As the easyJet crew prepared for the departure of flight 6149 from Bristol to Geneva, Charlotte Barton was sitting, seat belt on, in her assigned place: 13C.
Ms Barton’s mother had bought her the flight to Switzerland as a 50th birthday present.
The Exeter-based television producer had left home at 2am to drive to Bristol Airport for the 6am flight. She was heading for the Alps for a skiing trip with friends. But Ms Barton was about to be offloaded from the Airbus – an experience she describes as “humiliating”, and which would cost her the long-planned holiday.
“A man said I was in his seat,” she says. They compared boarding passes and found they were the same. The other passenger went to the front of the aircraft to speak to the cabin crew.
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“As one of the cabin crew passed me, I asked if he’d be OK and get a seat and she said yes, they’d put him somewhere.
“After a brief hiatus and some head-counting another stewardess approached me and asked if I had all my luggage with me. Would I get it and come with her?
“I asked – with some disbelief – ‘You’re not throwing me off the flight, are you?’ She said I needed to follow her ‘for a chat’.
“As I passed the other passenger he smiled apologetically. I began to realise that I really was being taken off the flight.
“I was led off the plane to the top of the steps for our chat where they explained yes – there were 181 passengers on a 180-seat aircraft.”
Before Ms Barton was taken from the plane, a last-minute announcement was made asking for volunteers in return for a €400 payment and a taxi to Gatwick for a later flight. But no-one came forward.
“It was absolutely mortifying standing there with my coat on and my bag and 180 people staring at me – basically agog at the drama and thinking ‘thank God that’s not me’. There was a deafening silence, I thanked the captain and shuffled off and down the steps.”
Ms Barton was then told that she should have pre-booked a seat: “The ground crew intermediary who’d come up the steps to extract me said, ‘Did you not pay to reserve your seat?’ When I said that I had not, she said: ‘Well if you had done this wouldn’t have happened.’
“Which really made me cross because they don’t tell you that the £247 I paid in September was just a hopeful punt rather than a proper transaction.”
The law allows airlines to sell more seats than there are available on a flight, and easyJet says that on a typical flight five per cent of passengers are “no-shows”.
The airline told The Independent that in 97 per cent of cases when it overbooks flights, there is no need to offload one or more passengers.
Before anyone is denied boarding against their will, carriers are obliged to ask for volunteers to take a later flight in exchange for payment. There is no stipulation about how much the incentive should be.
Once Ms Barton was taken off the aircraft, she was abandoned – even though she was in the secure airside area with no flight to board.
“The ground staff member told me ‘Just retrace your steps,’ then she walked off in another direction. And so I had to do just that: fighting my way on my own against the traffic of happy holidaymakers on their way to their gates.”
“By the time I got to duty free I was lost and had no idea how to get back through to the entrance so found someone on an information desk to walk me through the back way. I felt absolutely wretched.”
At the time she should have been taking off for Geneva, she was instead stepping into a taxi for the long journey to Gatwick. But en route to the Sussex airport it became clear that she would not arrive in Switzerland until mid-afternoon, and that all the available transfers – on one of the busiest days of the winter – were fully booked until late the following day.
“There was no way for me to get to my destination and the holiday was kaput. I’m still shocked, my friends are devastated.
“I was still feeling really shaken 48 hours after the offload, not just because I missed this longed-for holiday, but because the process of being taken off the plane was so deeply unpleasant.”
Ms Barton’s unceremonious offloading was the latest in a series by the budget airline.
Last August, a London student Ellen Marandola was sitting aboard an easyJet flight from Stansted to Sardinia when she was told to leave the aircraft so that another passenger could take her assigned seat.
In the same month, a dozen passengers were denied boarding on a flight from Luton to Inverness because they had declined to pay up to £15 for advance seat selection.
Over Easter 2017, a London couple were ordered off an easyJet flight from Luton to Catania. Airline staff failed to tell them about their entitlement to compensation and alternative flights, and easyJet paid the EU-stipulated €400 per passenger only after The Independent intervened.
Ms Barton has had her fare refunded, and has been promised €400 in compensation for the offload. She also wasted £130 in fuel and parking charges, which the airline has refused to refund, saying: “easyJet do not cover pre or post arrangements.To claim these you would need to go via your travel insurer.”
The Independent is awaiting a response from easyJet. The airline indicated that the flight was originally scheduled to be operated by a 186-seat Airbus A320, but it was changed to a 180-seat version of the aircraft.
It is not known why the disparity was not identified until all the passengers were onboard.