25.03. NZ Incompetence

Abandoned by New Zealand's government

Written in Lyttelton on Wednesday, 25 March, after returning from Buenos Aires a day earlier on Qatar Airways. Air NZ transported me from Auckland to Christchurch in rather a safe way. This does, however, not excuse their appalling attitude of promising return flights from Argentina until 30 March and then abandoning the plan on 18 March without notifying customers affected by this shocking change of mind.

I have succeeded to return to New Zealand from Argentina right in time before the lockdown starting tonight at midnight.

I would probably not have made it back, had I not just taken a taxi to the airport in Buenos Aires last Saturday without having a ticket – which wasn’t legal but it was the only way to get out. I arrived back home yesterday, Tuesday, after a trip around the world.

G’day from Lyttelton,

I am not surprised by Winston Peters’ [our Minister of Foreign Affairs] recommendation yesterday that Kiwi travellers should seek shelter overseas (and become other countries’ problem). I am not surprised because I have already been told last week that the NZ government would not make an effort to bring Kiwis home when I contacted the Consular Emergency Service in Wellington from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I called them because the NZ embassy in Buenos Aires didn’t even take calls during their meagre 3-hour public working hours (Mon – Fri), and not even on the emergency number, and closed the embassy last Thursday (19 March) physically (understandable!) and didn't take any calls.

I had walked several kilometres from my hotel to the Embassy, only to see a guard block the main entrance with a wooden bar, so the doors couldn't be opened. I was able to talk to him, and he gave me the Embassy's number which I already knew, and said they would take calls. Which they didn't. Still standing in front of the building, I called the number, and an automated voice told callers in English and Spanish that the embassy was closed.

Other embassies worked overtime, New Zealand's embassy closed

At the same time other embassies (e.g. Germany and France) worked overtime and seven days a week to get as many of their people onto government-organised evacuation flights back home and e.g. the French listing airlines and times of corporate flights that were still operating.

At the time Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern still said, as I could read in NZ media, that there was no reason for panic buys (of airline tickets) and that there was still the option to return on a freight plane. Hahahahaha!!!

But it was high time for panic buys, as the Consular Emergency Service in Wellington – which I contacted last Wednesday (18 March) after Air NZ’s surprising announcement to stop their Buenos Aires service immediately and not operate it until 31 March, as announced two or three days earlier.

I was told to be prepared to hunker down in a hotel in Buenos Aires for several weeks, as the NZ government could and would not help, and I quote a guy named Andrew: “We can’t really help. We are ONLY the Government and not Air New Zealand.”

But he had good advice, telling me to call the German Embassy, as I hold dual citizenship, and, as said above, the German government and embassy were putting lists for repatriation flights together. I would have got a seat on the first flight to Germany on Monday (23 March), had I not purchased a ticket for NZ$ 11,000!!! with Qatar Airways who used the short supply of flights to charge extortionate fares to people desperate to get home. And I am more than happy that I did it because I am home and need not worry any longer.

Taxi to the airport without ticket: Breaking the rules was my rescue

Last Saturday (21 March) I just packed my bags and took a taxi to the airport in Buenos Aires despite not having a valid ticket due to problems with my credit card for online payments. At the police control on the way to the airport I showed the flight details to the police officer and said I had booked but had to pay at the airport. He was happy, I was happy, and probably I was one of the very few people at the near-empty airport who had no ticket, as only people with tickets were allowed to enter the airport.

It took me six hours until I had my ticket, as Qatar Airways threatened (by email) to cancel my ticket and boarding passes, purchased by a friend in the UK when my credit card payment just wouldn’t work.

Chicane after chicane by Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways wanted me to present the credit card with which the ticket was purchased at check-in!!! And despite my friend – as requested – emailing copies of her credit card, passport, and screenshots of the transaction plus a monthly credit card statement, to verify that she had really approved (to herself LOL) the use of the credit card.

But after fulfilling all the requirements, they suddenly wanted her to email an ID from the US because she had used an American credit card. But she didn’t have any such ID, and they wouldn’t budge, not showing any humanity, empathy and common sense in this extreme and extremely stressful situation.

This went on for several hours, including phone calls to the Buenos Aires airport office (where they said they wanted the credit card photos with the middle numbers blurred!), and long story short: In the end we cancelled the ticket my friend had purchased and I purchased a new one when the counter opened in the evening, as the credit card worked perfectly fine at the little machine at the desk.

Then it took airline staff ten minutes to verify that I was a resident of New Zealand and allowed to enter the country. Imagine my despair during the endless email and telephone discussions with Qatar Airways after first jubilating about having a ticket and even the boarding passes, and getting home.

Travelling around the world after Air NZ cancelling their 13-hour flight

Instead of flying 13 hours on the direct Air NZ flight or the not much longer LATAM flight via Santiago that my husband had booked (and which was cancelled several times after every re-booking due to Chile closing the border and the first part of the flight not going ahead on most days), it took me 37 hours on a trip around the world via Sao Paulo and Doha to Auckland, followed by a flight to Christchurch which was handled very well by Air NZ, placing only one passenger in each row of three to minimise the risk of infection. Also handling the formalities at Auckland Airport was efficient.

But surely it is not forgotten that Air NZ left their customers high and dry when announcing to stop their Buenos Aires service without warning prior to the 31 March deadline that had been announced only two or three days earlier, leaving hundreds of New Zealanders stranded who had scheduled return flights home before the 31 March deadline, including me who had already changed my booking from mid April to 22 March, thinking I was on the safe side.

But this hope only lasted a few days, and until today (25 March) I have not received an email from Air NZ telling me that my 22 March flight was cancelled. I could only see it two days later in the Air NZ app (which didn’t work properly, always showing my original flight and only showing the new one when you emailed the flight details to yourself). Had I not been told by my husband and friends in New Zealand, I might have been unaware of the cancellation until it would have been too late to get out of Argentina.

Hahaha! Online check-in open for cancelled flight!

And there is more: While in Doha, I received an email from Air NZ, telling me that the online check-in for my 22 March flight was open!!! In hindsight, this is even funny. But seriously: computer systems are stuffed up, probably worldwide, and you can only trust what you see or hear from a real person working for the respective company. Free hotel rooms and available seats on flights you find on the internet do not exist (anymore). Helplines are, understandably, are totally overwhelmed.

In the meantime Air NZ offers credits to customers whose flights were cancelled. Why only credits for future flights and no refunds? Are we considered to be banks? After this nightmare I do not feel in the mood to fly anytime soon, and I want my money back. I need the NZ$ 2,000 to pay for my NZ$ 11,000 ticket with Qatar Airways!

Jacinda Ardern has announced that tightening the rules (in general, not just air travel) is a priority, and I agree. But I have the impression the simple things have been forgotten until now. Just look at the airports as they are.

In Auckland - 40 hours before the total lockdown was imposed on the country - passengers were still required to use touchscreens and no hand sanitizer in sight. Then you had to use the handheld scanner to scan the bag tag, no sanitizer in sight. The Air NZ service staff member at the counter held my cellphone to check my booking to Christchurch – at least she might have had sanitizer on her desk. All you could do was run to the toilet after doing these formalities and wash your hands with soap or use your own sanitizer if you were one of the lucky ones who had left some.

No temperature taken upon arrival

While at other airports and also at the hotel check-in in Buenos Aires my temperature had been taken, nothing such in Auckland. Arriving passengers were asked (by very friendly staff) how they felt and where they would self-isolate. Everything very friendly but why not take the temperature? At least this risk factor could be assessed.

Sure, if the Government decides that returning Kiwis pose too high a risk and they should be locked into hotels [which happened at midnight in the night from 25 to 26 March], there is no need for looking at the small things.

I for my part am happy to be self-isolating at home and having everything I need. But I am disappointed how Kiwis, desperate to come home, have been abandoned overseas by our government, and Winston Peters even fantasising about mercy flights for 80,000 New Zealanders, many of whom don’t even live here anymore. Even collaborating with other governments might be an option, using their repatriation planes to get New Zealanders back home. There were plenty of Kiwis returning from Germany and other European countries on the Qatar Airways flight from Doha. Just a thought.

Addition for friends: Thanks to Kimi, my travel bear. He kept my spirit up and even made me laugh in the worst of times.