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Seismic after-shock for Ryanair as the ash clouds clear

Now that the volcanic dust is settling, we’re beginning to see some explosive fault lines developing in the travel business. Packaged holiday companies, TUI Travel and Thomas Cook chief among them, are irate at the way the budget airlines have apparently been trying to wriggle out of their legal responsibility for repatriating stranded British tourists – while they themselves are left to bear the financial and logistical burden.

I say “apparently” because Ryanair – the largest short-haul European airline and budgetdom incarnate – has set itself up nicely by falling into its natural default role: pantomime villain. Last night we were treated on our television screens to the extraordinary spectacle of spokesman Stephen McNamara telling us that Ryanair could not, and would not, pay compensation to stranded passengers (other than the miserly £4 they might have forked out on an air fare) and it was just plain unreasonable to expect them to do so. Instead, we should blame the Civil Aviation Authority, who inflicted this phony lock-down on us in the first place, and from whom, by the way, we can expect Ryanair to extract “rapacious” amounts of money in due course for the inconvenience experienced by its shareholders over the past week.

Ryanair is a brand leader that likes to play the maverick. Its “irreverent” positioning makes me-toos, like Coca-Cola’s Glaceau Vitamin Water, look rank amateurs contending with the real McCoy. Who else but Ryanair boss Michael O’ Leary could get away with forcing his passengers to spend a penny by the simple expedient of reducing the number of on-board loos by two and persuading the airframe manufacturer to fit a lock on the one that remains? What a chuckle! And it fits the penny-pinching brand image so well.

But this time Stephen went too far. He was actually suggesting that Ryanair could break an inconvenient law – a quantum leap beyond O’Leary’s merely unethical behaviour in driving his Mercedes “taxi”  down Dublin bus lanes. That simply would not do. By this morning, O’Leary himself had announced a humiliating, if begrudging, volte face: Ryanair would be fully complying with the law after all.

However, I digress slightly. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano crisis and Ryanair’s reaction to it has opened some clear blue sky between tour and budget airline operators which astute marketers in the war-weary travel market may be able to exploit. Relentless price-cutting, which extends to hire cars and hotels as well as airline tickets, has enabled the budget airlines to turn “value for money” packaged tour deals into an endangered species – one that can’t compete on price. But, as events have proved, there’s more to a holiday than heavy discounting. Peace of mind comes at a price, and it’s one that’s enshrined in the ABTA and Association of Independent Tour Operators’ (AITO) charters, which binds all subscribers to provide a financial and logistical safety net for their clients.

If you’re flying with a budget airline, you’re on your own. That, at least, is the message Ryanair was sending out loud and clear – until the lawyers gagged it.

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