They treated me like a piece of baggage

How do the airlines get away with it? Flights are routinely delayed, rescheduled or cancelled but travellers have no comeback
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The Independent Online

Jean Beswick's air itinerary to India said nothing about a scruffy motel room on the outskirts of Paris.

Jean Beswick's air itinerary to India said nothing about a scruffy motel room on the outskirts of Paris.

The Bromsgrove businesswoman thought she would lift the gloom of an English December with 10 days in Bombay. But no sooner had she flown to Paris, than Air France told her the £550 flight was cancelled. She then faced three nights in a freezing hotel room, dressed for India, her luggage trapped in the airport.

Mrs Beswick, who runs a training company, was allowed to board an Emirates service, via Dubai, because she gave the airline a piece of her mind. Her fellow passengers waited three days for another Air France service. Six months later, there has been no explanation and no compensation. She missed a welcoming party thrown by friends and a present for her host was broken. A £75 voucher for another Air France journey is of little use to Mrs Beswick, for she has sworn never to fly with them again.

"I am disgusted. They can just get away with anything," she said. "I'm the owner of a business which would be out of business if we treated people as Air France have treated me."

But hours of the day, days of the week, mean little if they are printed on airline tickets. Delays, cancellations and overbooking are so common that passengers have grown used to being treated with no more respect than their baggage. Last weekend's catastrophic breakdown of the National Air Traffic System was met with practised resignation from thousands of passengers who endured delays of eight hours or more on one of the hottest days of the year.

Maggie Vicarage from Bedford cannot understand how low-cost Buzz was allowed to change her flight to Lyons from 5.55pm to 6.50am, a time quite unsuitable for her six-year-old daughter. It is so inconvenient that she wants her £240 back. But Buzz is refusing, referring the family to the small print.

IoS readers can't even get compensation when airlines leave them out of pocket. Professor Jennifer Platt from the University of Sussex contacted Passenger Power when British Midland changed the time of her flight to Poland so drastically that she would have missed a major conference after months of planning. To get there on time she had to fork out an extra £40 for a last-minute flight with Virgin. British Midland is not willing to make up the difference.

"When I complained, my travel agent made it clear that they regard it as normal. The airlines regard themselves as not obliged to keep their side of the contract into which I assumed I had entered by buying the ticket."

The airlines are quite correct: they can alter flights as they choose. "It is a state of affairs that has to stop," says the Air Transport Users Federation (ATUF) which argues that the system is heavily biased in favour of the operators. "They can change the terms of your flight with no redress. They can cancel flights with impunity," says spokesman Simon Evans.

EasyJet, he notes, is willing to back its schedules with cash, promising a full refund if the flight is four hours late. This policy recently cost it more than £1m when fog hit Stansted.

The ATUF refused to name those airlines that treat customers badly. John Prescott's Transport department is even more low-key. The solution, said a spokesman, is that travellers should take out insurance.

At least the European Commission acknowledges a problem. Last week it proposed measures including a full refund of the ticket price for delayed passengers, a ban on increasing the price of tickets after the flight has been booked and new safeguards against overbooking. Passengers are already entitled to compensation if they are "bumped" off flights.

The EU is asking for a voluntary agreement, a plan likely to meet heavy opposition from the airlines. But even a statutory code will be useless in respect of last weekend's chaos.

Air traffic control refuses to pay compensation to airlines or passengers when it breaks down, arguing that a compensation culture could lead it to cut corners. The chances are that travellers will continue to put up with extraordinary delays, without hope of redress.

Last weekend, for the first time, EasyJet suspended its money-back promise. "We did it with a heavy heart, but we had no choice," said the company.

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