The local Australian newspapers and websites are somewhat awash today (April 28, 2017) with news of a consumer advocacy publication, Choice, and its selection of the low cost carrier as Australia’s worst airline. Here’s a screenshot of some of the article linked to, above:
Not surprisingly, there have been many comments, from unhappy users through to travel writers, and onto the airline itself, which has published a spirited self-defence.
On of my Twitter travel “buddies”, Craig Platt, has written about the saga here, from the Melbourne Age newspaper (click to go to the full article).
To be straightforward, Jetstar is the Qantas Group’s low cost carrier (LCC), which commenced operations more than a decade ago, taking on the entry of other low cost carriers such as VirginBlue (now Virgin Australia) and Impulse Airlines. The latter was absorbed by QantasLink and flies Boeing 717 twinjets, while Virgin has rebranded as Virgin Australia, going somewhat “upmarket” to compete head on with full service Qantas. Tiger Airlines entered Australian service several years ago, and most in the airlines business would see it as Jetstar’s principle competitor for low cost, bare bones travel.
I have often joked with both patients and airline crew that airlines like Jetstar brought to an end one of the last “excuses” fearful flyers brought to their family and friends – that commercial flying was too expensive, compared to driving, bus, or rail. That is certainly no longer the case, and I frequently fly with patients to Launceston or Hobart in Tasmania, sometimes with fares as low as $39, but nowadays much more like $55 if I’m lucky.
In the 15 months or so during 2015-2016, I’ve calculated that I and my patients flew more than 80 sectors on Jetstar, mostly to Tasmania, occasionally to Queensland or Sydney.(I worked out this number while having discussions with Qantas senior management in August 2016.)
I’ve experienced only one cancelled flight (a Dreamliner to Sydney internationally) when the 787 did not arrive from Bali due to a maintenance issue. I wanted this flight experience for my patient to help her prepare for an imminent International flight. Sadly, these fare types are no longer offered by Jetstar, with there now being direct flights between Melbourne and International destinations, rather than via Sydney. (Years ago, Qantas used to run a Boeing 747 between Sydney and Melbourne for San Francisco bound passengers – was it QF73? – but alas, that has stopped long ago).
Other than this I have had significant delays (more than two hours) for perhaps four flights in total. Any other delays have been less than 30 minutes, and as Jetstar’s media release has suggested, most of these would be weather-based rather than mechanical unreliability. Because I don’t travel Jetstar with checked luggage, I can’t comment on this aspect of the flying experience.
[Update: Just to be clear, there was a time when VirginBlue and Jetstar were direct competitors as LCCs, and Qantas was the only full service Australian airline, when I would travel with patients one way with VirginBlue and return with Jetstar. This way patients could experience their differing services, including aircraft type and lounges, when I also had a Virgin Lounge membership. This was not a process without its difficulties as an outbound delay could see us potentially miss the return flight, which wouldn’t have been the other airline’s problem to solve, but mine. When VirginBlue became VirginAustralia and its fares uncompetitive compared to the routes I wanted, I flew exclusively Jetstar with patients unless they insisted on Qantas (not for safety but they used frequent flyer points) or Virgin Australia. I must say that when we flew VirginBlue, their service and consideration for my patients was exemplary.]
At this point, with all this negative news about Jetstar, you might ask why they’re my first choice to fly with fearful flyers.
Let me list them, not necessarily in priority order:
- The least expensive of all the airlines, most of the time. If I find a fare for $55, I can be fairly sure Virgin, around the same scheduled time, will be $89, and Qantas $109 and more. I don’t give Tiger a consideration, because they have too few flights to my preferred destinations, and I have an alliance with the Qantas group (as well as Qantas Club and Frequent Flyer memberships to consider). Given my patients pay for the flights, price is important.
- Frequency: Into Launceston or Hobart, there are usually 4 or 5 flights daily so this gives the patient and me much greater choice and flexibility.
- The preferred use of Airbus A320s over QantasLink Bombardier Q400 propjets is important, and many patients will go on to fly similar twin jets overseas when they travel. There are also unique noises on the Airbus A320/321 compared with Virgin’s 737s which I point out to patients while on board. These noises can be quite disconcerting as they sound like dogs in the hold barking. In reality, it is the Airbus Power Transfer Unit (PTU), part of the hydraulics system. The video below will be very informative:
[Funny aside: Ansett Australia, which ceased operations in 2001, first introduced the A320 into Australia, after its then CEO, Sir Peter Abeles did a deal with Airbus Industrie, playing them off against Boeing, when searching for replacement types for gas guzzling, three person crewed Boeing 727s. Flight attendants on the first flights of A320s apparently did think dogs had come loose in the hold, so I was once told. Others have stated that the very mixed fleet Ansett ended up with was one of the eventual pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of why the airline failed.]
- Listening for the sounds, including the momentary loss of sound and lighting when the pilots switch power from the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) in the tail (supplying power while on the ground) to the main engines, can be very important for some patients. Whilst I think it’s great to use noise cancelling headphones in flight (I do all the time), it’s best to limit this to cruise, and pay attention to the various sounds aircraft make on their way to or from cruise, and know what’s happening. Jetstar’s A320s have an abundance of sounds I find useful to have patients listen for and understand.
- There is a particular procedure I use when I work with patients and we book the flights together. I believe it’s very important we use clinical session time together to do this, rather than me saying “I’ve done it for us.” Less experienced flyers may have very little time in front of a screen booking flights, and so it’s instructive for them to see how I go through the multitude of steps before a flight is confirmed and a passenger number record (PNR) issued, consisting of six letters and numbers.There are numerous traps for the unwary and these form part of the criticism levelled at Jetstar. Many feel they are being “nickel and dimed” with unnecessary add-ons such as hotel and car hire invitations, as well as automatic baggage allowance when you just want to save money and use carry-on (with its 7kg limit). Jetstar automatically charges for checked luggage and you have to opt-out to travel with only a carry-on, and I explain that arriving at the airport with luggage, but not having chosen to do so at the time of booking, is very expensive.Then there is the add-on of food, and choosing your seat. I always choose this option and so we pay $20 extra overall for both flights, so I can play us forward of the wing for the outbound and way at the back for return, with window on outbound and aisle on return. Then you choose if you’ll take the no-refund option, or one where paying extra (sometimes $35) will get you more flexibility, Qantas points or Jetstar credits, and $5 towards an inflight meal service.For the anxious flyer, this selection process can be quite foreboding, and I can imagine many just giving up because “it’s just all too hard, so perhaps I’m not meant to go…” or a similar cognitive distortion.By me modelling and explaining all that’s happening and then having the patient do the same for the return trip (separate bookings) I believe I can add value where most psychologists won’t bother. By the way, not all who avoid making bookings are less travelled and well-heeled – I see CEOs who will have administrative staff do all their bookings, and would not wish to be seen travelling on a low cost carrier!
- Many Australian fearful flyers avoid all airlines other than Qantas, such is that airline’s reputation for safety. Jetstar is seen as “less safe” and thus to be avoided. By asking them to fly with me on Jetstar, we’re sometimes pushing back against a most primitive and long held fear, and it is where I assure them that yes, there are some airlines and place I will avoid, but Jetstar isn’t one of them.
- For perhaps 90% of my patients, their flights on Jetstar with me are the first with the airline. Almost all are pleasantly surprised with the flight process, albeit without the pre-flight briefing in the Qantas Lounge I formerly in Melbourne when Jetstar operated from Terminal 1. It’s a solid 15-20 minute walk from the lounge to the primary gates Jetstar now uses in Terminal 4. But what is revelatory to patients is the quality of crew service, especially when they introduce themselves to cabin crew on boarding (I teach a 4-part script) and I explain our mission once they move to their seat. (I always board after my patient, giving them space and time to speak with the cabin manager, after which I introduce myself and explain what we’ll be doing inflight.)
Many patients tell me they will now give Jetstar priority when they book their post-therapy flights, because of the unexpectedly positive experiences they enjoyed, which usually includes a visit to the flight deck and chat with tech crew when we arrive back in Melbourne (which I have usually arranged with the cabin manager beforehand). Meeting the crew and seeing and hearing them explain procedures is not about seeking assurance, but about challenging previously una-praised assumptions which require recalibrating. Occasionally, pilots will remark how safe flying is, until it’s pointed out the patient’s issue is claustrophobia or loss of composure or panic, for which they turn it back to me! (By the way, some years ago Airline Transport Weekly reported a similar phenomenon of customer loyalty to that airline which played in a role in fearful flyers overcoming their fears).
- If I can leave this entry with one point to be made, it’s this: Low cost carriers work on a budget to make themselves viable and offer the cheapest travel options. You want more, you both ask for it and expect to pay for it. Turnaround times are quick (often only 30mins between flights) and the cabin crew does the cleaning and setting up, compared to van loads of specialist cleaning crew full service airlines employ whose wages are built into your ticket price. So crew are often rushed and harried, but do their best, in my experience to appear pleasant and welcoming, while above all being vigilant about safety. The latter sometimes means they can appear firm and even harsh when trying to keep to a schedule, but you got to roll with their efforts for safe, inexpensive flying.Treat your cabin crew with respect, and don’t be afraid to ask if you want something, rather than grumbling about “the horrible service”. Crews including ground service crew have a certain amount of discretion in their decision making (known as a service “moment of truth”) which can make a huge difference to your experience. Your own pleasantness and non-demandingness can often be its own reward.