Just because your boarding pass specifies a destination, don't assume you're going there. Planes frequently land at the wrong airports. I have been surprised to arrive at Guam (on Qantas, to refuel during a trans-Pacific flight), Lanzarote (on Thomson, because Tenerife was suffering a sandstorm) and Stephenville in Newfoundland (on Aeroflot, due to a snowstorm in Gander – which was where all the catering was).
In every case the airline really didn't want to divert: landing in the wrong place burns copious quantities of cash and goodwill. Sometimes, though, the arrival point is switched because it is convenient for the airline – even though it is inconvenient for the passenger.
Earlier this month, Thomas Cook Airlines flight 1063 was due to depart from Preveza in Greece to Gatwick. The plane arrived on time in western Greece to speed 325 passengers to Sussex. What could possibly go wrong?
"Due to an operational issue within our fleet," says a spokesman for the airline, "it became necessary to reposition this particular aircraft."
Loosely translated: another Thomas Cook plane in Manchester had broken; rather than charter in extra capacity, it suited the firm to divert the jet from Gatwick to Manchester, a 200-mile road journey away. The passengers spent longer travelling south on a fleet of coaches than they had on the journey from Greece.
The event exposes the absurdity of European rules on passengers' rights. While the bundle of laws known as EU261 specifies airlines' obligations when departure is delayed, once the plane has taken off, the law is silent about long delays in arrival. When a journey from A to B becomes a flight from A to C followed by a long bus ride to B, passengers have no rights. If they did, airlines might think twice before messing travellers about to save money.
Gatwick's great divide
Every day, the UK airline that carries more people than any other deliberately deposits a couple of thousand passengers in the wrong place.
To explain: easyJet's main base is Gatwick, where the airline uses both North and South Terminals. On a typical day, 15 flights arrive at the North Terminal when they should be at the South, or vice versa. For my flight back from Athens last week, I was sent an email saying "flight EZY5086 will be arriving at Gatwick South Terminal". On the day, we arrived at North Terminal, though the crew left it to the passengers to work that out.
So what? The two terminals are barely a mile apart, with a shuttle train between them. Yet arriving where you expected to be is useful in many respects. Anyone booking the premium car park at North Terminal, a few yards from the arrivals hall, is paying for the right to a quick getaway. Likewise, South Terminal has far superior public transport, which could be important to business passengers. Those advantages are lost if you are deposited at the wrong terminal.
Meeters and greeters are also put out: the airport has had to install special screens at both arrivals areas to list the day's displaced easyJet flights.
The airline says: "A very small percentage (less than 10 per cent) of easyJet's flights land into a different terminal at Gatwick Airport due to operational requirements. We make every effort to inform our passengers when they will be landing into a different terminal than expected but unfortunately it is not always possible to do so."
Ideally easyJet would use a single terminal, but other airlines would have to surrender long-established ties to North or South. Meanwhile, easyJet's time is evidently more important than yours. I have suggested to the airline that it should warn passengers booking flights to the Sussex airport: "A proportion of easyJet arrivals at Gatwick are directed to the 'wrong' terminal."
Odd but even-handed
British Airways flies from even more terminals at Heathrow than easyJet does at Gatwick: all three odd-numbered terminals. So does BA offload passengers at the wrong one? No, according to a spokesman: "If we need to reallocate an aircraft between terminals, which is not that usual, it is done with an empty plane and towed across before the next flight. Keeping planes separate in their own terminals during each day is critical in making our plans knit together." And travellers' plans.