Simon Calder: The alien language of Planet Travel

The man who pays his way

The aviation industry's capacity to play with meaning knows no bounds. Last weekend at Malaga airport, 29 passengers who lined up to board an easyJet flight to Bristol were left behind. A glitch in ground handling led to the final tranche of passengers still queuing as the plane taxied away. Some were put on a plane to Gatwick, others went back to Bristol the next day. When I called the airline to ask about the €400 compensation due under European Union denied-boarding rules, I was told: "As the matter was a result of a genuine mistake rather than an inability to accommodate the passengers onboard, EC261 compensation will not be offered."

If a claim were made, I look forward to seeing the evidence for easyJet's interpretation of the rules. The airline has made a "genuine mistake" several times recently in turning away passengers wrongly deemed to have out-of-date travel documents. On each occasion, as far as I know, it has paid the stipulated compensation.

I sought the view of Kevin Clarke, a Wilmslow-based solicitor whose company, Bott & Co, has tackled a large number of cases where airlines have initially refused payment. "Mistake or not, genuine or not, these passengers have been denied boarding and have a valid claims," he told me. "This is as clear a case as you would ever be likely to see. It is regrettable that the airline either does not know enough about the regulations, or that their default reaction is apparently to deny every case irrespective of the facts."

Bags the best fare

By Wednesday, BA was playing havoc with travellers' comprehension. The press release promised: "British Airways increases fare choice across all short-haul flights." The reality is, on many journeys, "BA reduces flight choice".

The basic idea is commendable. Following the lead of other airlines, BA has started charging separately for checked baggage on all short-haul flights. Air fares are the slipperiest of things to price-check, due to their tendency to rise and fall faster than the tides. Still, the airline's claim that it will knock £10 off the price of a flight if you carry only hand luggage looks reasonable. You save the airline the trouble of loading your bag, and the fuel that would be burned in flying it across Europe, and you get rewarded.

But then the proposition gets complicated. I made a test booking for a London-Barcelona trip over this weekend, leaving on Thursday and coming back on Sunday. BA flies to the Catalan capital seven times a day from Heathrow, and three times daily from Gatwick. But a hand-baggage-only fare was available on just two of the 10 daily departures, both from Gatwick.

Suppose you choose the cheapest, at a very reasonable £84. Now, what about coming back? Bizarrely, by agreeing to travel outbound with only a cabin bag, your choice of inbound flights shrinks to just one, obliging you to fly back to Gatwick at 10.30am on Sunday, just when you should be tucking into chocolate con churros in the Granja La Pallaresa on Carrer Petritxol.

What's happening? BA's reservations system assumes that, if you fly out with just cabin baggage, you must want to travel hand-luggage only on the way back – despite the many retail temptations in Barcelona. Even more oddly, it seems to deduce that, because you opted for the cheapest fare going outbound, you must be a total skinflint and would only ever be interested in the lowest possible fare. Whereupon many of the flight options disappear, since all of these are at higher fare levels that assume you will be taking baggage outbound and back.

A disgruntled traveller named Andy sums up the problem robustly: "I've just booked a flight from London City to Aberdeen and I don't have baggage to check. On the outward flight I had a choice of a fare with hand baggage only and a more expensive fare for checked baggage. On the return flight the only seat was in the checked baggage column. However, to choose this seat I had to change my outward trip to the more expensive flight which assumes checked baggage. So, I'm travelling with no checked baggage and I've been forced to pay for it in both directions. Even Ryanair doesn't have the balls to charge me for checked baggage I'm not taking."

One fix is to buy two one-way tickets. On my speculative weekend in Barcelona, this unlocks the entire repertoire of inbound flights – but it is far from an ideal solution. Suppose, for example, that a strike by French air-traffic controllers scuppers your outbound flight. With a return ticket, you automatically get a refund of the whole fare even if the planned inbound operates as normal. With two one-ways, you have no such protection.

Norwegian would ...

The world is about to expand, at least from the perspective of Gatwick. The Sussex airport has accrued a long list of failed long-haul destinations. While Florida and the Caribbean remain well served from Gatwick, over the years links with New York, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur have departed from the departure board. But on Thursday, the low-cost airline Norwegian will launch "some major long-haul routes" from Gatwick. If anyone would, Norwegian would, because it has both short- and long-haul planes. Naturally I asked where, and naturally the request was politely declined. So I have been speculating, starting with the existing Norwegian long-haul network from Scandinavia, suggesting Bangkok, New York or Los Angeles. Maybe, though, there is a chance of Honolulu or somewhere South American, ideally Lima.

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