Monday, July 01, 2013

EasyFlight on EasyJet... not

The alarm went off at 5am, time for a quick shave, after all I'm flying home to my wife. Then a shower before driving to the airport at 5:30. I'm in North Africa so the shower was hot, but tortuous. There is no shower tray and the drain didn't work well in the guest apartment and so the water tended to overflow out under the door of the bathroom and down the corridor. The trick was to have a bucket or two beneath you, standing over one of them carefully. Thus when you showered you would to catch as much water as possible and then tip it down the toilet after your shower.

Driving to the airport was uneventful, if slightly stressed since there was an early morning sea mist rolling in over the coastal highway. Navigation was easy though, since I had my trusty iPhone with me and Jane (the voice of that SatNav App) guided me to the airport. I was driving a virtually brand new Kangoo. I'd last driven one when we rented it from EasyCar in the UK some years back. I had booked a Peugeot 206 with air conditioning but the Kangoo without a/c was my 'upgrade' or so I was told. The alternative was some micro car that the rental company didn't recommend on highways. I took the Kangoo!

Arriving at the airport I was disconcerted to find my flight was not advertised. I was further dismayed when the information desk didn't know about it either. However, another passenger also waiting at information assured me that it was OK and pointed me in the direction of the embarkation gate. Uneventful till I was queuing at the gate and was told that my online boarding pass was invalid and that I should return to checkin and get a real boarding pass. Eventually they let me on, sternly warning me that I should not do it next time. They tried to explain in Arabic. My Arabic didn't cope with that complexity. They asked if I could read French, which I said I could a little, so they pointed me to a box on my English boarding pass in Italian, claiming it was French. The box is to the left of an advert, so I had assumed it was just another advert.

Arriving at Milano I find that transit passengers have to exit the airport and cross to the entrance of the terminal about half a kilometre away.

This time my flight is displayed but showing a delay of 2 hours 40 minutes.

Never mind, I will use the time usefully by connecting to the Internet and doing some work. That it seems, is easier said than done. In Milano you get 15 minutes free and then you have to pay for the rest. I believed it should be worth it to redeem the time sitting around in the airport. 

Setting up the account with Milano Internet was relatively easy, albeit they only accepted one of the three email addresses I tried. I never did find out why they didn't like my gmail address or an address which was relatively short.

When the free time had expired I tried logging in to pay for the remaining hours I wanted. I completed the online form indicating that my residence was Cyprus and the form changed accordingly but didn't accept the address I entered. It appeared that they also wanted my 'Tax reference number' as well. I tried my Alien Registration Number and then a few random numbers but no way would it accept my data.

So I thought that I would try the UK address of our company. Changing my residence to the UK worked fine except now they wanted a ZIP code, and no way would a British Post Code work in that field as it accepted numbers only and British Post Codes are number letter combinations.  Suddenly and without warning the screen changed to Italian and again asked for my Tax Number, presumably my Italian Tax Number (Codice Fiscale), which of course I don't have.

Then there was an announcement over the tannoy that was sufficiently clear that I understood it was about the Larnaca EasyJet flight but sufficiently garbled that I had no idea what the announcement was. The tannoy is actually so loud and the speakers so close to passengers when queuing that it is a serious health hazard.

I visit another information desk and they directed me to one of the gates where there would be specific information about my flight.

There wasn't information but there was an offer of a very small voucher for a snack. My snack cost three or four times what the voucher offered. 4.5 EUR or 3 GBP doesn't go very far in airport eating establishments! However, here was an EasyJet representative who should be given the employee of the year award for going as far as humanly possible to help a client.

I asked him to translate the Italian message on my English EasyJet online boarding pass. A liberal translation, reinterpreted by me, is approximately thus: 'You have just wasted your time with an online boarding pass as we don't accept them in this country so you have to queue like the rest of us'. So despite being in Italian on a English boarding pass it actually applied to a North African country that speaks neither English nor Italian!

Next he tries to help with the problem of the Internet connection. He makes phone call after phone call to different departments around the airport.  He basically agrees that its impossible for a non-Italian to complete the form even though its probably foreigners who need the Internet most in Milano.

Eventually after yet another phone call he says it depends if I am a transit passenger or not, because, he says, since I am not, I cannot have the Internet. I explain that I am a transit passenger, having just flown in this morning on his airline. Ah, he says, and takes all my details and heads off to administration to try and sort it out.

About 5 minutes later he returns and makes another call spelling out my name, email address and other details with the international phonetic alphabet - Foxtrox Alpha India Romeo Hotel Echo Alpha Delta. Then he tells me I will soon get an SMS with a new username and password which will give me at least an hour on the Internet. No SMS comes but I try logging in again with the old username and password and find that I have now been credited with another free 15 minutes... which does turn out to be an hour.

Eventually it is time to go to the gate. I have to go through another Passport Control to get there. This makes two passport controls in Milano to go from one EU country to another EU country, maybe even from a Shengen country to another wanna-be Shengen country! The organization here is bizarre but everyone is very friendly and one just has to shake ones head and wonder.

The plane arrives from Prague and everyone leaps at queuing despite the fact that we will naturally not be allowed to board until they have finished refueling and reprovisioning and changing crews. 

No point in racing, I have an online boarding pass that is accepted in Milano with my seat number allocated. However...

EasyJet have changed their contract with the passengers, it's now an 'English contract' I am told by an EasyJet gate representative, and I am not allowed to take my carryon case onto the plane, it will have to go into the hold. 'Please take all you need for the flight from your case'. So I leave my case on the Tarmac and I now have a collection of other items on the chair beside me. 

When on board the flight crew proudly tell everyone that EasyJet are pleased to announce the new rules for cabin baggage to be found on page 189 of the inflight magazine. Basically this means that if you have regular IATA sized cabin baggage you are unlikely to be able to take it onboard and you need to have a smaller case to have the 'EasyJet guarantee'.

But wait a moment... today is June the 30th... the new rules come into effect on July 2nd.

But the new rules are interesting: One of the good things about flying EasyJet is they have no weight limit on cabin baggage. Sometimes we have had up to the 20kg limit on checked baggage and up to 16-18kg on cabin baggage. With the new rules this means if you have a much smaller bag with your real cabin baggage within your official cabin baggage ready to extract at a suitable time when challenged you'll be able to get away with two 20kg effectively checked cases rather than one. The trick will be to put the small, high density items (like books) in what is originally called 'cabin baggage'.

Apparently this plane is not the one that should have been on this route, but a replacement due to some mechanical problem with the original one, hence the delay. This means that many of the online boarding passes and those issued at checkin don't correlate with the actual seating plan of the plane. People who booked a row of four seats are really put out as there are only three seat rows on this aircraft and somehow some seats have become double booked. The ever friendly cabin crew handle the situation with diplomacy and everyone seems satisfied.

What was observable was that the crew were scrambling and racing to get us off as quickly as possible, since we were within minutes of hitting the €400/person compensation time obligated by the EU. Maybe they were offered a bonus if they saved the airline the compensation it would otherwise have to pay. It ended up they made it by something like 16 minutes! Having a fixed cut off point sort of helps, but in reality what would be better is a scaled compensation: Any delay over 30 minutes, free Internet till you leave. Any predicted delay over 90 minutes, a €30 food voucher (not €4.50 as I actually got). Then the real financial compensation at the 3 hour cut off. And EasyJet, here's a tip... whenever you have a delay offer everyone on the flight a free drink and a free muffin.

The cost of food on EasyJet is quite reasonable, so I order a fresh baguette only to find it might be a baguette but fresh it is not. Sad really because on the other two EasyJet flights I had a chocolate muffin and coffee. The chocolate muffins on EasyJet are such that it's almost worth taking the flight just for the muffin!

The inflight magazine proudly informs us that they are having a trial run with 'mobile check in' at a number of selected airports. One wonders how EasyJet North Africa will cope if they cannot even cope with printed online boarding passes.

I've never taken a Ryan Air flight when they haven't been on time or early. EasyJet is very friendly but efficient… not. I arrived home just before midnight.