Alastair Dalton: Nightmares for seasonal travellers all too common

Passengers travelling long distances to reach friends and relatives for Hogmanay who are reading this will shudder at the ordeal suffered by 250 people flying from Edinburgh Airport before Christmas.

Stranded passengers from the Qatar Airways flight wait in an Edinburgh hotel lobby. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Stranded passengers from the Qatar Airways flight wait in an Edinburgh hotel lobby. Picture: Ian Rutherford

A Qatar Airways flight to Doha, with myriad onward connections, was delayed for nearly two days because of a fault with the aircraft.

While this is at the extreme end of disruption scale, that is not the most surprising aspect of the incident. In fact, the airline was the most punctual at Edinburgh last year, according to analysis of Civil Aviation Authority figures.

Air delays are now so commonplace that you would expect airlines to have learned from experience and have a well-oiled customer care plan in place that would swing into action once a hold-up occurs.

But for the hapless passengers on flight QR32, the opposite seems to have happened.

Despite the fact many would have been travelling home or to see loved ones for Christmas, involving complicated, multi-stage journeys, the heightened stress the delay caused them was exacerbated by a near total lack of communication from Qatar.

They complained of getting no updates from the airline or its Edinburgh ground handling agents for the 24 hours of the disruption.

Their pleas for information in posts on Qatar’s social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter elicited virtually nothing either.

To make matters worse, the passengers were even faced with being turfed out of the hotel where they had been put up for the night - apparently because airline officials, 3,000 miles away, had still to approve their continued stay.

A video shot by one passenger shows them angrily confronting an official in the hotel over their treatment.

When they were finally told they would be on their way, the weary travellers spent up to five hours in a check-in queue because there was only one person behind the counter.

Edinburgh Airport has been criticised for poor service in the past, but the way passengers were treated appears to have been down to the airline.

In fact, as I wrote after the huge British Airways computer meltdown in May, the airport has been forced to step in before to help travellers left in the lurch by their carriers.

However, what I’m also told is airlines based far from Scotland, such as Qatar, have thin resources “down route” to deal with problems, and rely on the companies who check in and board passengers for them - for whom there is no incentive to shine as exemplars of customer care.

On top of that, I am also told by aviation insiders that staff shortages, such as through sickness, are common in the run up to Christmas.

None of this excuses the lack of a simple solution to the problem. Passengers understand that things can go wrong and sometimes for complicated reasons. All they basically want is to be kept informed of what’s happening, and to know they are not being forgotten.

Had Qatar or their agents done that, they would not have faced what one concerned relative of a passenger described as a near riot in the hotel.

Qatar Airways has not responded to my requests to put its side of the story. They should have responded to their passengers though.

The depressing conclusion from this sorry tale is there’s no obvious signs of improvement.

Airlines depend on other passengers forgetting such incidents and their travel choices largely being governed by price. Instead, their priority should be pride in providing excellent service.