“We’re experiencing some technical difficulties.”
Air travel. It’s one of those unpredictable things. Even if you book with the best airlines, who offer a high standard of service, things can go wrong. Staff gets sick, bags get lost, and plane parts fail. Generally, this might result in a slight delay in you getting to your final destination, or you having to sprint to make a connection in Hong Kong, Los Angeles or Singapore. In some cases, though, it results in a whole days disruption.
Routine flight delays are commonplace. In July 2019, the average delay from flights originating in some of the world’s busiest airports ranged from a manageable 31 minutes at Haneda, to an eye-watering 91 minutes in Beijing. From time to time, though, you’re stung with an exceptionally long wait at the airport. On a recent flight from Auckland to Singapore recently, I ended up arriving in Singapore nine hours after my intended arrival (or 8 hours and 38 minutes, as Singapore Airlines was at pains to point out).
I’ve flown a lot. I estimate I’ve taken around 80 international flights in the last few years, and I’ve been very lucky not to hit a major flight delay before. I also want to reiterate that, in this instance, the flight delay was a result of an engineering issue. Obviously, myself – along with everyone else on that plane – wanted to ensure that the plane was fully operational condition before flying. This is exactly the kind of reason you would want an airline to delay a flight – no questions asked. However, being on the ground during a major flight delay was pretty interesting. In fact, at the time, I was pleasantly surprised at how well passengers handed the sometimes lacklustre way in which the delay was handled.
In case you’ve ever wondered what you’re potentially up for should you ever face a massive flight delay, read on.
We’re Just Working Through the Last of the Paperwork Here, Folks
That famous line, pulled by pilots everywhere, when you are already delayed. After sitting on the tarmac for over an hour post our 2 PM departure time, we had all suspected something was up. I was busy googling what the next onwards flight I could catch to Colombo, my final destination, was. I knew I had one and a half hours on the ground in Singapore between flights, so had all but missed my connection. Finally, a call was made over the intercom stating we were to be offloaded at 3.20PM, and that the plane would depart from Gate 4 later that evening – at 7PM. We were to be given meal vouchers as we exited the plane. We silently trundled off, with a number of passengers getting into heated arguments with the ground staff that were expected to rescan us for entry back into the airport.
Gate 4 Proves to Be Problematic
As no one met the flight with meal vouchers, I headed straight to Gate 4. About ten people had gathered there, and a single staff member – who I presume worked for Auckland Airport – was lurking in the vicinity, but not answering questions. A small crowd of around 30 people swelled, with the staff member announcing that we should all go to a different gate to get our meal vouchers. She also told people waiting to write down any ongoing connections, and preferred flights for rebooking, anticipating the arrival of ground staff at the new gate. A few people left, only to find another staff member show up a few minutes later, rolling her eyes at the first staff member and advising us to stay put. Awkward.
After another 20 or so minutes, the meal vouchers arrived. Hooray! These were handed out in an orderly fashion, and we were advised to report back to the gate at 6PM. Admittedly, $20NZD doesn’t buy you much at Auckland – I got a bowl of fast-food Japanese without a drink for my $20 – but it was better than nothing. It was at this point that we were told that our connections would be automatically rebooked and provided to us when we landed in Singapore – with no opportunity before then to identify connections that worked for us.
I noted that there were fewer than 40 people at the gate collecting those vouchers, for a fairly well-booked flight. I’m guessing the vast majority of passengers either didn’t want to bother with the meal vouchers, or didn’t understand where to get them.
A Seething Mass of Humanity
Okay, that’s a dramatic term. But it was a genuine statement made by one of the other passengers waiting at the gate. We ended up departing from an entirely different area of the airport, which was clearly meant for smaller aircraft. In fact, the waiting area was already packed by the time we got there, due to a Jetstar flight departing from the same gate. People were strewn across the floor, lounging on the stairs, and draped across broken chairs. We heard a few different announcements, one being ‘we aren’t sure whether this is going to work’ (which Singapore Airlines actually confirmed in their email to me!). Eventually, we reboarded the plane at 7.55PM.
Surprise! The crew needs to change
Again, I want to reiterate that the crew is there for your safety, or, in the case of the pilots, to fly the plane. I had no issues with them swapping the crew out, but I just thought I’d provide you an accurate overview of how things went.
Because Singapore Airlines were unsure whether the replacement part would work, the Flight Crew elected to stand down, so they wouldn’t exceed their flight time limitation. However, the cabin crew stayed in operation to get everyone loaded onto the new flight, then exited the aircraft. Apparently, the lounge was informed at 6.45PM that a new flight crew was being activated, though I certainly don’t recall such an announcement. After the plane was boarded at 7.55PM, and we’d spent about 30 minutes on the plane, we were told the new crew had been activated, and they arrived at 9.45PM – two hours after we boarded. I don’t recall anything but water being offered during the delay. The plane finally departed at 10.22PM.
Go to Table Number Four
We were told a number of times during the flight – which was absolutely fine, albeit delayed further due to weather issues and a lack of gate to park at – that we would be met individually at Changi Airport with information on our onward flights. I found this rather hard to believe, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when we disembarked to find a poster-board stating which pre-arranged table to go to for our new tickets. To be fair, this was all really well organized, although severely understaffed. One poor Singapore Airlines agent was trying to deal with 30 or so grumpy, tired passengers at a time. Another lady and I experienced one man swearing loudly at one of the Changi Airport staff members, and we intervened to stop him from carrying on. It seemed like anyone with straight forward ongoing connections was absolutely fine – it was those with complicated onwards journeys who were very unhappy with their bookings.
The Ballad of Transfer Desk F
I was one of the lucky ones, with a straightforward onward flight. I had been rebooked on the next Silk Air flight to Colombo, in four hours or so. However, I couldn’t get on the WIFI at the airport. I needed to rebook my driver in Colombo, and I wasn’t sure how much lounge access would cost. I went to Transfer Desk F, as directed, where I was told staff would be there to support us. After 45 minutes of waiting, I was finally seen. This wasn’t because there was a big queue. I was third in line. It was because the staff on the desk were, I assume, taking breaks while still sitting at the desk, playing on their cellphones. In the end, extra staff were brought in to help. This was around 7AM, following our landing at about 5.45AM. A man I had spoken with had been booked on a 10PM onward flight from Singapore, despite another airline offering a flight at 8.30AM. While he was initially told that there was NO way he would be rebooked onto a competing airlines’ flight, he was rebooked within about 10 minutes when he stated the delay was unacceptable.
As for me, I requested WIFI access, to which the ground staff told me I needed to have a cellphone number that received messages in Singapore – which I didn’t have. As I found out later, there were various kiosks in the terminal where I could have scanned my passport, and gotten free WIFI access. Regardless, I was offered a lounge pass in exchange for my meal voucher. The lounge was atrocious, but it did offer an awkward cubicle that I could squeeze into and lie down. It, unfortunately, featured some of the worst food I’ve ever had in an airline lounge, so I probably should have just kept the meal voucher! If you’re ever in a position where you are questioning using one of the SATS lounges at Changi, I suspect they’re all pretty ho-hum (and this is coming from someone that used to frequent the Marhaba Lounge in Dubai!).
My next flight, to Colombo, was also delayed around an hour, but eventually departed without issue. The highlight was definitely the complimentary mini Eskimo-pie like ice cream bites, and the lowlight the comedy clip video that played on repeat for nearly four hours, in the absence of seatback screens.
I arrived in Colombo at 11.50AM, around 13 hours later than I had expected to.
Singapore Airlines Respond
Being that I was intending to review the flight for FlyerTalk, I took detailed notes of my experience – noting both the good and bad aspects of the delay. I’ve downplayed some of the negative aspects here, as I suspect being in the airport for any length of time doesn’t encourage positive thoughts.
Singapore Airlines, to their credit, obviously took the delay very seriously – even if they weren’t willing to offer compensation. They denied my request for any KrisFlyer points, stating this was not their policy. They could, however, offer me a blow-by-blow account of the timing of every decision and announcement that was made during the flight delay, and this provides me with some assurance that they can learn from some of the communications issues that were experienced.
Lessons learned? Read your insurance
My insurance turned out to be almost entirely useless in this situation, which is something I hadn’t expected. Delays by air carriers were pretty much not covered, and all I could really claim was up to $200NZD to pay for a hotel room if I needed it. This wasn’t necessary, given I ended up spending the night I would have spent in a hotel in Colombo, at the airport. The insurance company, however, wouldn’t even confirm whether I could buy a lounge pass (instead of a hotel room) using my insurance. I’d unfortunately already booked the same company in for my next trip, but I’ll be sure to read the fine print sooner.
Summary? I’d Give a B+ – Could Do Better
Would I fly Singapore Airlines again? I have no choice. I’m already booked to fly them to Tokyo in September, and as your average economy class passenger – I’m not in a financial position to change my flights. On my return flight on Singapore Airlines back to New Zealand, I took the Singapore – Wellington service for convenience, only to find it’s offered on an archaic 777 with a clunky old entertainment system and no USB ports. Yikes. I’m sure it won’t have improved in a month’s time.
Regardless, Singapore Airlines did a really good job when dealing with certain aspects of the delay, such as rebooking passengers. In addition, I’m not sure whether the staff on the ground at Changi were Singapore Airlines staff or simply airport staff. Any flight delay is stressful, and we all want to make sure the flight is safe and uneventful. While I was a bit surprised at the level of service offered by Singapore Airlines during this delay, I have nothing to compare it to.
So, the question is – how does this delay compare? Have you experienced a massive flight delay? What are your horror stories – we want to hear them!
[Featured Image: Shutterstock]