Easy way: the airline has unveiled a new charter / AFP

The man who pays his way

Britain’s biggest low-cost airline has just launched a charm offensive. This month easyJet revealed its first Customer Charter. Among the five pillars of aviation wisdom that it has adopted is the promise that “You can expect a friendly, helpful and knowledgeable service from all our staff”.

Mark Leiser, a postgraduate law student at Strathclyde University, didn’t feel that was what he got this week. He was waiting for a delayed easyJet evening flight from Glasgow to Gatwick. He wanted to know whether he would still be able to get a train from the Sussex airport into London. Staff at the gate could apparently not help.

According to a report in The Drum, an online magazine to which Mr Leiser contributes, he then learnt that: “Delays had prevented a serving soldier – who was on route to take part in active service – making an essential travel connection.” So he vented his frustration on Twitter: “Flight delayed 90min. Soldier going to miss last connection & @easyjet refusing to help pay for him to get to Portsmouth. Get right into em!”

He says that ground staff approached him and told him he would not be allowed to fly: “The manager arrived and told me that, based on my tweet, they couldn’t let me board the flight because I wasn’t allowed to do that and I should know better. He then called over to the girl on the counter to instruct my bags be taken off the flight. It wasn’t until I asked him if he’d heard of free speech that the tone changed. He asked me if I was a lawyer and I told him I taught law at Strathclyde.” He was allowed on board.

Since the incident on Tuesday night, a bucketful of opprobrium has been poured upon the airline. “Careful about criticising easyJet,” tweeted the excellent Undercover Economist, Tim Harford. “Their feelings may be hurt.” Many other comments were far less polite. So allow me to present the case for the defence.

I wasn’t there, but the incident has some puzzling aspects. Travellers could infer from some of the reports that a supervisor at the airport spends his or her time monitoring passenger comments on Twitter. That is fanciful. For staff to have become aware of the offending tweet, presumably other factors were involved – perhaps some kind of altercation about the delay.

Next, Mr Leiser apparently “asked an attendant at the gate when the last train from Gatwick airport into central London would depart”, but without a satisfactory response. Later: “Mr Leiser said he was able to get into London despite arriving late because the Gatwick Express ran all night, something he did not know at the time and no one was able to tell him.”

It is odd that an airline passenger would expect ground staff to know details of rail connections from a different airport in another country – and a pity that Mr Leiser, a student of cyber law, appears unaware of the excellent free National Rail Enquiries mobile app. In 45 seconds I have just learnt from it that two trains run each hour through the night from the airport to London. Neither is the Gatwick Express.

I am also mystified about that “serving soldier”. It appears that he had allowed only 33 minutes between the scheduled arrival of the plane and the departure of the last train of the night that would get him to Portsmouth. If that was the case, it represents a very tight connection, especially if he had a kit-bag checked in.

Mind your language

From what I know about airport procedures, I suggest this was an unfortunate misunderstanding – and a reminder to all passengers about the need to avoid anything that could be construed as disruptive behaviour. Twitter users will interpret the phrase “Get right into em!” as simply an encouragement to give easyJet a tough time on social media. But in a stressful situation, ground staff could interpret the words as something more sinister. While Mr Leiser had no ill intent, lesson one for anyone working in aviation is: a minor problem in the departure lounge can become a major incident at 30,000 feet.

Time wasters

Another promise of easyJet’s new charter: “We’ll make sure you know what to expect at every step of your journey.” How does this noble intention translate to reality? Curiously, by telling passengers to expect an awful airport experience, even though it almost certainly won’t be.

Before a recent flight to Malta, the airline sent me a message warning that I must allow two hours simply to get through security at Gatwick. Given that the departure was at 6.30am, the stipulation implied it would be necessary to arrive at the airport at about three in the morning. Heavens: what was happening at the Sussex airport for easyJet to issue such an alert?

Gatwick’s management team were perplexed when I asked them. With plenty of security staff rostered and a track record of beating waiting-time targets, there was nothing to suggest there could be a hold-up. So what prompted easyJet to issue the dire warning of endless queues? “Sorry, it was a mistake,” a spokeswoman told me. How many people, I wondered, had been similarly misled? It turns out that every passenger who flew on easyJet in June, July and August was given precisely the same warning.

The airline told 15 million people to allow a ludicrous length of time for security. After I pointed out that it was not an accurate or helpful message, easyJet agreed to change it. But the fact that the airline put out the misleading alert at all suggests a certain contempt for passengers’ time and jars with the final easyJet intention: “We will always be straight with you.”