Ryanair locked in dog fight over France

8th December 2003, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 7 (AFP) - Ryanair, the low-cost European airline that has flown into flak over deals with regional airports, is fighting back aggressively in France, castigating Air France and offering free tickets to people who show support.

PARIS, Dec 7 (AFP) - Ryanair, the low-cost European airline that has flown into flak over deals with regional airports, is fighting back aggressively in France, castigating Air France and offering free tickets to people who show support.

The language has turned nasty. But at issue are important matters of state ownership, competition and the interests of consumers. Low-cost air travel has changed the habits of many Europeans and is credited with boosting the market for second homes in southern Europe, for example.

Air France has been piqued by Ryanair's aggressive tone, accusing the Irish airline of using disinformation and lies to score points.

Ryanair's latest tactic is to offer 1,000 free tickets to people who turn out to support it when a French appeal court hears its case against a ruling that its commercial arrangements with Strasbourg airport amount to a misuse of public money.

The airline, the leading low-cost company in Europe and now a force in the aviation world, placed a newspaper advertisement to use the court appeal as a means of highlighting its commercial policies.

"Fight Air France's high prices. Ryanair is campaigning to bring prices down in Strasbourg," the advertisement in the newspaper L'Alsace said.

The airline said it would offer 1,000 free tickets to people who turned out to support it when the court in Strasbourg, eastern France, hears the appeal on Tuesday.

The background to the bitter war of words, exceptional in France, is the success Ryanair has had in increasing traffic to secondary airports in European regions where local authorities are anxious to attract traffic to boost the economy.

In France most regional airports are under the management of local chambers of commerce, themselves statutory bodies.

Some of them, with local authorities, have competed to attract Ryanair and its passengers by contributing to the airline's costs.

On such a basis, Ryanair opened a London-Strasbourg route on October 31, 2002. Traffic boomed.

Air France, rescued with massive state aid 12 years ago, had been operating to Strasbourg for 15 years but its subsidiary, Brit Air, suspended its flights on May 17 while also taking legal action.

A commercial court found against Ryanair, which closed the route and switched traffic to Baden-Baden across the border in Germany. Air France reopened its flights on October 20.

Meanwhile Ryanair is awaiting a decision by EU competition authorities arising out of a similar complaint made against its arrangements with Charleroi airport, a public body, in Belgium.

On November 21 a coalition of European airlines urged the EU Commission to take a tough line with Ryanair.

The head of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, an outspoken personality, has said he has heard that the EU ruling may go largely against the airline, warning that he would appeal to the European Court of Justice and that customers would not understand why packages were legal with private airports but not with public ones.

On November 20, O'Leary told the Financial Times newspaper that Air France was applying fares 40 times higher than the fares Ryanair had charged on the Strasbourg route.

Already, last December, O'Leary had said provocatively that he would rather have AIDS than work for a traditional airline, and said in crude terms that Air France had lacked courage to engage open debate.

But eventually, on the same day as O'Leary spoke to the Financial Times, the French airline, owned 54.4-percent by the French state, issued a two-page statement expressing "indignation" at the arguments used by O'Leary, saying "he frequently has recourse to disinformation and untruths when making public pronouncements".

Air France said the highest fares by Ryanair were 14 times its headline rates and that Air France's own fares on the London-Strasbourg route were only three times the previous Ryanair tariff. "And Air France sells these fares with no subsidies of any kind" it said, attacking Ryanair's "anti-competitive practices".

To which Ryanair responded that Air France was "ripping off consumers in Strasbourg", itself having received hidden subsidies and had caused the collapse of French competitors Air Lib and Aeris.

There has been more in the same vein since, and Air France has warned that its chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta will give as good as he gets.

© AFP

                                                                Subject: French news

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