Every aspect of travelling is chaos right now – is this the new normal?

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Shenqiu Liu/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Shenqiu Liu/Getty Images

It was midnight on Tuesday when I got a text from the bus company saying my overnight bus service “will be delayed approximately 1.5-2.5 hours, due to an operational issue. Please continue to wait at the pick up location.”

The pick-up location was a dark and empty car park attached to a closed service station smack bang in central Queensland. It was cold. It was the middle of the night. Waiting there felt unsafe.

So I made the decision to cut my losses, return to my accommodation and hopefully try to get out of town, somehow, the following day.

After a week of patchy service, including being stranded in Yamba, which was without a bus service for six days, I had to confront the fact that trying to circumvent Australia’s current transport woes by travelling from Sydney to Cairns by road did not exempt me from the pain that so many travellers are feeling right now.

Related: Stranded at an airport for 24 hours, the only spirit of Australia I saw was between passengers | Eleanor Gordon-Smith

And there is a lot of pain. Across the world, as borders open, travellers are struggling as they rely on transport and logistics systems that are no longer fit for purpose (or in the words of Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, no longer “match-fit”). It’s not just that airlines (and long-haul bus lines) have been asleep for two years but, in the case of the aviation industry, it has been stripped of key workers during the pandemic. That talent and experience is being sorely missed as Australians are now travelling in numbers not seen since 2019.

While many of us dreamed of travel – whether it be to Queensland or Europe – in the months of being confined to our 5km radius, that dream is now looking like a nightmare.

The disaster stories have been coming thick and fast since Easter – people’s luggage going missing (including passengers who are missing irreplaceable items, such as a dead parent’s ashes), passengers missing connecting flights, passengers on a Qantas flight from the US stranded overnight at Dallas airport, passengers not able to get on flights because of staffing issues at security, queues in Sydney and Melbourne for security snaking all the way out the terminal, bags not being loaded on to planes (one airport source told Guardian Australia that on one occasion in April, just 87 of the 150 bags checked on a flight were loaded on to the plane), travellers arriving at the airport at 4am to check in for domestic flights, stressed out and exhausted airline staff hiding from irate passengers, long waits at the baggage carousels and in May, Qantas cancelling one in every 13 domestic flights.

Qantas have said these woes are not specific to the airline – that all airlines, both here and overseas, have struggled to rebuild their workforce post-lockdowns.

We are about to enter a new round of a potential airport hellscape with school holidays starting next week

But it is difficult not to see Qantas’s problems as being more structural in nature.

Airlines were supported by government payments, including jobkeeper during the pandemic, but Qantas laid off nearly 2,000 ground workers when the borders were shut and shifted the jobs to third-party companies. That move was found by the federal court to be illegal and in breach of the Fair Work Act.

In 2022, we are seeing the fruits of a skilled labour shortage as the airline has struggled to return to pre-pandemic levels of service. The question must be asked: are our transport companies still fit for purpose?

The worry is that these issues plaguing not just Qantas, but transport providers in general, will become the new normal – that is, we are entering an era where the relationship between the airline (or the bus company or the passport office) and the passenger has broken down, and where travel itself becomes an unpleasant ordeal best avoided.

You could make a grim sequel to the 1987 John Hughes classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles about how to get from one place to another using what’s on offer from transport companies in 2022. Even the first step of getting a passport is fraught in this climate. This week saw the area around the passport office in Sydney transformed into a makeshift camping ground as hundreds queued in the cold – some getting there before dawn in desperation to speak to someone who could assist with their claim. People have been missing flights because of the delay. Others are paying people hundreds of dollars to wait in the queue for them.

Related: I was longing for beatnik freedom – so I took an overnight bus to Yamba | Brigid Delaney

As for me, trying to get out of central Queensland and northern New South Wales when the bus company let me down was near impossible. In both those areas, floods, supply chain issues and pent-up demand has meant it is extremely difficult to get a hire car unless you book months ahead. And if you do get one, prices are steep.

I ended up being able to catch a bus 24 hours later, but what was meant to be a relaxing couple of days at my next stop in Airlie Beach was truncated to 20 tired hours.

Overseas, governments and regulators are keeping a close watch on the buckling aviation sector.

In Europe, airlines have been told by the government and regulators to cancel the flights they won’t be able to deliver now, to avoid a return to the chaos seen in May and June.

And in the US, the transport secretary, Pete Buttigieg, has called on airlines to ‘“stress-test” their summer schedules and add more customer service workers to handle the added demand.

Back in Australia, Qantas is facing increasing reputational damage as a result of poor performance and customer service. But in a radio interview this week, Joyce said demand for the airline was higher than ever. “The ticket demand is there, we’ve got more than pre-Covid levels of demand,” he said.

We are about to enter a new round of a potential airport hellscape with school holidays starting next week. If the airlines haven’t learned from their mistakes and the chaos at Easter, maybe us passengers will have to reassess whether the pain of travel outweighs the pleasure. After all, we have Zoom now.

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