Haunting Christchurch

I’m so naive. I’m sat here in Christchurch, New Zealand and despite all I’ve read and heard anecdotally, I’m still utterly speechless. Christchurch was devastated by a massive earthquake in February 2011 and nearly 3.5 years later is still on the brink of recovery.

I didn’t want to believe it though. My trust-worthy companion, the Qantas in-flight magazine The Australian Way, amongst other travel oriented articles and blogs, have been boasting about Christchurch’s rise from the ashes as of the last few months. In fact, everything from shipping container boutiques to local art installations and pop up coffee shops has spun the ramshackle into riches.

This is what got me most excited. I dismissed all the backlash comments of after quake scares and desolation and imagined a hipster’s paradise – street art, craft beer disguised in old vacant warehouses and fashion labels hidden behind street lamps.

The best part is these things do exist. It’s just what makes it all the more creepy when you’re a tourist for less than 24 hours and you’re the only person on the street trying to uncover all the amazing ‘hidden gems’, honestly inspired to ‘give back’ and help the community but frankly, you’re scared to death of a zombie gang about to bust out of a half standing ex-office building.

Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers by Julia Morison; Scape Public Art

Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers by Julia Morison; Scape Public Art

It also didn’t help that John, my nearly 80 year old taxi driver told me point blank just how scary it all was. “You can’t predict these things,” John said. “One minute you feel a shake, and you have no idea how bad it’s actually going to get. You don’t know what to do with yourself. You want to just run away, but they tell you to stay inside, hide under the table or something. One of the safest places is under a doorway because it’s more stable.” John’s lived in in Christchurch his whole life, and fortunately didn’t suffer any personal damage to his family or his home.

Downtown didn’t actually re-open until last November. It’s a ghost town. Literally, the feeling is haunting. There are only five hotels in Christchurch at the moment, and I’m pleasantly impressed with the Novotel, which sits in Cathedral Square, just opposite quiet tram lines and the old Christchurch Cathedral, with part of its side bitten out from the quake.

Christchurch Cathedral

Christchurch Cathedral

It’s only 6:30 pm, 8 degree Celsius (46 F) and pissing down rain. From all the recent articles I’ve read about Christchurch, I had a few places in mind such as CBD Bar who are an off shoot of Cassels and Sons local brewery and Pomeroy’s, a Christchurch historic institution who brew their own beer. After about 2 minutes out on the cold dark streets I stopped on a quiet corner. That was the thing. All of the corners were quiet. I decided to second guess my adventure for local beer due to the fact that I felt alone, and unsafe. As much as I want to help support the local businesses, doing it alone didn’t seem smart. I turned back to have a quiet dinner and local Pinot Noir back at the Novotel, and vow tomorrow to revisit the quick glimpses of street art that I caught earlier today, and maybe even sneak in a cheeky pint too before my flight down to Queenstown. 

In the clouds:  snow-capped mountains on the South Island of New Zealand

In the clouds: snow-capped mountains on the South Island of New Zealand

Dear United

I’m hoping you may be able to provide some clarity on some details of your international flight routes. Specifically, customer comforts such as in-flight entertainment and refreshments? I thank you in advance for reading, despite the length of my letter, as I think it’s important that you hear my story. I’ve also shared my story with the readers of my travel blog www.thesetwoeyes.com and look forward to disclosing your feedback with them as well.

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the economic situation and the impact it has had on the airline industry. As a fellow person in business, day-to-day I see various industries shifting and shuffling trying to make ends meet to keep afloat. Those that I value the most are the companies that look to the future and acknowledge customers’ needs, rather than cut corners to hit hard budgets. In all business, customer loyalty and word of mouth can fortunately or unfortunately make or break you.

In the United States we’ve seen trends such as this take over the industry and for much of Europe as well. The airlines that get the most praise are those that are doing something different than the rest and give the perception that they’re customer focused; airlines such as Jet Blue and Southwest come to mind. Internationally, there are handfuls of airlines aspiring back to the days where it used to be a privilege to fly; as a customer on a plane you were treated with respect for your time and loyalty, even in economy. I’ve experienced this myself on Qantas, Emirates, Thai Airways, Air New Zealand, British Airways and others.

As a loyal Continental flyer for a number of years, I can honestly say that I looked forward to flying domestically. With Newark Liberty International Airport being a fantastic hub for a northern New Jersey resident, I always made Newark and Continental my primary choice for flying both business and leisure. I found the service hospitable, the planes in tidy condition, and even appreciated the small snacks like the turkey sandwiches. This truly gave them a competitive edge while others were taking away perks such as complimentary baggage and even soft drinks.

When Continental merged with United I got a bit nervous; what could this mean for my favourite airline? I found out too soon after cashing in my hard earned miles for a flight from Newark to Sydney, Australia in November 2010. As a frequent international flyer, I was astonished at what I found on the other end of the jet-way. I’d like to acknowledge that yes, I did cash in my miles and despite the taxes this flight could be classified as “complimentary” however I do not think any service should be downgraded due to this.

United LA to Sydney

My thoughts from November 2010 flying United LA to Sydney

I have my notes from that flight still today. I was so uncomfortable with my experience that I took the time to write them down and it’s unfortunate that I’ve waited this long to notify you. What is most interesting is that on my flight from Newark to LA I had a fantastic experience. The plane was in impeccable condition and I had an empty seat between my window seat and my neighbour in the aisle. I was surprised and grateful that I had my own in-flight entertainment in the seat in front which made the long journey go by pleasantly; something that was not expected for a domestic flight. I remember specifically thinking to myself to not watch any of the good movies yet, I’ll save them for the long haul flight on my next leg.

From LA to Sydney is where my real complaint comes in. The plane was dated and the interior was in poor condition. I didn’t feel as if it were going to fall apart, however I am always comfortable in the interiors of Virgin and British Airways and expected the same conditions (if not better) for an even longer haul, especially the leg room. I thought to myself, how was my domestic flight superior to this?

My biggest disappointment had come with the entertainment. The last time I’d been on an international flight in economy where the entire plane had to squint to watch the same program, as there were no personal entertainment systems, was on an Olympic Air in 2008, and despite their bankruptcy, I swore to never fly with them again. With average meals and no complimentary alcoholic beverages it makes me wonder how United can stay in business against the likes of Virgin Australia and Qantas on this same route?

I am now residing in Australia and take the international flight from Brisbane to New York, or some similar combination whether it be from Sydney or to Philadelphia, a handful of times a year. I am very loyal to Qantas due to their service, professionalism, entertainment, efficiency, and refreshments being above par. So much that I rave about them quite regularly on my blog www.thesetwoeyes.com. In fact, I make a point to ask every person I meet who has travelled via LA to Australia what airline they took. Before even answering I know by their expression if was United. It’s a common joke amongst cross-Pacific travellers that if you have a United flight, you might as well not even go because it’s anticipated to be that bad.

As the holidays are approaching I’m returning to the US on another long haul flight.  I cannot express the intensity of my disappointment when the only option within my budget during overpriced holiday season was with United. I write this to you because I don’t want to have the panic that I felt when I spent over $3,000 on a flight and already anticipate a horrible experience. I am not cheap, I will pay for a bottle of wine or sandwich if that is what is required however after already paying $3,000 this is completely unnecessary. And as far as entertainment goes, I think your flight crew may have a more pleasant time if their customers were distracted and content watching what suited them on a personal level rather than overhearing their neighbour snoring because they can’t see the communal television.

I can appreciate that all of these may sound like superficial complaints but for a frequent flyer who enjoys flying, who looks forward to the experience and has praise for many airlines that get the formula right, I’m asking you, United, when are you going to lead the pack? Or as a minimum, improve your services to be on par with your direct competitors? What are you doing about in-flight entertainment, service, leg room, and refreshments for long haul flights?

An Australian colleague recently said to me, “We look to the United States as a global leader, as someone who always has the best. How is it that flying a US airline is one of the worst experiences a traveller could have?”

Thank you for reading this lengthy letter. I do anticipate your response and look forward to hearing about how my experience and future travels will be improved.

Kind Regards,


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