Q’town Airport overnights stranded Air New Zealand passengers

Queenstown Airport turned into a pseudo backpackers last Friday, after Air New Zealand cancelled its last flight.

Wild weather forced the cancellation of seven flights to Queenstown from 12.15pm, and while one service from Auckland managed to get in about 8.55pm, 45 minutes later than scheduled, that return A320 service turned into a nightmare for the full plane-load of passengers.

Under Civil Aviation Authority rules, planes have to be wheels up, or down, by 10pm at Queenstown.

Queenstown Airport boss Glen Sowry says, ordinarily, those flights can be turned around to depart within an hour.

But last Friday, it took ‘‘considerably longer’’ for arriving passengers to disembark, and for departing passengers to board, which created part of the problem.

That was compounded when a passenger’s bag was loaded on to the plane, but they didn’t present at the gate.

An Air NZ spokeswoman says the flight was due to depart before the curfew, but the missing passenger triggered the airline’s standard procedure of ‘‘searching for, and offloading, bags’’.

That meant the plane had no hope of leaving before the curfew, forcing the flight to be cancelled, and passengers to disembark.

Back in the terminal, Air NZ staff scrambled to find accommodation for the passengers, but given the late hour, and capacity issues in the resort, couldn’t.

Auckland’s Nannette Cadwallader, was one of a few stranded passengers who found accommodation at Queenstown Country Lodge — fortuitously, host Jennifer Harper says they had last-minute cancellations due to cancelled inbound flights.

But about 100 others had nowhere to go.

Sowry says that’s when the airport company made the ‘‘extremely rare’’ call to stay open for the night and allow people to sleep over.

“Above and beyond”: Queenstown Airport CEO Glen Sowry

‘‘Very obviously, that’s not ideal.

‘‘Our preference would be that people are able to be accommodated comfortably in a hotel room.’’

Ordinarily, it’s the airline’s responsibility to take care of their passengers, but Sowry says his team went ‘‘above and beyond’’ to help where they could.

‘‘We are a reasonably lean team here at the airport company and, ordinarily, we’re not resourced to have teams on standby in this sort
of situation.

‘‘But we did everything we could to make people comfort able, and then there was security onsite overnight, just to ensure that people had access to the amenities they needed.

‘‘I’m really proud of our team and the way that they stepped up … that has been a lot of pressure and stress on our team, and it was a difficult situation and the wellbeing of our team is an absolute priority … they responded, I think, very, very well.’’

Airline staff were reportedly in tears

Cadwallader says Air NZ rebooked her — but it would have seen her only leave Queenstown yesterday.

‘‘I’ve got a family, I’ve got children I need to get back for, you know?’’

Instead, she forked out extra cash to book a seat out last Saturday with the two friends she was travelling with.

But when she got to the airport that morning, she learned she’d been ‘‘bumped’’ from that flight, while her friends had not.

During a subsequent four-hour wait in a queue, a bus full of passengers left, bound for Christchurch.

When she finally got to the front of the line, she apologised to Air NZ staff who, she says, were doing a ‘‘great job’’.

One thanked her and told Cadawallader he’d had ‘‘a couple of staff in the back in tears because it was such a disaster’’.

By then, the national carrier had organised an empty plane to transport remaining passengers back to Auckland, which took off at 6pm.

It was about a quarter full.

The Air NZ spokeswoman says that’s not unusual, given the ‘‘range of options for customers to choose from’’.

She says customers were advised the airline would reimburse up to $250 per room for overnight accommodation.

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