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Turbulence for REX as passengers stranded

Federal MP for Parkes, Mark Coulton has called on regional airline Rex to “pull their socks” up after a flight delay and poor communication has left passengers flying in and out of Broken Hill frustrated at best and stranded at worst.

Poor communication, lengthy delays and passengers being left stuck hundreds of kilometres from home with little support have been rife in the past fortnight.

Broken Hill resident, Paula Doran and her two children were three of five passengers who were left in Mildura enroute home last week when a two-and-a-half hour delay in Melbourne meant they missed their connecting flight.

“The delay in Melbourne was bad enough,” Ms Doran said.

“We just sat in the airport with the time ticking past our original boarding time with no communication from the ground staff. After an hour and a half without an announcement I eventually approached the ground staff who said there was no plane allocated to our route. When I suggested she might like to let passengers know that through a public announcement she agreed, but didn’t actually provide an update until another hour later when they found a plane to fly us out.

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“When we did get on the plane it was pretty clear there had been a rough flight prior to ours and the cleaning hadn’t been done. The odour of vomit on a tiny plane with limited air flow is a difficult experience, but by then we were just glad to get on board and make a start for home,” Ms Doran said.

“I wasn’t aware until we were mid-flight to Mildura that the delay in Melbourne meant we would miss our connecting flight to Broken Hill and wasn’t informed as such, until another Broken Hill passenger on the flight tapped me on the shoulder and told me,” Ms Doran said.

“While the other two passengers bound for Broken Hill were told of the situation before they boarded in Melbourne, I certainly wasn’t.

“You can understand in the weather that we were having that there may be flight delays, but I would expect a significant amount more professionalism in terms of communication from Rex,” she said.

“Being stuck on a plane mid-air when we had no ability to communicate to people that we wouldn’t be home that night wasn’t a great feeling. We were told by the air hostess that we had an option to either stay in Mildura at our own cost and find our own transport to Broken Hill, or we could fly back to Melbourne, which was absolutely pointless for us.”

Ms Doran said she was out of pocket by around $1000 by the time she found accommodation in Mildura and hired a car to travel home the next day.

“While I have to acknowledge the generosity of the Rex staff on the ground in Mildura, the airline certainly created a great deal of unnecessary stress for myself, my children and the other passengers. We ended up bringing one of the other ‘Rex refugees’ home to Broken Hill, otherwise her only option to get there was a six hour round trip by her father to come and get her.”

Other stranded passengers were given the option to stay in Mildura at their own expense, and travel home to Broken Hill two days later, on the Sunday.

“We weren’t given that option, and it wouldn’t have worked for us with the commitments we had in Broken Hill,” said Ms Doran. “It’s quite distressing to be in the air and not know how you’re getting home when there’s dogs in the backyard, groceries on the front porch and kids who were planning to catch up with their Dad,” she said.

When contacted about the incident, Rex Media manager Michael Venus could not confirm whether the company had a communication policy for customers faced with flight delays or missed linkages.

Of the Mildura-Broken Hill flight he said, “unfortunately there were some delays to flights between Melbourne and Mildura on that day due to aircraft availability and weather.

“Our airport staff in Melbourne advised passengers before their departure in Melbourne that these delays meant they would not make the connecting service from Mildura to Broken Hill. Despite most passengers being spoken to it appears some were unaware of the public announcements or privy to the various conversations which took place prior to boarding.

“It was an unfortunate communication breakdown and we can understand how frustrating this must have been for these passengers but our staff did pass on the latest information as soon as it was available. They do not recall this particular passenger either asking whether they would make the connection prior to boarding or once boarding had commenced.”

Ms Doran said three of the five passengers were not spoken to about the failed flight, which Mr Venus refused to acknowledge or seek clarification on.

When alighting from the plane at Mildura the pilot also apologised on behalf of the company and intimated he would have flown the Broken Hill passengers home if he could, but the company would not allow it.

Reports were made to the Barrier Truth that the following flight from Broken Hill to Sydney had faced delays of four hours but passengers were not alerted to the delays and sat at Broken Hill airport, devoid of staff, trying to get updates through the Rex helpline.

“It took us an hour to get through and there was no apology that we hadn’t been told our early morning flight wouldn’t be leaving until lunchtime,” said one local senior businessman who prefers to remain un-named.

Similar delays throughout last week were reported to our journalists.

MP Mark Coulton criticised the spate of poor performance for the airline, concerned at the long-term damage it could do to the economic growth in the far west.

“It’s one of those issues that because of the remote location of Broken Hill, often travelling by air is the only option for a large number of people who want to do business in or out of the area. And that’s a huge concern if passengers can’t rely on Rex to deliver. It has a potential to have a significant impact on the area if Rex continues to be unreliable.

“There is huge potential for growth in the Broken Hill region and we certainly want everyone to be putting in their best effort and moving in the right direction to making that happen,” Mr Coulton said.

“The Liberal Government gave enormous financial support to Rex through Covid because we knew how valuable they were to the regional areas. They certainly need to pull their socks up now.”
Business Far West committee member, Heather Pearce said reliable transport was essential for the region, particularly when looking at workforce retention and tourism.

“We need to continually be working towards improving our infrastructure to attract and retain workers within Broken Hill,” Ms Pearce said.

“This includes housing affordability and availability, access to childcare, access to transport and access to medical/health facilities. Access to reliable and affordable transport is a very high priority for the Broken Hill community.”

*Paula Doran works for the BT as a journalist and has made comment in an independent capacity.

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