When it eventually opened for business, it was delightful. Far nicer than its Qantas equivalent, it was the perfect place for a couple of weary travelers to relax before a flight. What a shame we only had an hour to enjoy it and were forced to spend most of our time in the Qantas business lounge-cum-cattle market.
Rubbing shoulders with the stars
The plane journey to Christchurch (when it eventually came) was memorable for really only one thing - my wife and I sat across the aisle from one of the biggest names in the music business.
Just as the plane was about to taxi down the runway for take-off, a casually-dressed, bordering on scruffy individual boarded at the last possible moment. Even with a tatty blue hoodie providing him with a modicum of disguise, you could still recognise his distinctive, straggly ginger beard. He plonked himself in his seat, rested his well-worn Adidas sneakers up against the wall and fired up a tablet. Only a famous celebrity would act in such a manner.
He then spent the entire journey answering e-mails and watching gangsta rap videos. My wife didn't look at all impressed when I told her we were sitting six feet away from Ed Sheeran.
After another amazing fortnight in New Zealand (and I won't bore you with the details) we made our way to Christchurch Airport for the return flight home. Three hours to Sydney, a bearable three-hour transit in Australia - and then the long nine or ten hours on to Bangkok. But that matters not one jot when you have an Emirates flat-bed seat to look forward to.
Oh, if only it were that straightforward.
Stuck in New Zealand
Our problems began at the Emirates check-in desk inasmuch as the Emirates ground staff didn't have the first clue who we were. After a lengthy period of head-scratching, puzzled expressions and much tapping on computer keyboards, they were still no closer to finding out. We simply didn't exist. Certainly not on the Emirates computer and passenger list.
Eventually, the Emirates airport manager was summoned to assist us and explain the situation. The Qantas staff at Sydney Airport (on the outbound leg) had failed to enter our details correctly in the computer system and the fact we had been diverted to Adelaide due to fog and had caught a later connecting flight to New Zealand.
The reality of the situation was that we had been mistakenly flagged in the system as a ‘no show' and as a result, our return tickets had automatically been cancelled. We were now well and truly stuck in New Zealand.
The airport manager asked us to give her more time to analyze the situation and come up with a solution. "Why don't you go and have a coffee and let me handle things" she suggested.
"Why should we have to spend money on fucking expensive airport coffees when our ticket entitles us to the use of a business class lounge where the food and drinks are all free?" I snapped.
I was - to use a good old expression you don't hear much - starting to lose my rag. The airport manager sensed that I was getting close to the point where I might start taking hostages. Eventually, even I realized that a calming dose of caffeine might not be a bad idea.
Two extortionately-priced coffees later and we were back with the airport manager.
"We can book you in business class to Sydney no problem" she said "but unfortunately business class from there to Bangkok is fully booked. I realize this is a huge disappointment but I have three alternative options"
I couldn't wait to hear them.
Option number one - and you'll like this - was to downgrade from business class to economy for the nine-hour flight from Sydney to Bangkok. Downgrade. Have you ever heard of anyone downgrading a flight ticket? No, neither have I. And that's exactly what I told her.
Option number two was for Emirates to purchase a business class ticket (at their expense) on Thai International Airlines. The Thai flight left Sydney at about the same time as the Emirates one so inconvenience would at least be minimal.
I wouldn't have thought it possible but suddenly option number one seemed a whole lot more attractive. Every seasoned flyer knows that Thai Airways business class is a far inferior product to Emirates'.
According to my wife, who spends a lot of time on Thai travel-related discussion boards, most Thais who are serious about travel, consider Thai Airways business class to be a total waste of time and money.
The third option was to book us onto Singapore Airlines. Now the airport manager finally had my interest. Good airline, quality service, I was sure their business class product would be something special. Only one snag though - the flight didn't leave till the following morning.
I just didn't trust Emirates enough to stump up for the extra night's accommodation in Christchurch with a bit of spending money thrown in. And I was certainly in no mood to fight them for it. Not only that but my wife had to be in work the following morning and she didn't fancy pinching another day away from her desk.
After much deliberation (we just wanted to get home at this point) we said a silent prayer and went with the Thai Airways option number two - and it didn't let us down. The whole experience was a joke to the point of embarrassment. The flat-bed seats felt like you constantly had springs sticking into you and the on-board service was non-existent. As soon as passengers started reclining their seats and drifting off to sleep, the stewardesses disappeared like farts in the wind. I'm not sure where they went but they were gone for the best part of nine hours.
Time for action
When we returned home to Thailand, my wife and I felt angry. We had forked out a considerable amount of cash to fly business class but Emirates had palmed us off with an inferior product through no fault of our own. The Emirates airport manager in Christchurch was in total agreement and had advised me to contact the Emirates customer service department as soon as I got back to Thailand. She even gave me an e-mail address that she said not many passengers would have access to. So contact customer service is what I did.
In my e-mail to customer service, I outlined the details of the story above and just to add a little more ‘weight' to the complaint, I mentioned that last year - flying with my wife from Bangkok to Madrid via Dubai - Emirates failed to get our baggage on the connecting flight and we arrived at Madrid minus our suitcases. They were eventually delivered to the hotel at 11pm - six hours after our arrival.
I mentioned the suitcase incident because this was the second time we had flown with Emirates in a 12-month period, and the second time they had screwed up.
I received a reply from Emirates within a few days. Naturally it began by apologizing for all the trouble we had encountered and went on to describe the fog in Sydney on that fateful morning as "an extraordinary circumstance beyond their control"
As for the almighty cock-up at Christchurch Airport, when my wife and I were not even on the passenger list, the writer of the e-mail said "I am sorry for the difficulties incurred as a result of this. Please allow me to assure you that the event you have detailed is an isolated one, and not indicative of the level of service that we strive to offer our customers.
Hollow words and empty promises
After reading through several more paragraphs of corporate ‘copy and paste', eventually we got down to the nitty-gritty - in other words, what were we going to receive by way of compensation?
Surprisingly, Emirates firstly made reference to the delayed baggage in Madrid and offered us one hundred dollars to cover any costs and inconvenience incurred. Frankly speaking, I wasn't looking for any compensation. The delayed suitcases were history. But I was pleased with the offer all the same.
However, there was just one problem - Emirates made no mention of how they intended to get that one hundred dollars to us. They didn't ask for a bank account number or anything. So basically it was a hollow, empty promise.
Six weeks later (as I write this blog) and despite numerous follow-up e-mails to the same customer department (which have all gone unanswered) and many direct messages on Twitter (which have all received the same reply of ‘please be patient, we are dealing with the problem) - we are still no closer to seeing that one hundred dollars.
But the Madrid baggage episode is just a sub-plot. It was the business class fiasco from Sydney to Bangkok that my wife and I still felt most entitled to be compensated for.
Back to the e-mail from the Emirates customer service department. "Mr Williams, we would not like to have you remain disappointed with us, on account of your experience; therefore, without prejudice or admission of liability, as a gesture of goodwill for the inconvenience experienced, Emirates is pleased to offer you and Ms Weerawat 20,000 complimentary miles each, which will be duly credited to your respective Skywards accounts.
"Without prejudice or liability" - I think that's a paraphrase for "OK guys, here's a token gesture and we sincerely hope that it gets you off our backs"
Apart from American football and science fiction, if there's one thing in life that I have never had an interest in - it's collecting and juggling around air miles. I can never be bothered. On the rare occasion I've logged into my Emirates Skywards account to see what my current balance entitles me to, I'd be lucky to afford an Emirates key-ring. For me that's how air miles work. Other members cash in their miles and fly first-class around the globe for peanuts: I get the key-ring.
But I was naturally inquisitive. Exactly how much were 20,000 air miles worth? Well, if I tell you that according to the Emirates website, you need something in the region of 150,000 air miles (plus a payment of around 40,000 baht) to afford a return business-class flight to Europe, you'll appreciate how far 20,000 miles was going to get me. In fact, I worked out that if I added the 20,000 air miles to my existing balance, I could just about afford an economy class return ticket to Hong Kong.
In conclusion, Emirates had given us nothing. It really was ‘just a token gesture to hopefully get us off their backs'
I can't really say how much compensation my wife and I are looking for. I genuinely don't know. I don't feel entitled to something like a free flight to Europe - but I do feel entitled to something more substantial than 20,000 shitty air miles.
I've already told Emirates that they can keep the air miles because after all the inconvenience and stress that the airline put us through, I consider their offer to be ‘an insult'.
It's now seven weeks since we returned from New Zealand and to my mind, we're no closer to any kind of satisfactory resolution. As I already mentioned, my e-mails to Emirates customer service are going unanswered. I'm being ‘pacified' by the occasional direct message on Twitter that asks for my patience and more time.
Alas, my patience and time have both run out.