Lawyers Automate This, So Why Don't Airlines?
December 26, 2020 ( Prev / Next )

My working title for this blog post was “Why I’ll Never Fly With easyJet Again”, but that was far too clickbaity. Also it’s probably worth prefixing this post with two things. The first being the caveat that whether or not i ever fly with easyJet again is immaterial to their business, given that the model of budget airlines is one of opportunistic sales. Their loyalty programmes are minimal to non-existent1 (although that may change in the near future2) because the nature of their passengers is not one of loyalty. When you’re looking for a short haul cheap flight you’re unlikely to be attracted to schemes that only benefit you after years, or hundreds of thousands of air miles, worth of loyalty.

The reality of the budget airlines is they don’t have to worry about losing future passengers, thousands of them even, because there will always be enough replacement passengers. Budget airlines’ flights average above a 90% occupancy rate3.

So the point of me never flying with easyJet again is not because i am under any illusion that it will be detrimental to their business, it won’t, but rather to protect myself should the situation happen again. They’re not the first airline to make my “list”, but the others have reasons that aren’t interesting enough to require a blog post.

What i am hoping with this post is that it gives the reader enough information that, should they find themselves in a similar situation, they are more informed as to their options and the potential ramifications of the choice they make. This is going to affect more travelers when the UK leaves the EU.

The second prefix is that easyJet recently posted their first year of losses4, due to the current global situation. I started writing this post sometime in 2019, way before the pandemic royally fucked the airline industry. It’s arguable that the airline industry being royally fucked was only a matter of time, and the consequences of that could mean the details here are now even more relevant - It may become even harder to claim refunds and compensation from them in the future. Airline companies will probably double down on their approach to handling compensation claims to avoid yet more financial loss.

EZY1952

On 23rd December 2018 my partner and I were due to fly from Geneva to Manchester on easyJet flight EZY1952, aircraft registration G-EZRU, which was scheduled to depart at 16:50 CET and arrive at 17:50 GMT. I had booked these flights a couple of months earlier, which combined with the date of our departure and return lead to a total cost of 619.38 CHF.

The 600+ CHF didn’t include any of the optional extras, priority boarding, seat choice, checked bags, etc. It was the “basic” cost of the “cheap” flights. This cost is four to five times more than the normal cost of this route, as I said due to the relatively late booking (two months in advance) and the dates of the flights. This route is normally far cheaper:

Anyway, given the alternatives and the limited options for our dates these were the flights we settled on and decide the cost was worth it to spend Xmas with the family. The flight was delayed by just a few minutes, which isn’t unusual for this route, but then took off as normal at 17:14:05 CET.

A few moments after take off, the literal wheels no longer being on the ground part of it, I felt my ears pop quite suddenly. That might not be taken as unusual either, but I live at altitude and my ears don’t normally pop on flights. The plane then spent several minutes in low cloud, another unusual thing given the cloud line is normally cut through quicker. I turned to my partner and suggested that something was off.

A couple of minutes later the pilot informed us that the flight would be returning to Geneva airport as the cabin pressure system, and its backup, had failed. Given the potentially catastrophic consequences of the cabin pressure system failing at cruising altitude, I considered that everyone on the plane had been very lucky.

The plane landed safely at Geneva airport at 17:41:00 CET, meaning a total flight time of about 25 minutes5. I contacted my parents to let them know we wouldn’t be arriving as planned and would keep them informed as to any updates:

We remained on the plane, after the pilot informed us that the technical crew were going to look into the issue. We were then told the parts would be replaced/fixed and this would take three to four hours. At this point I knew that we would not be flying until the next day as a) it was now 19:00 and Geneva airport has strict limitations on flights after 22:00, and b) it would be massively irresponsible of the airline to let this plane fly without a more comprehensive test that would probably take longer than the three to four hour estimate6.

Since it was going to take a few hours all passengers disembarked and returned to the departure gate. I’m not sure how long we were on the plane, while it was on the ground, but looking at the evidence I kept afterwards it appears that we were on it for approximately one hour fifteen minutes. This is from the time it landed to receiving a text message from easyJet apologising for the delay:

As soon as we got back into the gate I sat down and checked to see if there were any other flights available. Sure enough there was: we could get a one way easyJet flight to Liverpool, so I booked two seats for a total of 189.26 CHF. This flight would depart at 21:25 CET and arrive at 22:20 GMT, four hours and thirty minutes after our original arrival time.

It should be said at this point I was reasonably confident of a few things:

I was correct on four out of five of these:

Our flight to Liverpool went without issue, and we weren’t the only people to have rebooked from the delayed flight as we overheard some other passengers explaining their situation to the cabin crew7.

Contacting easyJet Customer Service

The next day I used easyJet’s contact form to submit a claim under EC261/2004 regulations. I knew this was going to take a long time so figured I may as well start the process as soon as possible. My claim was made on the basis that the original flight had been delayed overnight and I had booked alternate travel arrangements to get to my destination.

I considered the cost of the original flights a sunk cost. I wasn’t actually interested in compensation and I just wanted the cost of the alternate flights refunded, which came in at less than half the amount of compensation EC261/2004 would give considering the length of the delay to the original flight.

The response from easyJet came back quickly, the next day: As you were a no show on the flight we would not be able t reimburse the costs for alternate transport. - well that didn’t read like a response by someone/thing that had actually looked into the details. We had shown up for the flight, given we were on it when the pressure systems failed, and clearly we wouldn’t show up for the rescheduled flight if we arranged alternate transport as we can’t be in two places at once.

I assumed this was just a first level response of “refuse all claims, through a semantic dispute, because this will cause a not insignificant number of people to give up”8. The contact form doesn’t have a place to describe the reason for the claim in detail so I needed to call easyJet to explain.

EU Regulation 261/2004

I’ll spare you too much detail, as you can search for it if you want to (or read a summary on Wikipedia). Essentially - EU 261/2004 allows compensation if your flight is from or to an EU/EAA area and is either delayed or cancelled [less than one week before the flight date]. The level of compensation depends on the distance of the flight.

In this particular case the delay was more than four hours, and the flight was less than 1,500km, so would qualify for €250 compensation (per passenger).

The regulation also says the passengers must be given assistance, and in this particular case of the flight being delayed overnight would mean hotel accommodation and transport between the airport and the hotel. This was Geneva two days from Xmas, so that would probably mean another €250.

So a reasonable estimate is easyJet would be paying in the region of €750 per passenger on this delayed flight. Given it was full (at least to my recollection) easyJet were looking at a bill of at least €100,000 for compensation + accommodation expenses9.

To go off on a tangent slightly - all of this is going to be up in the air when the UK leaves the EU. Of course that depends what the UK government decide to do about it. Given everything else on their plate don’t be surprised if this one gets forgotten about until the claims start to appear.

Contacting easyJet Customer Service Again

As my claim, via easyJet’s web form, was rejected relatively quickly I decided to pick up the phone and see if speaking to someone would make a difference. I explained the situation and they agreed to pass this on to someone who would look at it in more detail, given the time of year this would take a few days at the least.

A couple of weeks later I received an email stating “Unfortunately as you were a no show on the transferred flight there is no reimbursement for EUC216 Compensation”. But also “As a goodwill gesture I have created a flight voucher to the value of the 51.90 GBP”.

Slightly odd - no reimbursement but here’s a goodwill gesture? Sounds like a second line of defense - offer a voucher lower than the cost of compensation in the hope it will be taken. I figured at this point I wasn’t going to make any more progress with easyJet myself.

The interesting thing (from my “works in software development point of view”) was the reference numbers included in the email subject lines from easyJet - it appears these are unique to each email sent from them, so we can figure out the number of emails sent:

None of these pass the Luhn check10 so we can assume they are integers incrementing by 1 each time. So we can infer from the above that easyJet received approximately a quarter of a million customer service requests in the 2.5 week period I was trying to get my own resolved. That’s roughly one every five seconds11.

Getting Someone Else Involved

The next step was to throw one of those “no win no fee” services at the problem. I had to submit various documents, hand over power of attorney, answer quite a lot of questions, and the process took almost 12 months. In the end they had to get the Alternative Dispute Resolution for Aviation (ADR) involved, which required more questions and forms to be filled in.

The ADR Decision

The ADR conclusion was that “the Passenger’s claim has not been upheld and there is no remedy or award required by the Airline”. But also that the “determination is not binding on the passenger who therefore still has the option to pursue the complaint via the courts”. This was all based on the definition, and legal precedence, of “cancellation”.

Essentially a “tough luck maybe try harder” response. However, the devil is in the details and the ADR response contained a revealing error - in detailing the claim the ADR response included the rescheduled flight number, but it was the wrong one: EZY9268. Another easyJet flight that had been delayed long enough that a new flight number was required.

What was the reason for the wrong flight number? A copy paste error while dealing with my claim? Probably unlikely. A typo? What? Accidentally fat-fingering the code and still managing to input one that had the same pattern from four months previous? No chance.

Most likely is one of two things: 1) the ADR has a stock response/responses for all the different claim types and they just fill in the details, or 2) the ADR took the response to a similar claim from before and replaced the old details with my details, failing to replace all of them.

This is the same as when I contacted easyJet support the first time, no time spent looking into the actual details of the claim and just dismissing it on semantics. Lazy work by the ADR.

So What Next

I still believe there is a case here, and through the entire process the refusal of easyJet to honour my claim came down to semantics. They continued to argue that we were a no show on the flight, when in reality we were a no show on the rescheduled flight - that rescheduling being a delay of more than 16hours.

My mistake, in my argument for compensation, was to say that the original flight had be cancelled and replaced with another the next day because the rescheduled flight had been given a different flight number. It seems logical that if a flight has a different flight number then it is not the same flight, ergo the original flight was cancelled and replaced with another. In the txt messages from easyJet they even refer to the rescheduled flight as “your new flight”.

The ADR’s decision clarifies this by saying a change in flight number does not imply a cancellation, and they cite previous case precedence. My opinion on this is that is nonsense, and a get out clause for airlines who can use it as a semantic dispute. A flight could hypothetically be “delayed” by days or weeks and then take place under a different flight number, if this allows the airlines to say that the flight wasn’t actually cancelled and therefore reduce their compensation costs for those who make alternate travel arrangements in the meantime.

It seems this is a loophole in EU Regulation 261/2004, and the legislation needs an amendment to clarify the response to situations like this. I can understand that this could be misused by those who decide not to show up for a flight and then don’t actually travel, but if proof of alternate transport can be provided then that would cover it.

I have resubmit my claim, using a different service and using alternative semantics. I shall update this post when the outcome of that claim is known…

Closure

About one month after the response from the ADR I sent another claim for compensation, using an alternative “no win no fee” service. This was one offered by a consumer law firm in the United Kingdom. Again, documents were required, some forms filled in, and some minor back-and-forth took place.

Eight months after I submit this claim easyJet finally agreed to pay compensation, which was almost two years after the original flight. This process still involved some dragging of feet - easyJet wanted proof of my bookings, then a formal letter was sent giving them 28 days to respond. Then they went quiet.

The service I was using explained this, and I’m repeating it here verbatim:

As you will no doubt appreciate, the airline has so far refused to pay your compensation and as such it seems that court proceedings are necessary in order to enforce your rights.

Unfortunately airlines still regularly make it difficult for passengers to claim the compensation that they’re rightly entitled to. We have historically issued court proceedings for over 100,000 clients and we’re pleased to say that the (vast majority) of these cases have been successful.

We’ve seen that the court process can clearly be an extremely effective method of compelling airlines to pay compensation that is due, however that is regrettably not currently the case, for reasons that we will explain.

As a result of airlines rejecting so many claims the courts are currently dealing with so many claims for flight delay compensation that they do not have the capacity or resource to deal with any new claims.

This ludicrous situation means that we currently act for thousands of clients who, like you, may have perfectly valid claims for compensation, however they cannot enforce their rights because of the buckling court system.

This situation is clearly unsustainable and we are working tireless with the courts to try and secure additional judicial resource so that claims like yours can be heard without further delay.

Court proceedings issued for over 100,000 clients by this service alone? That’s absurd, almost offensively so. It seems in this particular war of attrition the airlines are losing badly. The lawyers have beaten them in the automation game.

Although the second company successfully managed to get compensation out of easyJet there was a weird feeling throughout the process that I wasn’t ever dealing with a human on the other end of the emails being sent back and forth. The point is that a lot of this can be automated, and it seems the ones that do that successfully are raking in a large part of the pot - 50% of the final compensation in our case.

Automated claims systems, why don’t airlines have these? They would save money on support staff/legal fees/etc. The could charge a couple of pounds/dollars/euros more per ticket and probably cover all compensation costs. We know that “no win no fee” claims services exist. They know they exist. They know that we know that they exist, so what the fuck are we all doing wasting our time here?

The final twist in this tale was when we flew back to Switzerland a few days later. We sat in Manchester airport waiting to board the easyJet plane, and we could see the registration number: G-EZRU. The exact same plane that had flown out of Geneva, had both its pressure systems fail, had been known to have other problems in its service history7.

Would you get on that plane? The potential to say something that would cause disruption in the boarding gate was high. Of course we didn’t. As I said: we had already considered the original flight a sunk cost.


  1. “Membership is by invitation” 

  2. Why Low Cost Carriers Now Care About Loyalty Programmes 

  3. Meet The Most Crowded Airlines 

  4. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/08/easyjet-calls-for-urgent-uk-government-support-to-airline-industry 

  5. If you’re wondering how I have the details it’s because I pulled them off of Flight Radar 24 the next day. You can see the flight data here and a screenshot of the flight path here. Comparing these to the usual data and flight paths is an exercise left to the reader. 

  6. I’m hand waving here, knowing nothing of the actual technicalities, but to rush to get a plane out to meet a deadline after a critical system and its backup have just been replaced/repaired? Not going to happen. 

  7. One of the things we overheard was a response of “I know exactly which plane you mean, it’s been nothing but trouble since it arrived last year” …  2

  8. Again, I’m hand waving here. 

  9. An A320-214 seats 140 to 170 passengers. 

  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luhn_algorithm 

  11. More hand waving. 

technology, airlines