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Chasing the Tiger

Illustration: Robin Coucher

I’d like to get all the demurring ‘well, you get what you paid fors’ out of the way right now. I’m especially talking to older readers, who remember when air travel wasn’t just a luxury but an impossibility, and it took six weeks to get to England by boat, and everyone passed the time on deck playing quoits against Don Bradman who was actually quite nice, if a little reserved, and more than handy with quoit in hand.

Then for a while there air travel became a luxury. The cutlery was heavy and the slippers white and soft. A beaming brigade of hostesses called men ‘sir’ and women ‘madam’ and because everyone was coughing up a small fortune it was only fair that passengers be offered the keys to the mini-bar. For those not old enough to benefit, it was all-you-can-drink lemonade and all-you-can-colour colouring books. Everyone was friendly and the seats were clean and the whole experience was just as pleasant as can be — for the tiny slither of the population who could afford to do it.

Now we get handed an apple in a paper napkin. It’s only as you’re hovering over that tantalising first bite that you realise that the apple costs two bucks, and the napkin a further $1.50. Not that I’m complaining. We’re in the post-luxury window between air fares becoming affordable and oil running out on October 24th 2016 (it’s time somebody had a crack at naming a date) and for a while now, we’ve all been making hay. For the family holiday to Maroochydore in May, I paid $49 a ticket. Forty nine dollars! A taxi to the airport costs more. A set of quoits costs more. Hay costs more. Budget airlines are getting us there, and just because they’re getting us there with biscuit crumbs all over the seat, doesn’t mean this isn’t a great leap forward. It’s democratic pricing. It’s an end to the bad old days of domestic duopoly. It’s a few hours of discomfort as a means to a sunnier and surfier end.

We decided to fly Tiger, and read the ticket well enough to know that we had to be there a full hour before. The late arrival is the first trap for the budget airline debutant. The carrier figures that as customers are paying less than the cost of a taxi to fly, it’s only the cost of a taxi again to send them home if they’re one minute late. We were twenty minutes early, which means we were in good time to find out that they were running two hours late.

We were nevertheless invited by a grim-faced female employee to check in. My wife Tamsin had a handbag and a wheelie case. I had a laptop computer and a wheelie case. My two year old daughter Polly had a nappy bag and a case we were making her lug around like she was a chimney sweep in the industrial revolution. We also had a pram, because my sister had told us that infant transportation wouldn’t count towards our 45 kilogram weight allocation. My sister should have read the fine print.

‘You’re over the weight,’ the woman murmured. ‘She’s two, so she’s a normal paying customer. The pram counts.’

We stared at the budget stroller, zipped away in a navy blue wet weather cover. At $15 a kilogram, it weighed about the cost of a trip to London. We emptied our bags onto the floor of the check in lounge. Did we really need a litre of blackcurrant juice? One kilo back. Was I actually going to read the Penguin Classic edition of David Copperfield, or would I sneak a couple of peeks at Tam’s Stephanie Meyer and spend the week there? Another kilo back. Eventually, we came up with the masterstroke of transplanting half our luggage into our carry on bags, and like saddle laden jockeys tottering towards the Flemington scales, presented again.

‘Are they undersize’ the grim lady pointed, auditioning for a part in Carry On Stasi.

‘They are,’ we said confidently, and they were. Our bags had made the weight and after some last minute name-tag scribbling drifted off into conveyor belt oblivion.

The Tiger terminal at Tullamarine is smallish and packed with all the creature comforts of a school portable, so we decided to kill the next hour and a half in the main airport. It was a largely unproductive time, during which Polly scoffed Vegemite sandwiches and I conducted clandestine searches of airport bookshops for copies of my own books. Eventually we spent half an hour trying to convince Polly that the Thomas the Tank Engine ride didn’t actually move, until another parent arrived and inserted three dollars and gave the game away. Defeated, we gave our screaming child a go, and then another go, and can happily report that Thomas is whirring around in there at the rate of 18 cents per second. ‘You get what you pay for,’ the wise beards say. Not with Thomas you don’t.

Eventually, it was back to the Tiger Terminal and just like a school portable, the presence of actual people had the place heated to a roaring furnace. ‘I’m going to be sick,’ Tamsin said, re-stating the phrase that had become the catch-cry of her pregnancy. While she rushed to a nearby bin, I hugged Polly, trying to smooth over a further fifteen minute delay with some nursery rhymes. We did ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. We did ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. We did ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, and did it with such sad conviction that nobody in the seats around would be forgiving Jackie Paper in a hurry. We even did ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ — with all the appropriate actions — until we got to the little dog laughing, at which point Polly clutched her stomach, said ‘ha ha ha’ and projectile vomited all over my chest.

These setbacks weren’t Tiger’s fault. Well maybe the delay could be blamed on them, but even then, the airline had a good excuse. Our plane was late coming in from Adelaide because overnight fog had prevented it landing in Melbourne. We weren’t angry, we were just all sick or covered in sick. We just wanted to get on the plane.

We eventually did exactly that and were greeted with the sight of a mashed sandwich under the seat. Still, you take the good with the bad. Someone’s failure to clean the cabin also meant that a Play School sticker book was stuffed in amongst the safety brochures and that proved to be a lifesaver. The plane itself behaved exactly as a plane should — taking off, landing, flying — doing the sorts of things that even the tightest of tightwads would have to admit is worth $49. We arrived in Maroochydore to blue skies, warm breezes and the exhilaration that comes from believing that the travel ordeal is over and the holiday is just beginning.

We didn’t so much mind Tiger losing our pram. It really was just an overblown pusher, and it would have been a much greater disaster had they lost one of our other bags. And they were good at saying sorry. The amiable girl with the white blonde hair on the service desk apologised profusely and promised a nationwide search. It would be coming back to us, Annika promised. There were only two flights leaving Melbourne that morning, so it really was very unlikely that they wouldn’t find it. ‘I’ll call to update you tomorrow,’ she said brightly. ‘Monday at the latest.’

She called Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. They hadn’t found the pram, but she was so nice and attentive that it seemed wrong to make a fuss. By Thursday she had become such a part of our holiday that we wondered whether we might not ask her over for dinner. Annika was doing her best. Tiger was doing its best. ‘If we don’t find it,’ Annika smiled, ‘you’ll be able to make a claim. Just give it twenty one days. You have to give it twenty one days to see if it turns up.’

A week later, we returned to Melbourne, still pramless, but relaxed and happy and buoyed by the prospect of hitting Baby Bunting and getting Tiger to shout us a newer, sparklier pram. Another week passed, and we heard just once from Annika. Still no pram, but she was sending us a claim form. ‘Fill it in and return it to head office,’ she advised. ‘We couldn’t be more sorry for the inconvenience.’

When the form arrived, I learned that our incident number was LA70302 and that a Loss Adjuster called Charles Taylor Aviation had been appointed by Tiger to take over our case. The form seemed to say that instead of waiting 21 days for our property to turn up, a claim had to be made within 21 days to be eligible for any compensation. I filled out the form with a sense of dread. Our notification of loss was more than two weeks late. Did Annika just make an honest mistake, or are Tiger staff being trained to encourage people to sit on claims until they expire? We sent the form off, and waited for the inevitable.

‘Dear Mr Wilson. We are sorry to hear of the loss of your pram and on behalf of Tiger Airways, we sincerely apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused. We note that your pram was lost on 31 May 2009 but your notification of loss was sent on 9 July 2009 …. Blah blah blah … Clause 14.2 … blah blah blah … (long lawyerly sentence followed by evil laugh). We trust that the position is clear but please feel free to contact us if you require any further clarification. Yours sincerely Charles Taylor Aviation.’

I picked up the phone to call Annika before realising that I didn’t have the energy.  It’s a dirty cycle. You’ll start off chasing the Tiger, revelling in the burst of adrenaline that comes from seeing that special low fare, but then they’ll find ways of making you pay. They’ll send you home for being a minute late. They’ll take your stuff and prevaricate for as long as it takes for the claim period to expire. And then they’ll refuse to deal with you. They’ll get Charles Taylor Aviation to deal with you. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this new era of democratic air travel, it’s to be wary around companies named after Liberian dictators.

Tiger responds:

In Tony Wilson’s case there was a procedural error as he should have been given a claim form on the day his pram went missing, not at a later date.  Given in this instance it was a genuine error on our part, we have contacted Tony directly to apologise again and have offered to compensate him for his missing pram.