If Qantas is the spirit of Australia, that spirit needs to lift its game

The first Qantas Dreamliner flights will take to the skies late next year.  Photo: Louie Douvis
The first Qantas Dreamliner flights will take to the skies late next year. Photo: Louie Douvis

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Qantas. Apart from Foster's and maybe the Crocodile Dundee franchise, could there be a more internationally renowned corporate symbol for our nation?

This is the Spirit of Australia. It's the flying kangaroo. In aviation terms it's us, as a people, and across the world it is perceived as the face of our nation. Everything Qantas does reflects on Australia and Australians.

And so it was that I found myself excited to board the flight from Santiago in Chile to Sydney, a week out from Christmas.

After almost three months away, I was filled with the joy of coming home. Being on an Australian flight brought that joy a little closer, a little sooner, so it was all the greater.

What I got, though, was an eye-opener. As an Australian, I even felt a little bit embarrassed.

The good folk boarded (the very delayed) flight 28 with varying degrees of urgency. I took my seat, pretty exhausted and ready for a good long kip, when I realised there was no little overnight bag crammed with a toothbrush, eyemask and other things.

Fair enough, I thought, I'll be needing that so I'll just ask for one. And so I asked a passing hostie to please bring me a toothbrush.

There was a lot of eye-rolling. Every time the trolley came out, eyes rolled. Every time a request was made, eyes rolled. Eyes rolled at everything.

You'll get one once we're in the air, she assured me. No worries. What I did get was a passenger card ... in Spanish. I'm dark, you see. A little Mediterranean-looking. So maybe they thought I was Latina. I explained that I would like one in English. Sure, we'll bring that too.

I duly fell asleep. It had already been a long trip after a sleepless night.

I woke after five or six hours and looked hopefully into the seat pocket, where on more than one occasion, with more than one airline, I've found bikkies or some water or some chocolates tucked away by diligent staff while I slept.

No passenger card. No toothbrush. I know they're cutting costs but gee whiz, I reckon I've shelled out enough to cover the cost of a disposable toothbrush.

I asked for them again, from a passing crew member. Sure, she said. Nothing came. So I asked again. Nothing came. So I pressed the call light button and waited. No one came. Truly. No. One. Came.

When a crew member passed again with drinks, I began to explain that my light was on and she said, "Oh, I can turn that off for you..."

I said, "Um no, it's on because I would like a toothbrush. And a passenger card in English."

Sure, she said, clearly irritated that I wanted to brush my teeth and sign a legally binding document in my mother tongue.

And then, a few minutes later, from an unknown spot on the plane, someone turned off my call light. I turned it back on, confused, because they'd need to find me again to bring me my stuff, no?

It was turned off again. Bloody hell, I thought, they're turning off the call lights! I noticed the same was happening to others' call lights. So I turned it on again. And again. And again. Now I was just doing it as a test. Still no one came.

The best bit though had nothing to do with me. It was downright awful. I watched a hostie spill a drink into a passenger's lap. When he said he'd like to change his clothes, she rolled her eyes. He may not have seen that, but everyone behind him did. She visibly rolled her eyes and tisked audibly.

There was a lot of eye-rolling, in fact. Every time the trolley came out, eyes rolled. Every time a request was made, eyes rolled. Eyes rolled at everything. People were spoken to as though they were five years old and had been a bit naughty.

Two-thirds of the way into the 14-hour flight, the toilets were filthy, with paper and rubbish overflowing from the bins. The aisles were revolting, with plastic wrapping and headphones and various bits and bobs all over the floor.

The staff not only didn't seem to care, they were downright disdainful of pretty much every passenger with their tut-tutting tone and look of continual annoyance.

So if that's the spirit of Australia, it's miserable and miserly and dirty and untidy.

And if that's the face of Australia, it's rolling its eyes at everyone ... and the poor sods probably have furry teeth.

Gabrielle Costa is morning homepage editor of theage.com.au