The new Bermuda Triangle: Me, Air New Zealand and the missing wheelchair backrest

3:51 pm on 5 February 2023

By Chris Ford

National MP Dr Shane Reti photographed baggage piled up in the arrivals hall at Auckland International Airport on December 26.

National MP Dr Shane Reti photographed baggage piled up in the arrivals hall at Auckland International Airport on December 26. Photo: Supplied / Dr Shane Reti

Opinion - Before Christmas 2022, I like many other New Zealanders took to the skies to see whānau and friends for the first time in many years. My destination was Sydney, Australia where my expatriate Kiwi family live, and whom due to Covid-related border closures, I hadn't seen for three years.

Ultimately, it was great to see my family again. I spent the first Christmas/New Year I had been able to spend with my immediate Oz-Kiwi whānau since 2019. Consequently, I opted to stay slightly longer in Australia this time around as I was due to depart on 30 December, but I managed to get through to a very understaffed and overstretched Air New Zealand call centre to change my flights the day before I was originally due to leave - relief all around!

However, the fantastic service provided by many dedicated, professional but stressed Air New Zealand staff and contractors was tarnished when, on my return flight home from Sydney to Dunedin, I discovered that upon landing in Christchurch that my wheelchair backrest had gone missing - lost to the new Bermuda Triangle comprised of the increasing amounts of missing luggage that has seemingly found its way into airport unclaimed baggage areas both here and overseas.

Before leaving on my trip, I had heard many horror stories about how badly countless passengers had been treated as airlines ramped up to meet pent up demand driven by the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions. In fact, I had encountered Air New Zealand's new and very challenging level of customer service exactly a week before I left as I and other passengers on a Wellington to Dunedin flight had to suddenly hop from one gate to another at Wellington Airport after a sudden and poorly communicated gate change.

Given this omen and other media stories about airline screw ups, I began wondering whether I should make the Sydney trip. My own doubts, though, were overruled by the need to see the family in person and that I had also burnt a deep $2000 hole in my hip pocket thanks to increased airfares.

On 4 January - the day of my return to Aotearoa - my worst nightmares about the current chaotic state of the airline industry were confirmed when the backrest went missing.

For readers who maybe wondering, I have a manual (self-propelled) wheelchair with a removable backrest. There are many different types of wheelchair used today and these come with different removable/foldable parts, with mine just happening to possess a backrest which can be taken on and off.

Travellers search for their suitcases in a baggage holding area for Southwest Airlines at Denver International Airport on December 28, 2022 in Denver, Colorado.

Travellers search for their suitcases in a baggage holding area for Southwest Airlines at Denver International Airport on December 28, 2022 in Colorado. Photo: Michael Ciaglo / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

All I saw, though, when I reached the baggage carousel at Christchurch Airport was one very skeletal looking black wheelchair minus its very important but now missing part. I had last seen my backrest at the gate at Sydney International Airport early that morning. The young female airport worker who had wheeled me to the gate helped me take off my cushion so that the chair could then be folded up for stowage in the aircraft hold.

Admittedly, after I boarded the aircraft, I had second thoughts about taking my backrest off as only then I remembered that my chair had travelled from Dunedin through to Sydney unfolded due to the backrest remaining on it.

I re-assured myself, though, that the aircraft baggage handlers would know how to take care of my chair as it had even travelled with the backrest messily (but happily) taped to its outer frame before on a domestic flight.

Fast forward to a week later: I had by then doggedly pursued Air New Zealand over my lost backrest through numerous phone calls, emails and online messages. However, each response from the airline only brought ever bleaker news in that it may not have survived its entanglement with the new Bermuda Triangle which had now taken up residence in Sydney Airport's unclaimed baggage section as well.

Besides, I was kicking myself for not having renewed the travel insurance I had purchased from Air NZ's very pricey provider to cover the extra days I had in Australia. I had simply forgotten to do it. This mistake came home to me when I rang my regular insurer who told me that I could only claim on my ordinary contents policy for any airline baggage lost within New Zealand. That was the kicker.

Air New Zealand planes at Auckland Airport.

(file image) Photo: Unsplash / Douglas Bagg

Only then did my penchant for making long Facebook posts save me - and the backrest - from an early eternal parting. Having put up with the agony of having to get around with my own Kiwi number eight wire version of a backrest consisting of black backpack and couch cushion filling the part of the wheelchair usually reserved for said object and after feeling some resulting physical discomfort, did I take my predicament to social media.

My Facebook post attracted fellow disabled writer/journalist Sally Wenley to message me and she put me onto an RNZ journalist who aired the story (with accompanying interview) on Morning Report. Following this, Air New Zealand at first offered to cover the cost of replacing my backrest and then - drumroll - it miracously turned up at Sydney Airport and was then returned to me by courier.

Oh, the never-ending miracles of people going to the media and getting a result!

Humour aside, I believe that while there are salutary lessons to be learned from my own experience for anyone who is travelling or intends to via air in the near future, it is the airlines and, moreover, their managements who should take the primary blame for the sorry state of the industry post-Covid.

I firmly believe this as the week after I returned to New Zealand, I watched an Australian Broadcasting Corporation Four Corners investigation on YouTube into the troubles facing Australia's national airline, Qantas. The programme contained interviews with both current and former staff members of the airline. Unsurprisingly, the former staffers (having been unceremoniously dumped during Covid) believed that management-driven contracting out of formerly in-house managed functions - including baggage handling - have contributed to the increasingly poor service being experienced by many passengers.

Passengers board commercial jet at Queenstown Airport.

(file image) Photo: 123RF

Around baggage handling in particular, former Qantas handlers pointed to the hiring of largely inexperienced, poorly trained, low paid, non-unionised baggage staff from labour hire companies who, in turn, are contracted by multinational corporations like Swissport who specialise in providing ancillary services to airlines and airports. The increasing adoption by airlines - including Air New Zealand - of these types of practises in order to lower costs and hasten their return to profit following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions has no doubt contributed to the loss of not only my own backrest but literally millions of items of baggage by both it and other airlines in recent times.

At the end of the day, Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe can go on about how he and his management team have volunteered to work on the frontlines to support their staff during the busy festive season, including in locating lost baggage. That's great but it will take more than public relations exercises to get the improvements that passengers are seeking.

One of the best ways to do that is to return baggage handling to being an in-house operation within airlines utilising well-paid, trained and experienced ground and customer service staff alongside other improvements. And one of the other improvements must include the better treatment and handling of disabled people's essential equiopment, including mobility aids. The way that airlines handled equipment and luggage important to disabled people (such as my backrest) was a real issue pre-Covid and has only worsened since then.

That's why I feel that Air New Zealand and other airlines around the world should hear the message coming from customers like myself, and frontline workers past and present that airlines should not just be making profits at the expense of the people who work for them and the customers who fly on their aircraft. Providing quality service and treating both staff and customers well matters too.

Only when systemic issues like these are addressed by the airlines will items like my wheelchair backrest and many others have better journeys in the future. And that's something that I'm hoping for when I make my next trip either within New Zealand or to Australia again.

* Chris Ford is a writer with extensive knowledge of the disability sector and a regional policy advisor with the Disabled Persons Assembly.

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