Kate Simon: Those phantom fliers ruin everybody's day

It's one of the world's great mysteries – how can an airline passenger go missing between check-in and take-off?

Anyone who has flown even just a handful of times will probably be familiar with the tedious wait for "missing passengers", hoping as the minutes tick by that the absentees will materialise and prevent more time-wasting as their bags have to be unloaded. Yet, bar a medical emergency, I never cease to be amazed that anyone can vanish in the first place.

My friend Dave endured this experience on an afternoon departure from Pisa to Gatwick last month. Two of the 134 passengers on his easyJet flight failed to board, though they had checked their baggage in.

In accordance with airline rules, the unaccompanied bags had to be located and taken off the flight, a measure enforced since 1994, post-Lockerbie. "That takes time and I was happy to wait," says Dave. "After all, if the bags' owners do not wish to travel with them, it's fairly certain I don't want to either."

However, the time that it took to remove the luggage ensured that Dave and his fellow passengers missed their take-off slot and ended up having to wait well over half an hour for air-traffic control to find a gap in the schedule. And the delay had the knock-on effect at the Gatwick end of putting the weary passengers of flight 5234 on the M25 at the height of the evening rush hour.

"Those two people who failed to board added about two hours to my trip – multiply that by 133 and then add the effect on passengers waiting to board our plane on its flight out of Gatwick."

Dave says the easyJet crew seemed resigned to the situation, telling him it was a common problem. Still, it does seem unbelievable that people can get waylaid in the bar or duty free on quite such a regular basis.

So I rang round a few airlines to find out if they know just what excuses such passengers give when they finally show up. Could anyone answer Dave's questions: "Do they board the wrong flight? Do they suddenly develop a fear of flying and lose their bottle? What?" Not surprisingly, the airlines have better things to do than gather data on why people don't show up at the departure gate.

But there's a serious point to be made. Shouldn't such errant passengers have to face the consequences of their actions? Or to put it in Dave's words: "They really should have to face some form of penalty, unless they actually had a heart attack at the departure gate."

A spokesperson for easyJet told me that no-show passengers just face a "rescue fare" of about £50 to take the next available departure. It seems we'll have to continue to wait for a final call on this kind of antisocial behaviour.

Have you got a travel issue you want to raise? Email sundaytravel@independent.co.uk

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