When airlines go one step beyond and you get home early

Back home: arriving early is a valuable commodity in travel (Simon Calder)
Back home: arriving early is a valuable commodity in travel (Simon Calder)

“My supervisor was really nice today,” said the benevolent check-in agent at airport X. “We were lucky.”

In fact, I was the fortunate one. She (and the supervisor whom she had consulted backstage) had decided to go above and beyond to help a bedraggled passenger just in from the rain.

I had enjoyed a thrilling couple of days exploring a previously overlooked patch of Europe. Then a November downpour cut short my adventure by a couple of hours. I hopped on the next train to airport X, from where I had a ticket on airline Z.

Why the secrecy? Because the ground staff agreed to move me to a flight 90 minutes earlier than one I had booked. Given that I had bought the cheapest possible ticket, and had been warned at the time that it had zero flexibility, they really didn’t need to be so kind to a low-budget passenger.

Their workaround was to pretend I had been involuntarily moved to a different flight: I even got an automated text message apologising for the inconvenience.

I don’t want to get the staff into any trouble for their generosity, nor create the expectation that airline Z will happily move passengers to more convenient flights free of charge. But I do want to tackle the tricky subject of getting on an earlier flight if you have time to spare.

Assuming there are no complicating factors such as luggage already checked in, should airlines allow a passenger to switch if a seat is available?

One point of view is that allowing a free change is a win-win. The passenger is happy and more likely to book with the airline next time.

The carrier can also reduce the potential scale of any later disruption. Here’s why. Suppose a plane is ready to go with empty seats, and shortly before departure a dozen passengers who are waiting for a later flight are allowed on board and travel happily to their destination.

The following flight may encounter a technical problem that delays it overnight. Having 12 fewer hotel rooms to find will save the carrier £1,000 or more, as well as the unquantifiable loss of goodwill.

I know a former overseas station manager who, when working in a distant location, always allowed passengers to travel earlier than booked for precisely that reason.

Why don’t airlines routinely offer the option? Well, the final flight of the day on a multi-frequency route is often the cheapest (it certainly was in my case). That makes sense because there are fewer connection options and onward ground transport may be thin on the ground.

So if airlines also allowed travellers to switch without penalty, everyone with an ounce of flexibility would book the last flight of the day and the carriers would lose the premium for earlier flights.

British Airways (definitely not airline Z) takes the latter view. I booked a Belfast-London flight for (as I recall) 5pm. It was cancelled and I was offered the choice of 3pm or 7pm. I chose the later departure, just in case.

As it happened, I arrived at the airport in time for the 3pm and tried to make a case for why I should be able to switch: after all, I had never actually wanted to be on the 7pm. The appeal fell on deaf ears.

You can, of course, pay for the privilege of switching flights. But the usual surcharge of “price on the day” (very high) minus “original fare” (very low) almost always makes the cost absurd. While easyJet offers the paid option of switching to an earlier flight for “a small change fee” of £49, that looks a bit steep. On most easyJet flights I take that would be more than the original fare; £20-£30 would generate more business, I believe.

Meanwhile, I am feeling very well-disposed towards airline Z and will book again soon. But if I get to the airport early, I won’t expect a free switch – and still be glad I was once the beneficiary of a random act of kindness.