Simon Calder: The mystery of easyJet's missing flights

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The Independent Travel

Andy Harrison is a man to whom you would gladly lend the odd £20. He is, after all, the likeable and successful chief executive of Britain's biggest airline, in terms of passenger numbers: easyJet. Mr Harrison runs a first-rate operation that, this year, will carry 50 million people across Europe at fares usually way below those that prevailed before easyJet was born in 1995.

While rivals carriers such as SkyEurope go bust (having lost, coincidentally, £20 for every passenger ever carried), easyJet is in relatively good shape. Mr Harrison can be relied upon to return loans; just as well, because a number of passengers have unwittingly provided his company with interest-free easyCash.

I am among them, having lent easyJet the economy-size sum of £21.99. Like the other inadvertent financiers, I thought I had booked a confirmed flight, but my Belfast-Gatwick hop in October turns out to be a ghost flight.

This month, the airline's "Customer Experience Team" sent an email saying, "Due to unforeseen circumstances, we have had to cancel the flight". So, instead, I will be able to sample a Customer Non-Experience.

Goodness, what is happening at easyJet? Since it started flying 14 years ago, the airline has proved adept at foreseeing circumstances. As easyJet has expanded, it has managed its aircraft and crew to fit the promised schedules. Not this autumn.

"The flight was disrupted due to unavoidable reasons," explained the member of the Customer Experience Team who refunded my loan, adding enigmatically, "I can confirm that there are a number of factors that lead to delays and disruptions."

Other disappointed easyJet passengers have had trips to Spain "disrupted" – ie arbitrarily eliminated from the schedules. The airline can cancel flights without penalty up to a fortnight before departure. Passengers have been offered alternative flights or their money back, but easyJet's liability does not extend to refunding, for example, a pre-paid hotel stay or rental car.

"The decision to do this was our last option," explains the easyJet email. Stranger still. October is exactly when you would not expect unforeseen circumstances to oblige airlines to cancel flights. Once the summer peak is over, most carriers have more than enough staff and aircraft on their books. Since easyJet explored every other option, presumably none of the ad hoc charter companies was able to provide a suitable plane.

I asked easyJet what led to its last-ditch decision to ditch, if I may, the Belfast-Gatwick flight. A spokeswoman for the airline said, "We have made some amendments to the winter schedule flying programme, which means some re-timings and rescheduling on a small number of flights." I am still baffled how that constitutes "unforeseen circumstances".

Save for the merry months of summer, plus Christmas, New Year and Easter, many airlines routinely lose money.

Finance directors would happily shut up shop between October and March, reopening briefly in mid-December until early January. They don't, for several reasons. First, to retain customer loyalty, particularly among business travellers. Next, because airline leasing companies are disinclined to provide planes only for the profitable times of year. Third, because you can retain good staff only if you offer year-round employment. So they keep the operation going and try to limit their losses.

Has easyJet simply concluded that it is uneconomical to operate certain departures this winter? No, says the spokeswoman, "We are not cancelling flights just because of low load factors."

No homage to Catalonia on BA

Cynics, never in short supply in aviation, maintain that money is the root of ad hoc cancellations. British Airways is tactically cancelling some flights this winter to staunch its losses. Indeed, BA's cash flow has benefited to the tune of £100 at my expense for the best part of a year because of another loan for a phantom flight.

As soon as Abta announced its 2009 travel convention would be held in Barcelona, I booked a return flight from London to the Catalan capital for next month. Had I decided at any time in the past 10 months to cancel, I would have lost all the money.

But it was BA that exercised, if I may over-dramatise for a moment, the nuclear option. Its revenue staff looked at the level of bookings and the fares paid, and concluded there was no hope of covering costs on the Barcelona flight. "We do make these decisions on commercial grounds, and make no bones about it," said a BA spokesman.