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How I missed my flight in Melbourne and the lessons learned by Ehi Braimah

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Rotarians from around the world gathered in Melbourne for the 114th international convention from May 27 – 31, 2023. The weather was cold but we survived. Melbourne, noted for its high-rise buildings in the Central Business District (CBD), is the coastal capital of Victoria, the southeastern state of Australia which has different time zones.

During our stay in Melbourne, the difference with the time back home was nine hours. It explains why Australia celebrates the New Year ahead of other parts of the world. When it is 9.00 pm in Nigeria, it is 6.00 am the following day in Melbourne.

The plenary sessions of the Rotary International Convention held at the Rod Laver Arena famous for the Australia Open every January but Rotarians spent more time at the Melbourne Exhibition & Conference Centre (MECE), venue of the breakout sessions and the House of Friendship.

Rotary conventions are usually the largest fellowships of Rotarians from over 200 countries and territories of the world and it is an opportunity to renew friendships, build great connections and enjoy the hospitality offered by the hosts. The tour companies are also busy at this time with Rotarians signing up for the sights and sounds of the touristic sites.

Melbourne looks every inch like Paris and London – the streets are dotted with cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. Trams – supported by train services – cover most parts of the city in what is clearly an effective transportation system, but you can only drive on the right-hand-side as you would find in the UK, Kenya, Bangladesh, and so on.

Something remarkable occurred close to midnight on the Sunday after we arrived. A 3.4 magnitude earthquake which lasted a few seconds jolted the city. It was a scare, but we were told not to worry as such tremors were normal in that part of the world. Australia – the smallest continent in the world – is surrounded by three oceans: Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans.

Rotarian Jonathan Babatunde Majiyagbe, SAN, OFR was the first and only African to have ever served as Rotary International President (2003-2004) since the organisation was founded in 1905. He passed away at the age of 89 on the eve of the opening ceremony of the convention in Melbourne.

Rotary International President Jennifer Jones broke the news to the entire Family of Rotary when she took the stage for her welcome remarks inside the prestigious Rod Laver Arena and a minute silence was observed in his memory.

The next convention will hold in Singapore from May 25 – 29, 2024.

The Qatar Airways flight took off from Lagos before midday on May 24 and avoided the restricted Sudanese airspace due to the armed conflict between rival factions of the military government, thereby extending the flight time to Doha.

After over eight hours of flying, we arrived at Hamad International Airport, a significant terminal complex in a class of its own. The airport is modern, functional, and luxurious; it is a spectacular piece of art for endless dining and shopping experiences.

It was a non-stop flight of 14 hours from Doha and we arrived in Melbourne, Australia, in the early hours of Friday May 26, 2023. On the same flight with me were Rotarian Omotunde Lawson, the District Governor of District 9110 and her spouse, Rotarian Francis Lawson; immediate past district governor of District 9110, Remi Bello; past assistant governor Kayode Aderinokun and his daughter, Mosun. There were also other Rotarians on the flight.

My return itinerary was QR 6346 on June 4, 2023 but operated by Virgin Australia VS 871, flying from Melbourne at 1730 to arrive in Sydney at 1855, after which I would connect Qatar Airways flight QR 909 on that same day from Sydney to Doha at 2100.

Why pass through Sydney? Initially, I was curious because I assumed that my booking was from Melbourne to Doha. It turned out to be a wrong assumption and I told my agent I didn’t like the idea of passing through Sydney to Doha as it would stretch the entire journey to 31 hours.

A sense of foreboding made me uneasy; I had this uncomfortable feeling that something could go wrong with my travel plan back to Lagos. Meanwhile, since it was not a direct Qatar Airways flight from Melbourne to Doha, I couldn’t check-in online.

I decided to chat with a Qatar Airways virtual assistant to see if I could change the itinerary. It was possible but it required me to cough out over US$1,000. Since it was a cost I could avoid and still arrive in Lagos as originally scheduled, I did not bother to pay the money.

After missing my flight out of Melbourne to Sydney, I blamed myself for not paying to fly from Melbourne to Doha. It turned out to be a penny-wise-pound-foolish decision which I regretted.

As a rule, I get to the airport early each time I have a flight to catch – be it a local or international flight – to avoid missing my flight due to unforeseen circumstances.

On Sunday June 4, 2023, I got to the airport in Melbourne quite early (before 1300) for my return trip to Lagos and checked in my two bags with three boarding passes issued to me for the entire trip to Lagos. I went through the security checks and ended up at a WH Smith shop where I bought some books.

From that point, I went straight to Gate 5 as indicated on my boarding pass and sat down patiently. This was before 1400 which was early for a flight that would depart at 1730 and began reading one of the books I bought. Instinctively, I took a photograph at 1430 of Gate 5 with the monitor displaying flight schedules.

At about 1500, I proceeded to the desk to ask about the status of the 1730 flight to Sydney but the female customer service agent told me she was busy boarding passengers.

An hour later, I went to the desk again to meet another female agent who also told me she was busy boarding passengers. On both occasions, I went back to sit down waiting for the 1730 flight to be announced.

Apparently, the boarding gate had been changed to Gate 8 which was nearby without my knowledge. It was at the third inquiry that the customer service agent told me boarding would be at Gate 12 in Terminal 4 which was not nearby.

When I got to Gate 12, I went straight to the desk for confirmation of the flight status, showing the attendant my boarding pass. Boarding to Sydney had not started, she said, because the operating aircraft had not arrived. I must have spent close to 25 mins waiting at Gate 12 before boarding commenced.

By the time I presented my boarding pass, one of the customer service agents told me the flight being boarded at the gate was VS 879, and not VS 871 indicated on my boarding pass.

She directed me to Gate 11, just around the corner. Nothing was happening there; it was like a grave yard. I returned to Gate 12 only to be told that I should go to Gate 13, opposite to Gate 12.

It was here the customer service agent looked closely at my boarding pass and said my flight was being boarded at Gate 8. At this time, just imagine my state of mind and the thoughts racing through it. By the time I walked back, lasting over 10 minutes, the flight had departed for Sydney and my two bags were removed from the plane and sent to the Baggage Services unit.

Feeling frustrated, I was advised to see the Customer Service people. I used the escalator to one level below and then the elevator to locate the desk. It was here I received the greatest shock from a team member who should at the very least show empathy towards a passenger who was going to miss his international flight.

The implication of missing the flight to Sydney was that I would miss my flight to Doha.

There was a female customer service agent when I got to the desk. She was concerned about my situation and checked the computer system to see if it was possible to get another flight to Sydney and still be able to catch the flight to Doha which looked unlikely. But at least, she wanted to try.

When the second attendant – also a female – arrived (maybe the boss), she looked at me straight in the face and said defiantly, as if to mock me: “There’s nothing we can do. Go to Qatar Airways and inform them. It is their problem; we are only operators of the flight.“

I was speechless for a few seconds, and felt dehumanised. I wondered why she acted that way; it was an unprofessional behaviour that does not align with the work ethos of the renowned global Virgin brand.

I summoned the courage to respond. “Is this how you talk to your distressed customers?” I queried. She wanted me to carry my own cross and that was exactly what I did with unbearable pain in my heart.

There is enough evidence to show that I was at Gate 5 early, waiting to board my flight to Sydney. If I wasn’t sent on a merry-go-round by the Virgin customer service agents, I would have boarded at Gate 8 easily because I would have heard my name being called while I was seated at Gate 5 to prevent de-boarding. But I was far away at Gate 12.

What happened next? I picked up my bags from baggage services and as I dragged them with me, I feared I could collapse from exhaustion. I was mentally and physically exhausted arising from the stress of the missed flight.

The poor customer service experience was unhelpful; it got me thinking. What does the iconic global Virgin brand sell? It sells experience to woo and attract customers. I went to Qatar Airways customer service desk to see if I could salvage the situation by joining the 2100 flight to Doha. That was not to be because boarding time was too close but a young lady (Marwa) on the desk was very helpful.

I paid Qatar Airways to be able to return to Nigeria because of the Code Share agreement with Virgin Australia – an expense that could easily have been avoided. I also paid for one night stay and dinner at Park Royal Hotel, opposite the airport.

Upon my return, I wrote to Virgin Australia to narrate my story and complain about the poor customer service but the airline only expressed their regrets and sympathised with my plight. “Guests are to accept personal responsibility to ensure that they are present at the correct boarding gate prior to the flight being closed to boarding,” a Virgin Australia representative wrote in their email to me.

It didn’t matter anymore that I was at the airport early and still missed my fight in spite of my best efforts to confirm the boarding gate. Apart from the announcement on the change of boarding gate from Gate 5 to Gate 8 which I missed; I did not receive any other notification.

I took a travel insurance policy with Axa Mansard for my trip to Australia. Hopefully, the insurance giant will redeem their promise in respect of disrupted and missed flights. Some of my friends teased me to purchase a private jet and I asked them to send me US$65 million for a Gulf Stream jet!

I have learnt my lessons; missing an international flight comes with a lot of inconveniences that must be avoided at all cost. For example, your bank cards may be declined due to “suspected fraudulent activity.” It happened to me as I tried to confirm my trip from Melbourne to Doha on Qatar Airways. It was surprising because it was the same bank card that I used throughout my stay in Melbourne.

Eventually, payment was made but with a double charge on the bank card by Qatar Airways which, by the way, is a great airline. The extra charge was a debit error which Qatar Airways is obliged to refund.

I am thankful to one of our district governor nominees, Rotarian Oluwole Kukoyi (a medical doctor and member of the Rotary Club of Ota in Ogun State)) and his wife, Sola, for their valuable assistance. They ensured that I was not stranded in Melbourne.

Joe Akhigbe, president of the Rotary Club of Lagos (my club), was equally helpful at the Melbourne airport when it became clear that I would spend another night in Melbourne – the second largest city in Australia.

Braimah is a public relations strategist and publisher/editor-in-chief of Naija Times (https://ntm.ng), and he can be reached via [email protected]

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