When tempers fly: How to avoid air rage

Modern travel can be infuriating, as proven by the long list of complaints published today by the Air Transport Users' Council. Simon Calder offers a guide to avoiding the worst flashpoints
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The Independent Travel

Cheap plane tickets have a nasty habit of becoming expensive. Three years ago I booked a bargain trip from Belfast City to Stansted with Europe's third-largest budget airline, Air Berlin. We passengers all turned up at the airport on time, knowing that even a minute's tardiness is enough to see you offloaded. But a flight that began with an hour's delay was, later in the evening, cancelled. Apparently the plane that was supposed to operate was redeployed to replace a broken aircraft elsewhere on the network.

At that point, I should have in theory have cried "God bless the EU", as the airline showered me with compensation and arranged my hotel room for the night, plus a taxi to take me there. After all, a year earlier, the European Commission had introduced rules on compensation and assistance to airline passengers that were intended to provide "Transport with a human face" – and deal with exactly the circumstances I was in.

But almost all my experiences with "EC261/2004", as the rules are catchily titled, suggest that many airlines are simply ignoring their obligation. Instead of meals and accommodation being arranged, the sole Air Berlin rep handed everyone a piece of paper with some out-of-date telephone numbers for hotels and left us to get on with it. Because I needed to be on the first flight out next day, I quickly racked up a bill for £300, with a couple of hundred more due in compensation for the cancellation. Not only has Air Berlin "failed to receive" my claim and receipts - it has kept the original £23 fare, having correctly predicted that after a few more attempts I would give up and go away.

The Air Transport Users' Council, which publishes its annual report today, suggests travellers are getting increasingly exasperated by airlines' behaviour; complaints to the body are up by 11 per cent.

But I think we protest too much. Get used to it: air travel lost any glamour years ago. It is now a safe and often cheap commodity that takes from A (where you don't want to be, particularly if it's Stansted), to B, which is somewhere you yearn to be - whether for culture, romance or cheap beer.

It will deliver you to your dream; just don't moan if the process becomes a nightmare. And consult the guidelines here to see if it's worth making a fuss. It usually isn't.

The top written complaints to the Air Transport Users' Council thisyear – and what you can do about them...

Cancellations (45 per cent of total complaints recieved)

As the airlines struggle to contain costs, they are axing flights in the manner of serial killers. Six months ago I paid British Airways for the privilege of flying from Barcelona to London in October; the airline believes it is cheaper to keep the plane on the ground and refund my fare than to operate it. And because BA told me more than two weeks ahead, it does not owe me a penny in compensation nor interest. Even if your flight is cancelled with less notice, don't expect the airline to lavish you with cash; obfuscation is more likely.

Delays (17 per cent)

One consequence of the recession is that about 10 per cent fewer flights are operating across Europe - and those that do take off are consequently less likely to be held up because of air-traffic control. That could explain the decline in complaints about tardiness. If a plane is late, all you can do is hope that the airline will honour its legal obligation to look after you with refreshment, phone calls and – if a night-stop is necessary – a hotel room. But don't count on it: when I have meekly asked for my entitlement, responses have ranged from "Oh, we don't do that" (Olympic Airlines) to "We didn't expect the delay to be longer than two hours" (British Airways); my italics - the crucial test is the airline's expectation, not the reality.

Mishandled baggage (12 per cent)

To avoid being one of the 10 people a week who complain about losing their bags, don't check anything in. If you must consign luggage to the hold, then don't change planes – transfer points are where most bags go astray. And assume that every tag will be torn off the outside, and provide your name and address inside the case.

Reservation issues (nine per cent)

"Incorrect names or dates being entered into the booking" is a growing problem. Airlines are pernickity about all your details being right. So Bob, Beth and Billy: make sure your name as it appears on the passport is the one you book under. And if you, like me, book a flight to Belfast next September rather than this October, you have no-one to blame but yourself. Read back all the details before you press "Buy now".

Denied boarding (six per cent)

If you turn up on time for a flight and are refused a seat, then you are entitled to compensation; simple as that.

Refund issues (five per cent)

If you are due a refund, don't expect the airline to make it top priority; these cash-strapped days, they need all the free credit they can get.

Baggage allowance (three per cent)

The pointless conversation at check-in goes like this: "But when I flew out here I had exactly the same bag and weight and I didn't get charged". No more Mr/Ms Nice Ground Staff; you know the rules.

Diverted flight (three per cent)

A flight reservation constitutes only a vague promise to get you from A to B in the manner of the airlines choosing. Fog on the Rhine meant that on two occasions when I intended to fly to Baden Baden in Germany, I ended up in France and Switzerland respectively – which, even by Ryanair standards, is stretching geography.

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