Inside Travel: A guide to flexi fares

Delayed easyJet customers may get more than just an apology. Simon Calder explains how

Free flights for all? No. But from today until the end of November, some passengers aboard Britain's biggest budget airline will look closely at their watches as the Airbus taxis to the gate: easyJet promises business passengers a free flight if they arrive more than 15 minutes late. And even if the offending flight was only a short hop from Liverpool to Belfast, the free trip can be anywhere on the network, including Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

The airline wants to build awareness of its "flexi" tickets (costing two or three times more than ordinary fares, but including checked baggage, speedy boarding and the right to switch flights). Also, easyJet wants to show how its reliability has has improved since the lousy summer of 2010, when hundreds of flights were cancelled and barely half the remaining departures were on time. And low-cost carriers like to have a pop at flag carriers. "Unlike our competitors," says easyJet, "we don't think delays can be smoothed over with a bag of peanuts and an apology."

The promotion is not quite unprecedented; as The Independent Traveller has reported, the Latvian airline, Air Baltic, invites passengers to pay €24 upfront for the "On-time Arrival Guarantee": arrive an hour or more late, and you get your money back (or at least travel vouchers).

Is easyJet's promotion a shrewd way to build loyalty while filling seats that would otherwise be empty? Or could it turn out to be an expensive mistake? This guide explains the rules.

Who stands to benefit?

Passengers travelling on a "flexi" ticket, easyJet's new business-travel fare, in October and November 2011, whose plane arrives more than 15 minutes late.

How is arrival time defined?

"The time at which the seatbelt sign is switched off on arrival at the destination airport," says easyJet. The captain records the time in a logbook and this evidence will, I imagine, be used to arbitrate in any "was-it-14-minutes-or-16-minutes?" dispute.

Are all delays included?

No: easyJet won't pay out in the case of "any significant external factors causing delay which are outside of easyJet's control". The airline says that these include, but are not limited to, "major weather disruption, snow, strike action, ash clouds etc". That seems a broad get-out clause: if air-traffic control issues in Italy earlier in the day cause a knock-on delay for your evening flight from Nice to Gatwick, for example, that may be sufficient for easyJet not to pay out.

How do I claim a free flight?

Within four weeks of the delayed flight, send details to freeflight@easyjet.com. Once the easyJet "Contact Centre" verifies the claim, someone will get in touch to book the free flight.

Will the "free flight" cost me anything?

Not unless you want to check in a bag (or insist on speedy boarding), for which you'll pay extra. The airline pays the tax. The free flight is only one way; you could fly home on easyJet, but you are free to choose any airline, or indeed a combination of rail, road and sea.

Can I fly any time?

No. Free flights must be booked at least two weeks ahead, and taken by the end of March next year. The main school holiday periods are excluded: 22-30 October, 22 December-3 January, 11-19 February (ruling out Valentine's Day).

If those dates don't suit, can I give away the flight?

No.

If the free flight itself is late, do I get another one?

No. You'll have exactly the same status as "ordinary" easyJet passengers, who are excluded from the free-flights scheme.

Are rival airlines impressed by easyJet's move?

Apparently not. Alex Cruz, chief executive of Vueling, said: "We don't need to do that. Our punctuality record has been consistently the highest in Spain for the last three years, including in the bad ash-cloud and ATC-strike days." Two out of five of the airline's existing passengers are travelling on business, he says. "Many of them already choose us because we are dependable."

A BA spokesman claimed "Flying is always sweet with British Airways". He said the airline does not charge for food and drink, nor for checking in a bag weighing up to 23kg. Neither does BA charge for paying by debit card; easyJet's fee is £8.

And Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Europe's biggest low-cost airline, told me "It would be impossible for us to copy easyJet's 'initiative' since we don't have any high 'flexi' fares. Ryanair remains Europe's number one on-time airline, beating easyJet's punctuality every week for the last five million years."

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