Travel: No frills, no flexibility, and no flight to Amsterdam

Stansted has sent out a classic piece of non-service: a timetable that omits flight times
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A MAGNIFICENT mansion set in "Capability" Brown gardens, boasting an exquisite collection of imperial Russian art, and, in a handsome Victorian venue, the finest display of hats in the country. Luton Hoo (now sadly closed to the public) and the civic museum are just a couple of the appealing aspects of Luton, but most of us go to the Bedfordshire town for a more prosaic purpose - to take advantage of the cheap air fares that were first offered to the public three years ago by easyJet and Debonair.

The Independent's policy of refusing free flights means that writers for these pages spend a (thankfully) small fortune on these no-frills airlines. But not everything runs smoothly at the cut-price hub, Luton airport.

Imagine: you are a passenger on board an easyJet plane that has just arrived at Luton from Inverness. You have booked and paid for a seat on a connecting easyJet flight to Amsterdam. You had planned to meet a friend in the terminal at Luton and travel on together to Holland. One small problem: your plane from Inverness touches down late, after the connecting flight is due to depart. But you learn from a crew member that the aircraft next to which your plane has parked is the Amsterdam jet, itself running late. The remedy seems obvious: a simple switch from plane A to plane B.

That was the solution that our contributor Margaret Campbell came up with when she found herself aboard the delayed flight from Inverness. But instead of letting her step from one plane to the other, the no-frills airline insisted that she proceed through arrivals and thereby miss (a) the flight to Amsterdam, and (b) her prospective travelling companion Kevin, who was on it.

"That was easyJet's last flight of the day to Amsterdam," says Ms Campbell. "The airline refused to book me on another airline to get me there, or indeed to anywhere near my ultimate destination of Strasbourg. The airline declined to pay for a hotel for the night. Instead I was offered, and reluctantly accepted, a flight to Nice. During the course of an international phone call later that evening, I learnt that as soon as Kevin realised the flight was running late, he started asking easyJet employees to contact the flight from Inverness, to try to get me on to the Amsterdam flight as planned (and paid for). He saw the plane arrive, and the passengers walk off. His plane had not yet started moving out to the runway, but he kept being told there was no way they could contact my flight."

The airline says "Tarmac transfers", where you walk from one plane to another, are not permitted in the UK. They are in the US, where I once made a connection from a heavily delayed Northwest Airlines flight by being whisked across the apron in Boston.

But easyJet eventually offered Ms Campbell a one-way flight to compensate for the extra expense she had incurred.

MY COLLEAGUE Tobias Jones had an altercation with the same company. "A fan of easyJet, I phoned to book a ticket to Parma. Parma, note, in northern Italy. I asked the woman to spell it - not with an L - and to confirm that we were talking Italy, not Majorca. Call me paranoid, but I wanted to be sure. The confirmation duly arrived, booked, of course, to the wrong place. They don't even fly to Italy!"

After prising his pounds 103 back from the airline, he finally sated his appetite for Parma ham with a flight to Bologna on Go.

THAT FLIGHT departed from the self-styled "London Millennium" airport, more usually known as Stansted. Thanks to its no-frills rivals Go and Ryanair, the Essex facility has increased passenger numbers by one-third compared with 12 months ago.

At this time of year, Stansted sends its loyal customers a flight timetable to help them make even more use of the airport.

One recipient was William Read, of Stafford. He kindly sends it along, together with the covering letter that announces: "You will see for the first time this winter, we have omitted the actual flying times from the guide." Instead, the publication reveals only the days of the week and the contact numbers of the airlines. As Mr Read observes: "A classic piece of `non-service': a timetable that omits flight times." Worse is to come. The letter also says that this is the last flight guide the airport will send out.

It then lists three ways of getting information: calling in at the airport's information desk, which is not necessarily convenient for those, like Mr Read, who live in Staffordshire; checking the BAA website, which it turns out does not yet exist; or "by calling 0345 118 118 to enquire about flights".

Needing a flight to Venice in January, I dialled the number and got through to "Stansted First". Yes, there are two flights a day on Ryanair, and on the dates I wanted the fare would be a shade over pounds 100. What about Go, I wondered? "They're direct-sell only," I was told, and I would have to call the BA no-frills airline to find out flight times and fares. I did, and found a fare of pounds 80. Is Stansted trying to conceal the operations of one of its leading airlines?

"No," says Stansted's marketing director, David Field. "Stansted First" turns out to be an ordinary travel agent, which the airport pays to give out information. The agency can also sell tickets, but it earns no commission from Go flights. Even so, says Mr Field, callers should be told every option.

"We require the agency to give unbiased information about all our flights, as well as background information such as how to get to the airport." And, he says, passengers such as Mr Read can look forward to a new flight guide - which will, after a rethink, include the airlines' schedules.

LAST WEEK I mentioned the Qantas flight that circumvents the Australian government's rule banning smoking, by operating as a "code-share" with the Dubai-based airline, Emirates.

As has already been pointed out here, though, Emirates boasts a mitigating feature: cameras fixed to the front and underside of its aircraft that give passengers a view of take-off and landing. Combined with the inflight music system, the experience can be extraordinary.

The Boeing 777 accelerated along the runway at Changi airport in Singapore just as Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" popped up on the audio channel. The captain's timing was perfect: the wheels left the ground at precisely the moment Hendrix yells: "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky."

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