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Stranded at an airport for 24 hours, the only spirit of Australia I saw was between passengers

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<span>Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

When I board the long-haul back over the Pacific for a birthday or for Christmas, Qantas is a big part of the whole nostalgic ritual. I do still call Australia home, I like hearing accents from home when I board, I like having decent tea with breakfast. I like gluing my nose to the window for the view of Sydney that Clive James described so beautifully, “yachts racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires”. In a more homesick moment, I hung a Qantas calendar in my office because it reminded me I’d get to go home. Qantas is the only brand that’s ever been able to elicit this kind of saccharine loyalty from me. Until today, I thought it was deserved.

Here’s what happened. Two days ago, there was a mechanical fault on QF8. Time for one of my favourite verbs; to de-plane. Head to baggage claim to get your things. It’s 2.30am, so it’s annoying, but mechanical problems happen and when they do you’d really rather be on the ground – Qantas’ safety record is one reason for my loyalty. I like to grip the armrest during turbulence and play the scene from Rain Man in my head: never had a crash, never had a crash, never had a crash.

Related: Qantas apologises to hundreds of passengers left stranded at US airport

But that was about the last we heard from Qantas for the next 24 hours. About 300 people traipsed to baggage claim – some elderly, some families with lots of kids, some bleary-eyed toddlers. “Where are we sleeping?”, we kept asking.

Eventually, a woman in uniform handed out pieces of paper telling us the flight had been cancelled (yes) and we had nowhere to sleep (we know). There were no accommodation arrangements; keep your receipts so you could be reimbursed to a modest cap for a hotel you found on our own, we were told. By being herded to baggage claim we’d been cut off from the intra-airport hotels designed for 24-hour check-ins. I’d started Googling rooms when I heard “disarm the doors” but could only find a handful, miles away. One passenger’s one-way Uber was $100.

Perky recently showered people checked into their on-time flights. How we loathed them

If you couldn’t find a hotel – or more importantly, could not afford one – you were on the airport floor. At 4am one passenger switched to sleeping on their suitcase; “I’m shivering, the floor’s too cold”. A middle-aged couple sat slow-motion nodding in upright chairs. In the morning one woman asked if I could watch her bag so she could get breakfast; I broke the news that on this side of the airport, there was no food.

The piece of paper had said our flight would leave at 11am and that we should check in at 9. At 9am, nobody from Qantas was to be seen. Airport staff tried to tell us to move our bags and when we brayed that this was exactly what we were trying to do, they made a few calls – “Qantas isn’t answering, we don’t know why”. What had been a Qantas desk yesterday was now Lufthansa. Perky recently showered people checked into their on-time flights. How we loathed them. An hour later and still, no Qantas employee turned up.

Some passengers received texts informing them of additional delay; others didn’t. Some people’s Qantas profiles showed them as having already taken the cancelled flight, so they had no ‘active booking’ that customer service could recognise. A rumour spread that the plane would leave at 7pm, but there was no way to confirm that online or on the phone. There was no digital trace of the flight, we had gone into a logistical Bermuda triangle. Three hundred people stood clustered around their bags with children or their mobility devices, waiting for direction from an airline that wasn’t there.

I don’t mind sleeping on a cold floor, I’ll survive. It’s annoying to miss a flight or a meal, but we’ll live. What I did mind was the sense that nobody from Qantas cared that this was happening.

Minimal acts of decency have massive return when things go wrong – a blanket, a coffee run, someone clearly assigned to help families with kids. A plan for sharing information, someone who turns up when they said they will. Instead, it was another five hours before Qantas told us we’d be delayed another eight.

People translated calls, gave their snacks to kids … shared accommodation and information when Qantas provided none

In a moment of hotheadedness I tweeted complainingly. I was met with hundreds of similar Qantas stories – not just of mistakes, but disregard. People say their luggage has been lost with no response, that they’ve waited on reimbursements for emergency hotels for three months, six months, that they’ve also been left stranded at airports in Singapore, Dubai, LA.

In all these stories the anger came from the same well. There had been no serious attempt to engage these people, as people. Only the school-counsellor tone of the selectively-responsive Twitter: “DM us if you have any questions”. Here’s my question: what has happened to this airline?

The only “spirit of Australia” I saw in that airport was between passengers. People translated calls for panicked strangers, gave their snacks to fractious kids, lied to “guests-only” hotel restaurants to sneak each other lunch, shared accommodation and information when Qantas provided none. These were kind and decent people who’d chosen to give their money to Qantas. I know they’re not the only ones who’ll never do that again.

In the end we stayed in the airport for a bit over 24 hours. But just after we were cleared for takeoff, an announcement came over the PA: someone had forgotten a signature, we had to head back to the gate.

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