Simon Calder: Grounded at Gatwick? You have rights ...

The man who pays his way

"The Glasgow flight has been cancelled, I'm afraid. Go and see British Airways at the other end of the terminal. I believe the last BA flight from Gatwick is full, but they should be able to book you from Heathrow. You can claim the air fare, and the bus to Heathrow, back from easyJet."

Odd advice. Not because it was wrong, but because the wrong person was saying it: me. And I haven't worked at Gatwick since the 1970s.

It's been a back-to-the-Seventies week at Britain's second-busiest airport. On Tuesday afternoon, easyJet's Europe-wide reservations system blew the 21st-century equivalent of a fuse. Check-in staff had to process passengers and their bags manually. A hapless representative of Swissport, which handles easyJet at Gatwick, stood in the middle of the melee and yelled: "Faro? Join this queue. Aberdeen? Go and have a cup of coffee and come back in an hour."

All the normal departure information in the check-in area was switched off, replaced by a message telling passengers to wait until their flight was called out. As the departures backlog built up, easyJet started cancelling flights. But you could learn which only by leaving the check-in area and finding a location where the screens were working. Unsurprisingly, passengers with flights to catch were loathe to do this, but I was simply trying to find out what was going on. Which is how I came to see that flights to Scotland and Northern Ireland were cancelled.

Back at check in, not a single member of easyJet staff, as opposed to the handling company, was to be seen. Perplexed passengers started asking anyone who looked as though they might know something. Since I was in possession of a handwritten list of cancelled flights, that included me.

There is never a good time for the computer system of Britain's biggest airline (by passenger numbers) to fail for six hours or more. But a Tuesday afternoon in mid-October is a strong contender for the least bad. Tuesday is the quietest day of the week and afternoon the quietest time of day. Which makes easyJet's response, or the lack of it, all the more mystifying. Once the system failed, it was clear that Gatwick – as easyJet's main base – would be hardest hit. When I arrived in mid-afternoon, ground staff were doing their best with several thousand milling, confused passengers. They created holding pens for people who had arrived early.

When finally an easyJet manager arrived at the North Terminal, she announced that passengers whose flights were cancelled would have to find their own hotels and must re-book when the easyJet website was working again. As the airline knows, this is exactly the opposite of what the law stipulates. Had been working, passengers on cancelled flights could have learnt that the airline must re-route them "to your final destination at the earliest opportunity" – probably on BA – or provide a hotel room to those obliged to stay at Gatwick overnight.

The airline told me all its resources were devoted to getting passengers checked in rather than finding alternative transport or booking hotels. Its statement read: "We would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused and would like to thank passengers for their patience. Passengers who were affected on any of the cancelled flights are eligible for compensation under EU261." Reverting to my role of impromptu adviser: passengers' entitlement goes further than this. Anyone whose easyJet flight actually took off but arrived at the destination over three hours late because of the failure is also a candidate for EU261 compensation of €250 (for trips of up to 1,500km) or €400 (for longer journeys). The airline must also pay for meals in reasonable proportion to the delay.

Ins and outage

On Wednesday, Gatwick's gremlins struck again. This time a power failure in the South Terminal check-in area caused more delays and cancellations for a large number of airlines – and saw easyJet respond more impressively, by deftly moving the entire check-in operation to North Terminal.

Affected passengers are entitled to meals and hotels if appropriate, but not compensation because the event was beyond the airlines' control.

Laker likeness

By Thursday, it was back to the Eighties. Europe's third-biggest low-cost airline, Norwegian, announced cheap transatlantic flights from Gatwick using the Boeing 787 "Dreamliner". Following in the flightpath of the late Freddie Laker, Norwegian will link Sussex with Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and New York from July next year. The opening one-way fare to JFK is £149. Strip away the Air Passenger Duty of £67 and the airline earns £82 – the prevailing fare in '82 when Laker Airways went bust.

Given that all subsequent attempts at low-cost, long-haul flying from Gatwick seem to have failed, I asked Bjorn Kjos, chief executive of Norwegian, what made his venture different?

"You need the right aircraft to do it. You cannot fly a low cost operation with a 747 or an Airbus 340. The Dreamliner's fuel efficiency and also the utilisation [the time it spends in the air] are much better."

Mr Kjos also said links to Oakland (for San Francisco) and Orlando will follow once he has more planes: "In time it will come," he promised.

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