31 Jan 2023

Kiwi travellers stuck in Malaysia due to Auckland floods blast airlines' response

10:08 am on 31 January 2023
Dr Dan Cocker, his wife Dr Eileen Liew, 10yo son Rhys Cocker, 8yo son Felix Cocker and 15-month-old daughter Eva-Mae Cocker had trouble with their flight because of Friday's flooding at Auckland Airport.

Dr Dan Cocker, and Dr Eileen Liew, with their children Rhys Cocker, 10, Felix Cocker, 8, and 15-month-old Eva-Mae Cocker. Photo: Supplied

Frustrated travellers stranded in Asia since last Friday because of flooding at Auckland Airport have blasted airlines' responses to the washout, as they battle to find a way home.

Many still have no idea when they will reach their destination after repeated, unsuccessful attempts to rebook their flights online, through call centres and in person at airport service counters.

Wellington breast cancer surgeon Dan Cocker's Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Auckland was cancelled last Friday, leaving his family of five in travel limbo.

Cocker had returned to the airport every day since to try to find out when he and his wife Dr Eileen Liew and their three children aged 10, 8 and 15 months might be able to fly home.

"Our eight-year-old was in tears last night saying he's scared about not being able to get home, about missing school," he said.

"Every day we have to go back to the airport and wait for several hours for updates."

Late on Monday night, Malaysia Airlines emailed passengers to say it had scheduled two special flights between Kuala Lumpur and Auckland departing on Wednesday and Thursday.

"We wish to update you that we have just received approval to operate additional flights between February 1st and 2nd 2023 to facilitate your immediate transfer into and out of Auckland," the email said.

"Malaysia Airlines is actively rebooking affected customers onto these flights and issuing new tickets."

Communication from the airline was almost "non-existent" for days, Cocker said.

Queues at Kuala Lumpur Airport as a result of the flooding at Auckland Airport on Friday, 27 January.

Queues are long at Kuala Lumpur International Airport as flights are cancelled. Photo: Supplied

"There has been pretty much radio silence from them, there has been no email to update us," he said.

"The airline says they aren't paying for anybody's hotel, so everyone's just sort of stuck in limbo. Everyone's just waiting out at the airport trying to get any news that they can."

While he had the luxury of staying with family, Cocker was concerned about international students sleeping rough at Kuala Lumpur International Airport because they were too young to book a hotel room under Malaysian law.

"Some of them were in tears, they were all very anxious. These are vulnerable children that had been sent by their parents to fly back to school. I felt really sorry for them," he said.

Cocker, who works at Wellington and Hutt Hospitals, said he was relying on colleagues to see his cancer patients in the meantime, some of whom had to be reallocated to other clinics.

Michael Gunson had trouble with his flight as a result of the flooding at Auckland Airport on Friday, 27 January.

Michael Gunson is hoping to get home earlier than 9 February after his flight was cancelled. Photo: Supplied

Aucklander Michael Gunson was booked to travel on the same cancelled Malaysia Airlines flight as the Cocker family.

He was initially told there were no seats available until 28 February, prompting a group of passengers to directly appeal to Malaysia's transport minister for help.

Gunson was then offered a flight to Auckland on 9 February, but will now fly home tomorrow.

"A lot of people are running out of money. We're lucky, we've got travel insurance, but some people's travel insurance has run out or does not cover this. Some people are in dire straits," he said.

"Everyone's been going to the airport day after day after day, hour after hour, standing at the counter trying to get answers.

"There didn't seem to be any compassion or empathy on their part, they basically ignored us."

Another passenger told RNZ Malaysia Airlines' response had been "absolutely nightmarish".

In an email sent to affected passengers on Sunday, Malaysia Airlines said it was facing "limited capacity on our flights due to the series of flight cancellations caused by the adverse floods in Auckland".

"Malaysia Airlines is, however, in the process of obtaining permission to operate additional flights into Auckland in order to ensure that all of our customers are transferred accordingly," the airline said.

"We seek your patience as we work to obtain the necessary approvals from New Zealand authorities."

Malaysia Airlines has been contacted for further comment.

Air New Zealand has also been criticised for a lack of communication, as staff work to rebook 9000 people whose flights were cancelled because of the flooding.

Mark Wilkinson's parents were supposed to make a quick overnight stop in Singapore on the way from the United Kingdom to visit their granddaughter, but remain in the country after their flight to Auckland was abandoned.

The couple received an automated message saying Air New Zealand staff would be in contact within 24 to 48 hours with new flight details, but there had been "zero communication" since, he said.

"We've all tried to get through to the call centres without any results, staying on hold for hours on end. When we did manage to get through we were informed that the person on the other end of the line only handled new bookings and there was nothing they could do," he said.

The communication void made his parents feel frustrated and powerless, Wilkinson said.

"The reason they took the break was because they find travel stressful. It's obviously incredibly frustrating, you just want them to get here," he said.

Wilkinson said his parents still had no idea when they would be able to fly to New Zealand.

In a statement released on Monday night, Air New Zealand said the 9000 affected passengers would receive updates over the next 72 hours.

Chief customer and sales officer Leanne Geraghty said every effort was being directed to speeding up the rebooking process.

"Getting these customers to their destination is our most pressing concern at the moment," she said.

"To help, Air New Zealand will be temporarily refocusing staff in our international contact centre to rebook customers. This is just for the next 72 hours or until the backlog is cleared."

The airline is also providing $250 accommodation goodwill payments to help stranded passengers waiting for new flights, Geraghty said.

"A state of emergency and an airport closure is extreme, and we understand how stressful this period must be for many customers, particularly those overseas," she said.

"To help we're offering a goodwill gesture of NZD$250 a night towards accommodation for displaced customers travelling internationally where we have not been able to provide accommodation and they have secured their own.

"If customers have sourced their own accommodation, we'll reimburse them up to NZD$250 per room per night if they send through their receipts."

Geraghty said planes were already quite full before the weather disrupted schedules, but the airline had arranged an extra flight from New Zealand on Monday night to pick up 300 people stuck in Los Angeles.

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