French au­thor­i­ties seize Ryanair jet just be­fore take­off

Houston Chronicle - - BUSINESS - By An­gela Charlton and Carlo Pio­vano

PARIS — Storms, strikes, com­puter fail­ures — you can now add “your plane has been seized by the gov­ern­ment” to the list of things that can de­lay your flight.

In France, 149 pas­sen­gers were pre­par­ing to take off for London late Thurs­day when French au­thor­i­ties or­dered their Ryanair Boe­ing 737 im­pounded.

The bud­get car­rier owed money and it was “re­gret­table that the state was forced” to evac­u­ate the plane, the civil avi­a­tion author­ity said.

The pas­sen­gers had gone through pass­port con­trol and se­cu­rity and were about to walk on the tar­mac to board the plane when air­port au­thor­i­ties told them to turn around, pas­sen­ger Boris He­jblum said.

“The air­port staff told us there was an is­sue with the plane,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press in an email.

No Ryanair staff mem­bers were avail­able, and the only com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the air­line was two text mes­sages say­ing sim­ply that the de­par­ture was de­layed, and a 5-euro ($5.75) voucher for food — “less than what a sand­wich cost at the air­port cafe,” the 30-year-old French­man said.

“I found it strange that the po­lice were the only ones giv­ing us in­for­ma­tion,” he said.

The pas­sen­gers were put on an­other flight that fi­nally brought them to London’s Stansted air­port — five hours late.

The multi-mil­lion dol­lar jet, mean­while, was re­leased only Fri­day af­ter Ryanair paid a bill of $610,000.

The scene un­folded at the Bordeaux-Merignac air­port in western France, where au­thor­i­ties say the air­line was or­dered to pay back funds that the Eu­ro­pean Union had de­clared to be il­le­gal sub­si­dies. Ryanair did not pub­licly com­ment on the seizure.

French avi­a­tion agency spokesman Eric Her­aud said re­gional au­thor­i­ties who orig­i­nally gave the sub­si­dies had been try­ing since 2014 to re­cover the money, and sent a fi­nal le­gal warn­ing in May. Af­ter six months with­out a response from Ryanair, it de­cided to act Fri­day.

The stand­off with French au­thor­i­ties will not help Ryanair, which more than most car­ri­ers has come to sym­bol­ize bud­get air­lines’ re­lent­less fo­cus on the bot­tom line at the cost of cus­tomer ser­vice.

Ryanair has be­come Europe’s largest air­line by num­ber of pas­sen­gers by of­fer­ing some of the cheap­est fares avail­able. That en­sures its planes are packed.

It then makes ex­tra money with add-on fares. Be­sides charg­ing for seat­ing choice and food — now stan­dard prac­tice on bud­get flights the world over — it also has trav­el­ers pay for any carry-on bag that’s larger than a purse.

It man­ages to keep its costs down by fly­ing to out-of-the-way air­ports at odd hours to get cheaper air­port slots.

Its CEO, Michael O’Leary, per­son­i­fies the air­line’s brash ap­proach, spar­ring with unions and EU au­thor­i­ties. And de­spite con­ced­ing in 2013 that “we should try to elim­i­nate things that un­nec­es­sar­ily piss peo­ple off,” the air­line re­tains its rep­u­ta­tion as some­thing to be en­dured for the sake of fly­ing cheaply around Europe.

“I would say we just took it as an­other Ryanair prob­lem, hav­ing no in­for­ma­tion from them,” He­jblum said of Thurs­day’s in­ci­dent. “When we found out about the seizure, I would say the gen­eral sen­ti­ment was to blame Ryanair for not com­ply­ing with the law.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

A Ryanair plane sits on the tar­mac Fri­day at the Bordeaux-Merignac air­port in south­west­ern France, af­ter it was im­pounded by French au­thor­i­ties.

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