Jetstar Melbourne to Bali flight forced to U-turn after hours in air is first in airline history

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Jetstar has ended 2023 in much the same way the rest of its year went – with infuriated passengers. 

After a year of cancelled flights, delays and lost bags, the budget airline did something experts say no airline has managed before – dramatically turning a flight back to the airport it left from because someone had stuffed up the paperwork.

Flight JQ35 was packed with Bali holidaymakers when it left Melbourne late on Tuesday night after having already been delayed by five hours.

Then, 4.5 hours into the journey – with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner somewhere over Broome, Western Australia – it was forced to turn around and fly back to Melbourne.

Two of Australia’s best known aviation experts told Daily Mail Australia they had never heard of anything like it happening anywhere in the world. 

‘I’ve been researching airlines for more than 20 years and I’ve never heard of it happening before,’ said Greg Bamber, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne and co-author of airline industry book Up in the Air.

Jetstar Melbourne to Bali flight forced to U-turn after hours in air is first in airline history

Flight JQ35 was packed with Bali holidaymakers when the plane left Melbourne Airport late on Tuesday night after having already been delayed by five hours. Pictured is a Jetstar plane

A Jetstar spokesperson said the airline swapped the Melbourne to Bali service to a larger Boeing 787 aircraft to carry more customers during the holidays. 

‘Unfortunately, due to an internal miscommunication, we did not have approval from the regulator in Indonesia to swap to the larger aircraft,’ the spokesperson said.

Geoffrey Thomas, of airline safety and quality review website AirlineRatings, has also never heard of anything like Jetstar’s mishap before

He was clear about where he believed the blame lay. 

‘First of all, the Indonesians did not turn the aeroplane back,’ Mr Thomas said.

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‘Jetstar turned the aeroplane back because Jetstar had not correctly applied for permission for that aeroplane to fly.’

Mr Bamber agreed, saying that ‘Jetstar seem to be, to some extent, blaming miscommunication but then blaming the Indonesian authorities’.

The Jetstar flight to Bali (pictured) was already five hours late before it even left Melbourne

The Jetstar flight to Bali (pictured) was already five hours late before it even left Melbourne

BILATERALS  

Before an airline can operate international services to another country, the government must first negotiate a treaty-level agreement with the destination country. 

These treaties are known as bilateral air services agreements, and that is what caused the trouble with Flight JQ35.

Treaties known as bilateral air services agreements are part of wha caused a Jetstar plane (flight path pictured) to turn around

Treaties known as bilateral air services agreements are part of wha caused a Jetstar plane (flight path pictured) to turn around

‘With the bilaterals between countries, there are agreements on capacity,’ Mr Thomas said. 

‘Jetstar increased the capacity on that service from a 210-seater to a 300-seater aeroplane, from an A-321 to a 787.

‘And they made the mistake of, when they sent the paperwork through, they didn’t identify the fact that it was a change of aeroplane, an upgauge of aeroplane.’

While it is possible to downgauge an aeroplane – moving to a smaller plane – it is not possible to upguage under a bilateral agreement without informing the destination airport.

Greg Bamber (pictured), of Monash University is a co-author of airline industry book Up in the Air

Geoffrey Thomas (pictured) of AirlineRatings is an aviation industry expert

Pictured are Greg Bamber (left) and Geoffrey Thomas (right), both of whom are aviation experts

But that is exactly what Jetstar did.  

‘They realised their mistake when the plane was just past Broome and they turned it around,’ Mr Thomas said. 

‘It hadn’t even gotten into Indonesian airspace, it was still in Australian airspace.’

NO DISRESPECT MEANT 

Mr Thomas said what happened was down to human error and no disrespect was meant to the Indonesian authorities.  

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‘It’s a very sensitive thing with the Indonesians and so Jetstar just didn’t want to upset them,’ he said.

‘It was definitely human oversight. There’s no way they thought “This’ll be OK, don’t worry about it”, as evidenced by the fact that they turned around.

‘It would have damaged relationships with a very important country that they deal with all the time.’

Some customers shared their complaints online, with one calling it the 'worst travel experience of my life' (above)

Some customers shared their complaints online, with one calling it the ‘worst travel experience of my life’ (above)

He said if Jetstar, having realised its mistake, had continued with the flight and tried to bluff its way through, Indonesia would have taken it as an insult.

‘But the fact that Jetstar saw their mistake and turned around… the Indonesians would have taken that as a positive thing,’ he said.

‘(They would have thought), “Hey, you made a mistake, you didn’t try and bluster your way through and you turned back”.

‘So I think it’s a positive thing from that perspective… Although it was a pain in the neck for the passengers, that was far and away the most expeditious thing to do.’

PRESSURE ON AIRLINES 

Mr Thomas said there are many reasons we are seeing more flight cancellations than we’ve ever had. 

‘Airlines are under pressure over Christmas and heavy travel holiday periods and because of Covid, maybe departments aren’t as well staffed as they normally would be,’ he said.

‘The stress is a lot higher, particularly at the back end of the airline, so mistakes can creep in.’

Mr Bamber said understaffing was a major contributor to the problems. 

‘Airlines, and the Qantas and Jetstar group in particular, were very quick to lay people off, to make them redundant when the pandemic first hit,’ he said.

‘They made thousands and thousands of people redundant and they got very large compensation from us, the taxpayers, to keep the airlines afloat.

‘But they’ve been very slow to re-recruit people, to rebuild the staffing. 

‘They are still running on quite skeleton staffing, much thinner staffing levels than before Covid-19 hit.’

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED 

Airline passengers who are badly affected by delays and cancellations in Australia do not have the same kind of protections as those in the European Union, the US and the UK.

‘Something coming out of this should be a wake-up call to Australian regulators and legislators that they should be introducing such a scheme, because that is an incentive to airlines to treat their passengers and customers better,’ Mr Bamber said.

‘And it also gives the customers back something if they are badly disrupted. There is nothing like that in Australia at the moment.’

Passengers (above) landed in Bali shortly before 9pm local time on Wednesday but faced new problems with pre-organised accommodation and transport

Passengers (above) landed in Bali shortly before 9pm local time on Wednesday but faced new problems with pre-organised accommodation and transport

He said that while the cost of flights has gone up, the service level has gone down. 

‘People are paying now much higher airfares than they used to before the pandemic, and so people’s expectations are pretty high,’ Mr Bamber said.

‘Given they are paying a lot of money they expect good service, but the service is not good.

‘The quality of the catering has declined, the number of cancellations has increased, delays have increased, so there is a real disconnection there.’

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