Simon Calder: It is down to travellers to lower their expectations


Britain's biggest airline has had a miserable week: easyJet, which claims the title in terms of passenger carryings, has experienced far more Yuletide upsets than its rivals.

It is as though the travel gods had selected key easyJet bases for special punishment: Geneva, Milan Malpensa, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Madrid, Gatwick and Luton have all suffered extreme weather that wrecked schedules and led to hundreds of flight cancellations.

The financial cost of the wintry snap will run into tens of millions for easyJet and the other main corporate "victim" of the cold snap, Eurostar. In the short term, they must refund peak-season fares to those who failed to travel, and compensate passengers for extra expenses incurred while awaiting departures. Longer term, the damage to their reputations is harder to quantify.

Take the case of Ian Hoddy from Buckinghamshire, who was among the unlucky passengers on an easyJet flight to Tenerife on Monday. The flight just missed a take-off slot, and by the time the captain had secured a later one, the snow had come down. Eventually, after many hours on board and amid much confusion, the flight was cancelled.

"We have travelled the world by air," says Mr Hoddy, "but have never seen problems like these. If northern cities from Moscow to Montreal can operate airports in extreme conditions of ice and snow, why is the British consumer made to suffer like this?"

The answer: because we enjoy a far more benign climate than Russia or Canada, neither of which is cut out for human habitation in the depths of winter. And collectively the UK has a fairly high tolerance to disruption, a tradition of making do with inferior infrastructure, and little appetite to spend the billions of pounds necessary to "winterise" the nation. We are habitually inclined to endure gridlock in Basingstoke and delayed trips to the Canaries, so long as they are rare events.

Three components make this spell of disruption different. First, this is the second heavy-duty freeze this year: much of the aviation network was temporarily taken out in February as well. Second, the days affected fall towards the business end of an Advent calendar, so the emotional investment in travel plans is much greater. And finally, with the entire travel industry working at full stretch with no slack in the system, disruption inevitably escalates quickly.

With airlines and UK airports largely in private hands, any effective solution will be decided by the market. The airlines have a low tolerance of their highest-spending customers being unceremoniously offloaded – and are understandably concerned that demand for peak-season flights could dwindle next year.

"I will never book another Christmas flight," vows Mr Hoddy. "This is the third bad winter experience we have had, the two others being fog at Heathrow two years ago causing six hours' delay going to Chamonix, and then being forced to queue outside Terminal 4 at Heathrow when we went to South Africa in February a few years ago after about one inch of snow. I feel it is time British passengers said we are not going to tolerate this appalling service any longer."

Ultimately, though, we cannot blame "the wrong kind of snow". The real problem is that we are the wrong kind of travellers. We demand the right to make an escape from Basingstoke to Barcelona or Barbados even on Midwinter's Day. And with the latter expecting a high of around 30C tomorrow, who can really blame us?