English Corner

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Whatever's happened to easyJet?

Von Ben West

It increasingly looks like easyJet could be lowering passenger care, punctuality, employee renumeration and ground handling in order to keep shareholders happy.

Though not plunging as fast as the World’s stock exchanges have been collapsing this week, the fortunes of easyJet, Britain’s biggest budget airline, have certainly taken a mighty tumble recently.

Incidents were topped on 19 August by an easyJet passenger tasered (a weapon firing barbs that causes temporary paralysis) by police at London Gatwick Airport for attempting to take two items of hand luggage onto a plane instead of one. That seems to be quite a robust reaction for an airline’s one-bag policy.

For many years easyJet, which flies 30 million passengers annually, has been a superb airline. Though not offering the comfort of more expensive carriers, its ability to deliver ridiculously cheap fares coupled with excellent punctuality has been exemplary.

I have taken many easyJet flights over the years - and the route from London to Zurich many times over the last four years especially. Until recently, it has almost always offered a really good service, especially considering that many flights have often cost under 45CHF each way, a fraction of the cost from competitors like BA and Swiss.

These flights were on the whole very punctual and efficient. But in recent months everything's been going wrong: I’ve found that flights are often late or cancelled, to the extent that now the last flight from Zurich to London Gatwick each night is almost always delayed, often by around an hour, and sometimes cancelled. In-flight magazines always used to be in place: now they’re increasingly missing or ragged and torn. I haven’t been able to get a chilled lager onboard for months - ice has simply been added to the glass, which is hardly the ideal way to drink beer.

45cm x 36cm x 20cm

August has seen easyJet ending its guarantee to customers that they will be able to keep their hand luggage with them throughout the flight. Until recently, luggage measuring 56cm x 45cm x 25cm or less was guaranteed space in the cabin.

Now, standard passengers can bring one item of hand luggage this size but it may be placed in the hold on busy flights. However, passengers paying extra for their seats can have luggage of this size plus another cabin bag measuring up to 45cm x 36cm x 20cm.

In April some easyJet customers objected when they were charged a £10 (14.87 CHF) fee for letters confirming cancelled flights needed for insurance claims.

In July easyJet staff threatened a lawyer with arrest under the Terrorism Act as they had wrongly put him on their no-fly list and denied him boarding.

Aditionally, easyJet was this month found to be overbooking thousands of peak-season flights - and flouting EU rules on offloaded passengers. The overbooking has resulted in some passengers being told they have to travel by a circuitous route to get to their destination, and family groups, even with very young children, being broken up.

British financial services executive Andrew Whelan, for example, booked six seats for his family but was told at Luton airport that his daughter and her friend, both 15, could not fly. He arranged for his sons aged 18 and 26, to miss the flight instead.

Staff did not try to persuade other passengers to take a later flight in return for travel vouchers or a cash payment, even though EU passenger-rights demand that airlines are required to seek volunteers. Airlines are also required by European regulations to seek alternative transport for offloaded  passengers as soon as possible.

However, easyJet insisted that Mr Whelan’s sons must travel 120 miles to Bristol airport for a flight 32 hours later. He instead felt forced to purchase new acceptable flights himself.

More than 240 times

To add to easyJet’s woes, flight attendants threatened to strike over low pay this summer. They earn on average about 37,000 CHF annually (with basic pay starting at around 14,800 CHF), but the Unite union, which has about a third of easyJet’s 3500 British cabin crew as members, says that they require a significant pay rise. Some staff have complained about such things as easyJet staff in Italy and France receiving higher basic pay, the long working hours, unpredictable shift patterns, a difficulty choosing holiday time and having to buy their uniforms at unreasonably high prices.

Unite note that the pay for directors has increased by over 18% and the salary for chief executive Carolyn McCall has increased to more than 13.38 million CHF, which is more than 240 times more than what an average crew member would earn.

It increasingly looks like easyJet could be lowering passenger care, punctuality, employee renumeration and ground handling in order to keep shareholders happy. Indeed, citing ‘better-than-expected revenue per seat,’ the company has raised its profits forecast to around £640m (951m CHF) for the year ending in September. Last year it reported a pre-tax profit of £581m (863m CHF).

However, if the ongoing setbacks don’t stop, and reducing standards aren’t raised again soon, it wouldn’t be a surprise if  share prices soon tumble as passengers abandon the airline in droves.