Right now, I should be fastening my seatbelt and placing my seat in the upright position for descent into Sydney from Kuala Lumpur, after a wonderful school holiday trip to India with my family.
But instead we’re in a hotel near the Malaysian capital’s airport with our fingers crossed that we’ll be heading home tonight. And I’m not happy.
At 7am today, we turned up at the airport two hours before our flight, only to be told that Malaysia Airlines MH141 to Sydney was overbooked and full.
We’d missed out. Bumped is the industry term.
In 30 years of travelling, it’s the first time this has happened to me on an international flight. Having my kids, aged 7 and 9 with us, tired and irritable, doesn’t help. Our initial anger has subsided, but it’s still a sickening feeling to know you’re stranded because an airline lets you down, especially one you’re given a second chance to after their recent travails.
When you’ve had a restless night’s sleep, checking the clock every hour or so, before rising at 5.30am for the hour-long trip to KLIA, having left the luxurious comfort of the beautiful Villa Samadhi behind, being stuck at the airport for the day is not pleasant.
And it’s not just our family of four. We met another family, with kids aged 2, 6 and 12, who’ve been trying to get back to Sydney since yesterday, but missed their flight because the connecting Malaysia Airlines plane was late. They were put up in overnight accommodation by the airline that they found less than appealing, had about two hours sleep, and came back again at 7am today only to find out they’d missed out again.
There are always people worse off than you. In fact, 23 passengers were left off the plane. With 250 economy seats, that’s nearly 10% overbooking, which I find gobsmacking. It’s the end of school holidays in NSW. Families are going to turn up. We need to get home for school.
I know airlines routinely overbook flights, but it seems like double-dipping to me, since they pocket the money anyway for anyone of a discounted ticket when the passenger doesn’t fly.
What happened next is what I share with Business Insider readers, so you’ll know what to do when it happens to you.
It began to unravel with a bunch of phone calls by the check-in counter guy after he’d weighed our bags. After several minutes, he broke the news to us, and offered some solutions: there was an upgrade to business on a flight leaving tonight, plus some compensation, or an economy flight tomorrow.
The business deal sounded good, but the timing seemed all wrong, since it would get in at noon. The detail he didn’t reveal was that the flight was bound for Perth, we’d have to overnight there for about five hours from around 1am, then catch an early flight east, arriving home about 30 hours after setting out.
I can’t help wondering if we were supposed to take up the offer at check-in there and then, so Malaysia Airlines had a quick and easy solution. But had we said yes to the business seats, we would have prolonged our journey.
This important fact emerged because my wife Sally, a travel stalwart, who’s written and edited travel guidebooks, insisted on taking the issue up the chain of command. Another reason to love my wife is watching her in full battle cry. She’s a tough negotiator. I know from experience.
We headed to another counter to speak with a manager, Mr Ganesan. He’s having a tough day. In addition to the 23 stranded Sydney passengers, there are another 15 Melbourne-bound passengers also facing the same dilemma.
Our mistake, he explains, was to not check-in online beforehand – something Malaysia Airlines will make compulsory from this Tuesday when it switches to a bag drop system a la Qantas. But seriously, we managed to catch 3 other sectors on MA without this problem. This is not our mistake. Several weeks ago, we paid a premium to fly on a certain flight at a certain time on a certain day. So who is the onus on to live up to that deal in this instance?
Now here’s where it gets interesting. At this point it was all about striking a deal and a little bit of haggling went on.
My wife was firm but polite. We’d initially been offered compensation of 975 Malaysian ringgit (MYR) for both adults (about AU$300), and half that for each child during check-in. But why, when we’d payed full fare for their tickets, would their compensation be only half ours?
A deal was struck: MYR 975 each.
Stuck at the airport for 13 hours and not wanting another 2-hour return trip back into the city, my wife asked for a place to stay. Mr Ganesan agreed to cover the cost of a room at the “award-winning” Sama-Sama Hotel, adjacent to the airport, including breakfast and lunch. Win. It’s “five-star” and he knew what we needed and what was right for the customer he told me when we met a few hours later when he turned up at the hotel with the compensation cash and a form called “Denied Boarding Compensation” for me to sign. I wonder how many of these are being signed today. Should we have held out for more? What is the going rate for this experience?
When we were back at the airport this morning, Mr Ganesan gave us vouchers for breakfast a nearby cafe and told us to come back in an hour. The coffee and tea were both terrible, the mee goreng (noodles with fried egg and chicken wing), passable.
When we returned, he gave us the voucher for the hotel and boarding passes for tonight’s direct flight to Sydney. It seems we could fly today after all, but I hope that doesn’t mean others miss out now. That family of 5 is also on the 7.50pm flight and in this hotel too.
Sally’s having a nap now. I had one earlier. The kids are watching a movie on her laptop after a swim in the pool. We’re comfortable. But the hotel wants to charge a staggering A$125, plus 6% tax, for a bottle of Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc (yep, a 750% mark up), or $13.50 for a Tiger beer which costs $2 in a liquor store, so I’m drinking water instead.
Mr Ganesan has done his best on behalf of Malaysian Airlines and it’s appreciated, but I can’t help wondering why the airline keeps him so busy fixing problems like this in the first place.
Has this ever happened to you? What did the airline do to make it up to you?
* UPDATE: We made it home, landing about 6.40am on Sunday, about half an hour late, after a departure was delayed by about 70 minutes. A few relieved families were on the plane, but it seems another 20 people were bumped from MH143. The snowball effect rolls on.