The wording on easyJet’s cancellation email, sent out to tens of thousands of stranded passengers last weekend, presumably saved the airline millions of pounds.
After the company cancelled hundreds of flights on Saturday and Sunday, in advance of Storm Dennis, I imagine the vast majority of travellers simply wanted to get to their destination as soon as possible.
Fortunately, the European air passengers’ rights rules (known as EU261) are clear: any airline that cancels a flight, for any reason, must offer travellers the first available departure to their intended destination, no matter what the cost.
Unfortunately, easyJet declined to mention this option in its email to passengers whose travel plans it had just torn up.
Instead, Britain’s biggest budget airline offered disruptees a binary choice between booking on another easyJet flight (often some days later) or getting their money back.
“You can transfer your flight free of charge,” the email explained. Alternatively: “You will be able to request a refund.”
Each of the many distressed passengers I have been in touch with since Friday night’s bonfire of the schedules took this at face value.
Some of them despondently cancelled, and set about trying to limit the financial damage from pre-paid hotels and rental cars. Others accepted replacement flights that halved the length of their half-term holiday.
None of them was aware, until I told them, of a much more valuable entitlement: easyJet’s obligation to buy them, for example, a £500 one-way ticket from Gatwick to Geneva on British Airways or Swiss if that was the only seat left on the original day of travel.
Having saved millions, easyJet then sought to extract another £406 from an unfortunate passenger, Samantha Wylie. The airline cancelled the Gatwick-Lanzarote flight she and her young family had booked, and allowed her to think that they could be rebooked only on easyJet. The first available flight was five days later, on Thursday.
After she reluctantly transferred the family to this departure, she spotted easyJet was selling four seats on the Wednesday flight.
The good news: yes, she could transfer to them.
The bad news: easyJet would charge her £406 for the privilege.
I took all this up with the airline. A spokesperson told me: “We take our responsibilities under EU261 very seriously and offer rerouting options to customers in event of cancellations.
“We aim to do this within 24 hours but in times of significant disruption, such as this last weekend, this may not be possible and there may be some cases where this does not happen, as with Ms Wylie.
“If we are unable to do this, customers have the option to switch to another airline, take a train, bus or hire a car for which they would be reimbursed their reasonable expenses. Our website advises customers of this and provides guidance surrounding this.”
Well, towards the end of the cancellation email, disrupted passengers are told: “For information on your entitlements please visit our Delays & Cancellations page.”
If you follow this link, and read through to the 11th paragraph, you learn: “If there are no easyJet flights available to get you to your destination within 48 hours, you have the option to transfer to another airline, take a train, bus or hire a car.”
Yet the 48-hour window is something easyJet invented for itself. The only “wriggle room”: if easyJet can offer a flight almost as good as a rival’s – say, departing an hour or two later – then it can keep you on its own services.
I raised the many unhappy experiences with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Paul Smith, director at the CAA, said: “We have guidance on cancellations and rebooking policies and we expect airlines to follow this. Where we have evidence that airlines are not following these guidelines, we consider what action to take, including launching enforcement action.”
The CAA is contacting easyJet “to determine how they supported affected consumers” during the disruption. The “affected consumers” I heard from didn’t feel very supported at all.
In the course of trying to limit the financial damage from a miserable weekend, meteorologically speaking, easyJet may have inadvertently drawn attention to its very loose interpretation of the rules. In future bouts of large-scale disruption – whichever airline is involved, and whatever it tells travellers – I hope passengers will be more aware of their rights after last weekend’s fiasco.