The man who pays his way

In April, when volcanic ash closed our air space, I flew out to Norway as a passenger but returned as freight aboard a container ship. Ignominious? Not compared with being considered excess baggage before your plane even takes off.

Last week 146 passengers boarded easyJet flight 2017 from Luton to Faro in Portugal. But the Boeing was going nowhere. After 40 minutes, the nature of the problem was revealed to passengers – including Sally Ashcroft:

"The announcement said the plane was too heavy, 100kg to be precise, and they wanted a 'man and his luggage' to offload. A bit sexist," Ms Ashcroft observes.

Not if you have read your JAR OPS, it isn't. The "Joint Aviation Requirement for the Operation of Commercial Air Transport" is Europe's compendium of commandments for airline pilots, covering everything from visibility limits to when a cockpit voice recorder may be switched off.

The captain must calculate scrupulously the weight of the aircraft. Events such as striking French air-traffic controllers combined with adverse headwinds can oblige the pilots to load extra fuel – as they did in the case of easyJet flight 2017 to Faro.

To save you and me the embarrassment of stepping on scales at check-in, JAR OPS makes assumptions passengers' weights. On a scheduled European flight, you – plus your cabin baggage – are deemed to weigh a slender 70kg if you have the fortune to be female, but a plump 88kg for those of us burdened by the misfortune of masculinity. Whatever your gender, you are assumed to have checked in 13kg per person. So a man plus bag are presumed to total 101kg – just enough to tilt the balance in favour of take off.

All the fare-paying passengers were sitting, strapped in, waiting for their holiday to begin. How much would it take to entice one of them to linger in Luton? The first bid was a night in a hotel, a seat on the next day's flight, and €250. No takers.

At this stage, the airline usually raises the bribe: everyone has a price. Instead, the airline multiplied the hotel/flight/cash deal by two, because many passengers were travelling with a partner.

Still not enough. Then, says Ms Ashcroft, "A large guy said he'd go if they gave him €500, the same as for a couple. Everyone cheered. But when the hostess checked with head office, they refused."

"After 20 more minutes they said if no one volunteered they would offload the last passengers to check in. We all sat there wondering if it would be us. It turned out to be an elderly couple. They were really upset. Some people were a bit mean, telling them to get a move on, but everyone else stuck up for them."

The next plan proved equally unpopular: to offload seven cases at random (to top 100kg, they would need to go for heavier bags).

The response, according to Ms Ashcroft: "Everyone jumped up to object, saying they had medication, baby stuff, etc. Then a very organised lady shouted out, 'Let's all chip in and get the volunteer the extra €250'. She quickly collected more than enough and the guy got off." The plane departed two hours late.

Andrew McConnell, spokesman for easyJet, says "This was an exceptional event for which we sincerely apologise," but gives a very different version:

"The last passenger to check in was offloaded. In line with EU regulations, the passenger was given €400 compensation, and booked onto the next available flight." I told him about the passenger's account, which he says he is "unable to verify".

Ms Ashcroft concludes "I've heard of having to pay to pee, but having to pay to take off was an extra I hadn't expected."

Shed pounds: be a charter passenger

The curious case of the Luton lingerers enjoins a closer look at the strange rules which determine whether a plane is safe to take off. The oddest: passengers on "holiday charters" are assumed to be lighter than those on scheduled flights. Women on charters are assigned an average weight of 69kg (one kilo less than their scheduled equivalents); men, at 83kg, are 5kg lighter.

Now, I have squeezed on to enough charter flights alongside holidaymakers who have spent a fortnight devouring their money's worth at all-inclusive resorts to conclude that the typical male charter passenger weighs significantly more than the average travelling businessmen.

The discrepancy between scheduled and charter flights turns out to be all about cabin baggage. "The rules assume that on charter flights there are lower hand-luggage limits, and that these are strictly enforced," says Richard Taylor from the Civil Aviation Authority.