What's the problem?
Anyone booking a journey covered by a through-ticket, for example, British Airways from Glasgow to Athens, via Heathrow, gets robust protection if the first flight is delayed or cancelled. The airline that causes the delay must take responsibility for the passenger. It is obliged to provide a seat on the next available flight and supply meals and overnight accommodation as necessary.
As an extreme example: I was booked on a through ticket from Gatwick to Georgetown, Guyana, via Paris and Caracas. The flight from Gatwick was delayed and arrived at the wrong Paris airport. Had I booked separate flights, I would have been completely flummoxed, with the prospect of paying hundreds of pounds to rescue the itinerary. However, as I had a through ticket, the airline provided a night at the Hilton, a bus to the right airport and a new series of flights to Georgetown via New York, Puerto Rico and Trinidad – where I had a further overnight stay at the airline's expense.
Why don't budget airlines offer the same thing?
Most European low-cost airlines have shied away from offering anything but "point-to-point" tickets. In effect they say: "we'll fly you from A to B, but if we're late and you miss a flight from B to C, even if it's with us, that's not our problem." This tough line avoid the costs and complexity that transferring passengers and baggage can involve.
So what's the solution?
Gatwick is saying: book a pair of connecting flights through us, pay us a fee, and if the transfer goes wrong we'll look after you. For this you pay £27.50 for a single traveller on a one-way journey, reducing progressively for extra passengers and return trips. A family of four making a return trip would pay a total of £115, the equivalent of £14.38 each, one way.
What does that buy me?
Peace of mind. The airport says: "In the event that your inbound flight is delayed or cancelled, and so you miss your outbound flight from Gatwick, we will ensure you get on to the next available departure to your destination, at no extra cost to you. We will also provide you with hotel and food vouchers if necessary." Of course most transfers will happen without problem.
How do I book?
You have to start by researching flights at one of two fare-comparison websites: Skyscanner.net or Dohop.com. A flight combination that qualifies will be shown as supplied by GatwickConnects. Click on the link, and you are sent through to a special portal which is administered by Dohop (though on screen it appears you are transacting with the airport). You make a single payment by Visa or Mastercard (either debit or credit card), covering the two flights and the fee levied by Gatwick.
The GatwickConnects portal books everything without baggage. How do I pay for bags – or a reserved seat?
At the end of the booking process, you will get a confirmation for each of the individual flights. The booking reference number enables you to go to the "Manage my Booking" section on each airline's website and pay for additional luggage, as well as seat reservations if you need them.
Talk me through the procedure.
At your first airport, you depart as normal. At Gatwick, you retrieve your bag (unless you are travelling with hand luggage only). There is a GatwickConnects desk in the arrivals hall where you can drop your bag for the connecting flight. You then go to the departures level and pass through security; the airport throws in fast-track clearance. If enough time remains, you can claim a free glass of wine or a soft drink at the Caviar House airside bar.
Is it the same service as I would get with a 'through ticket'?
No. Unlike the through-ticket product offered by airlines, GatwickConnects passengers must retrieve baggage and check it in again rather than have it transferred automatically. People arriving from abroad also have to proceed through immigration, even if they are connecting to another international flight.
Does it work for all flights to or from Gatwick?
Not by any means. Only easyJet, Norwegian and Wow Air have signed up for the deal. Gatwick says 52 per cent of passengers are covered, and that "new airlines will be joining over the coming months". The other 42 airlines at Gatwick are not participating at present. However, five of them – Virgin Atlantic, Flybe, Aer Lingus, Monarch and Thomas Cook – allow use of the long-standing GatwickConnects bag drop in the arrivals area of each terminal if you are travelling on a participating airline.
If I am booking a two-hop trip via Gatwick, must I use the new system?
No. If you feel confident about making the connection, you can dodge the fee. And you will still be eligible to use the GatwickConnects bag drop in the arrivals area, for free, if you are travelling onwards on a participating airline.
My first flight was on time, but my second is late. Will the airport look after me?
No. You should take it up with the second airline, which is obliged under EU rules to look after delayed passengers.
Could it happen elsewhere?
Yes. In the UK, the obvious candidates that I will be watching with interest are Stansted and Manchester. They are the two biggest airports after Heathrow and Gatwick, and handle plenty of low-cost business.