Qantas passengers have complained that the airline flew a half empty plane from Heathrow to Australia yesterday, leaving delayed Qantas passengers behind in London.
Flight QF2 departed the snow-addled airport overnight, returning this morning. However, ABC News reported that passengers were amazed at how empty the plane was, with one passenger commenting that he had four seats to himself and was able to stretch out across them.
A Qantas spokesperson said he could not be sure of the specific load factor on the plane [proportion of seats occupied], but said passengers' perceptions were not always accurate.
"We had four departures from London on the 21st and more today, so we're certainly getting flights out and clearing our backlog," he told Australian Business Traveller.
"Where possible we're trying to keep people on the flight they were originally booked on -- which does result in longer delays for some people, though we are also trying to accommodate people who are trying to get out sooner," he said.
"There have been people with missed connections from other flights into Heathrow, and I think there were a few no-shows at the airport for people who were booked to depart, as well, so there are several factors at play."
"We're committed to getting everyone who's over there back to Australia, and we're making progress on clearing the backlog, but of course, it's not straightforward," he said.
However, Qantas passengers have been angry with the airline's lack of communication. Passenger Tim Watts vented his frustration on Twitter, saying "Couldn't be more disappointed with Qantas -- no communication & no support 4 custs.10+ hours waiting @ Heathrow only to be abandoned into snow".
Similar problems happened during the volcanic ash cloud crisis which closed much of Europe's air space in April. Airlines were not able to reach their affected travellers quickly enough to fill planes when a flight slot became available.
"A number of flights were flying half-full at that time," said George Freney, Managing Director APAC for ConTgo, a company that provides SMS alerts to travellers whose travel has been disrupted.
Freney said the travel industry was lagging behind travellers' expectations of instantaneous communication they are used to through Twitter and Facebook.
"If a travel provider has 3,000 disrupted travellers, it needs to be able to group them up easily and send them updates en-masse to keep them alerted to what's going on."
"Travellers understand travel providers can't fix major problems instantly, but they do expect to be communicated to instantly and frequently," he said. "The travel industry -- at its peril -- is not communicating with travellers in a structured and formal way using the modern modes of communication," he said.
"Travellers are often left relying on other people's Tweets. Fundamentally if I've bought travel from a provider, I want to know from my provider what is happening, not third hand via Twitter."