I must admit, I was dreading this day. But possibly not as much as easyJet must dread meeting its disgruntled passengers. Clearly, it avoids this as much as possible. One great way of avoiding contact is to base its headquarters at Luton Airport – let’s face it, tough to get to, and really not a great deal to write home about once you’re there.

Still, that’s what easyJet’s ever-so-friendly customer rep (once I’d finally found the number and then navigated the myriad of automated voices to get through to him) had told me to do. So that’s how I found myself, on an overcast August day, catching the train up to Luton to find easyJet’s offices and sit in reception until somebody managed to bring themselves to see me.

Kept on hold

In March this year, I had phoned easyJet customer services to find out why my claim for a refund had been inadvertently “closed”. The claim dated back to January when myself, my boyfriend and our 3 year old daughter had been stranded in Budapest for three nights due to severe weather (snow) in the UK. Due to the complete lack of customer service from easyJet at Budapest Airport, we had sorted out our own accommodation and food, assured by easyJet’s representatives at Budapest Airport (an outsourced customer services company called Menzies) that if we kept all relevant receipts, we’d be entitled to a refund.

According to European legislation, if a flight is cancelled or delayed for any reason, the airline is responsible for feeding and accommodating its customers. Once we got back to the UK, I scanned all our receipts and applied online for a refund of £526.70, which did not seem too excessive considering it covered accommodation and food for three people for three nights (we booked the hotel on Lastminute and ate from cheap cafes and supermarkets).

But instead of a straight reply, I had a flurry of automated emails from easyJet: asking for the same information, asking for further information, asking me to complete a customer services questionnaire etc. The final email told me that “as we have not heard from you…we have changed the status of your question to solved”.

It seemed that easyJet’s strategy was clear: frustrate customers to the point of apathy!

Trip to Luton

So, back to today. I had a lot of questions. Such as:

  • What was easyJet’s refund policy?
  • Did it actually have a policy?
  • If so, why be so obtuse and ambiguous about it?
  • If the majority of easyJet’s customers are normal, reasonable people, why not be straight with us?
  • Why lead us to expect full refunds when we aren’t actually entitled?
  • If easyJet didn’t agree with EU legislation, then why wasn’t it running a public campaign to change it?

And so on…

Turns out, I was pleasantly surprised. I’d only been waiting forty minutes or so when Paul Simmons (below) – easyJet’s general manager for the UK – came out and introduced himself. He did all the right things: took us off into a quiet corner, offered me a comfy chair and a cup of coffee, listened for 15 minutes or so while I said my piece, looked sympathetic.

Paul Simmons - General Manager, UK, at easyJet
Paul Simmons – General Manager, UK, at easyJet

Honesty at last

While apologising for what had happened and admitting that #uksnow “wasn’t our finest hour”, Paul said that easyJet had at least learned some lessons. When the volcanic #ashcloud (from Eyjafjallajökull) descended on Europe in April, easyJet had, apparently, been much better equipped to deal with the delays and cancellations. (According to Paul, all the #ashcloud claims are sorted now so if you have one that isn’t, let me know and I’ll pass it on).

Paul said two main things had happened since January:

1. EasyJet appointed Graeme Macleod, former head of ground operations, to lead the customer experience team: this meant that someone who knows exactly how things work on the ground is now in charge of dealing with stranded passengers.

2. It has set up a partnership with international procurement company, BSI. This means that wherever, whenever and however delays occur, easyJet should be able to offer accommodation and meals to customers on the spot. The fact that these are offered through an established, partnership network means that variable costs are controlled.

With regard to easyJet’s refund policy, Paul assured me that the airline wishes to abide by European Law so its strategy is to reimburse customers where necessary. He did admit that easyJet was lobbying behind the scenes in Brussels to change existing legislation.

Show me the money

Actually, I agree with easyJet on this. The current legislation is vague and really does, given the current physical and economic climate, seem unfairly draconian towards airlines. I’m not saying airlines shouldn’t be penalised for certain things: environmental damage, for example, but being forced to pay 100 per cent expenses to some customers who are simply having an extended holiday with their families, is quite another.

Finally, Paul assured me that I did, in all probability, have a case for a refund. He’s taken away my receipts, and I’ve got his mobile number. Hopefully I won’t have to call.

UPDATE: (15/9/10) Within a week of meeting Paul, I had a phone call from one of his team. Within two weeks a cheque for my full claim arrived in the post. This all goes to show that personal contact can work wonders. It’s a shame that transparency and openness can’t be replicated across the board and available to all disgruntled customers. I guess a deluge of refund claims creates a bottleneck.Hopefully next time easyJet will be better prepared.

Never trust a brand that’s not on social media

Photo: UK snow by Johnnie Walker on Flickr

Jemima Gibbons

Social media consultant and author of Monkeys with Typewriters (featured by BBC Radio 5 and the London Evening Standard). Get your social marketing up and running with my Social Media Launch Pack!

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