A tangle with the three laws of air travel

The Man Who Pays His Way
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The Independent Travel

Ticketless travel – like all the best ideas, simple and effective. Most airlines now realise that straightforward journeys do not require that complicated wad of paper which takes even more of a battering from travel than you do. For the traveller, the benefit of having a ticket stored in cyberspace rather than on the table in the hall means you have one less item to forget. So you are free to forget the really important things, such as the airport from which your flight is leaving.

Travellers in south-east England are spoiled. While the whole of Wales has only one no-frills flight a day, London enjoys hundreds of daily departures across Europe. The choice has widened since easyJet started flying from Gatwick as well as its home base of Luton. These two airports are 30 miles south and north of the capital respectively, but just millimetres apart on the computer screen when booking a flight on the internet.

You can see where this is leading. It feels pretty silly to catch a train at 4am to Luton, and cycle up to the airport expecting to check in for Geneva, only to be told, "We've not been expecting you". Some easyJet check-in staff were awaiting my arrival, but inconveniently at an airport 60 miles away.

At the ticket(less) desk, the airline re-booked me on a flight from Luton for a "rescue fee" of £25, a slim figure for cancelling out such gross ineptitude. The plane arrived 20 minutes early. I wasstrolling by the shore of Lake Geneva before you could say "operational difficulties".

After a stroke of good fortune like that, it is inevitable that the Second Law of Travel will kick in promptly. The first principle, as you know, is that the person in the adjacent seat has paid less than you; the Second Law states that for every good travel experience there is an equal and opposite bad one.

Due to yet another failure of the National Air Traffic Services computer, I did not wait long. After two happy days across Switzerland, I turned up at Zurich airport at 8pm for the flight to Luton (yes, I double-checked that was where the plane was heading). A half-hour delay extended to five hours, whereupon the captain abandoned the flight because Zurich airport closes at night. And no, it would not be taking off in the morning. So we trudged back to the easyJet desk, which stands opposite the ill-named Bye-Bye Bar, to try to find some way home from gnome-town.

* Some people took up the offer of a flight 24 hours later, then asked how they were to fill the day. "Zurich's a beautiful place," a member of ground staff insisted. "Luton's nicer," piped up a disgruntled voice from the back of the queue.

ANY CHANCE, I ventured, of flying back from Geneva earlier in the day? Yes, there was a noon flight. I would have to pay the £35 train fare – perhaps a Swiss version of the "rescue fee". Done.

All passengers were required to turn in their duty-free goods, which provided a challenge for some who were already well into smoking or drinking their recent purchases. A bus took everyone to the Hilton Hotel for a few hours of rest in surroundings that I found dangerously comfortable.

AT THE end of a four-hour train ride next morning, Geneva airport was even more chaotic than Zurich. Passengers from a succession of delayed flights clashed skis and tongues. The only thing worse than being a flyer without a plane is to be a member of easyJet staff having to referee the scrum and make optimistic noises about planes that are still grounded at Luton.

The one orange Boeing that was parked at Geneva's terminal was the morning departure that had not, so far, made it off the ground. But at 1pm, when the 9.45am was almost full and on the point of leaving, the Third Law of Travel came into play – because Fred Castle didn't.

* Axiom three stipulates that he or she who travels alone, with hand baggage only, travels fastest. After several "last and final" calls had been made for Mr Castle, I wandered up to the desk, passport poised. I put on my best upgrade smile (an inane grin that I fondly but mistakenly believe might warm the hearts of those in whose hands my immediate future lies) and outlined my cunning plan: I would take Fred's seat. He, in turn, could take mine if and when he finally showed up.

The elegance of this argument did not appeal to the ground staff because "easyJet is a low-cost airline and that's one of the services we don't offer". What easyJet does offer when flights are late or cancelled is better compensation than other airlines. Stelios' airline took a big financial hit by cancelling a total of 19 flights on Wednesday.

Besides footing the £3,000 bill for hotel rooms in Zurich alone, easyJet refunds fares for flights delayed by more than four hours.

Assuming the £75 I paid was an average price, easyJet stands to hand back around £10,000 to Zurich customers. When one gentleman learned he would get his cash back, he grumbled, "I wish I'd paid more for it now".

* For airlines, blaming delays on the lamentable state of Britain's air-traffic control infrastructure used to be so easy. Since the part-privatisation of National Air Traffic Services, though, accusations of culpability have a nasty tendency to rebound: easyJet owns eight per cent of the organisation.

* You adapt quickly to the uneasy transience of a departure lounge. By this time I have amassed a fine collection of boarding passes, though with no planes to go with them. The noon flight to Luton is supposed to be two hours late; 2pm comes and goes.

Now and again a stray Boeing 737 shows up, and a few of us shamble meekly over to the desk to enquire if it might be possible to go to, say, Liverpool, or anywhere in the right country.

Third flight lucky: a delayed departure has space for one person, hand-luggage only. It takes off a mere 20 hours after I had checked in at Zurich. Barely an hour later, we can see the green, green grass of... Gatwick.

One problem – my bike is chained to the railings at the airport I first thought of: Luton.