A Ryanair plane was seized by French officials and 149 London-bound passengers were forced to disembark in a dispute over subsidies to the airline, it has emerged.
The French civil aviation authority seized the aircraft on Thursday at Bordeaux airport ahead of its planned flight to London Stansted, the latest episode in a string of troubles for the low-cost Irish carrier.
The dispute was sparked by French subsidies paid to Ryanair to provide flights from Angouleme, the capital of the Charente region, to London between 2008 and 2009.
The European Commission has since claimed the subsidies were illegal, and ordered Ryanair to pay them all back. Charente officials claim that Ryanair owes them the equivalent of just over £450,000, having paid back half of the subsidies.
The Boeing 737 was close to take-off when a bailiff declared it seized on the tarmac and sealed the aircraft. Some 149 passengers on board had to wait five hours before being able to take off from the Bordeaux-Merignac airport in another Ryanair aircraft.
Ryanair has had a plane seized by French authorities in a bid to force the airline to repay illegal public aid (file picture)
This measure was taken as a last resort by the French authorities after several reminders and attempts to recuperate the money failed, the DGAC civil aviation body said.
By this action, the government reaffirms its intention to guarantee the conditions of fair competition between airlines and between airports, it said.
It was regrettable that passengers on board the plane had to wait five hours before being able to take off on another Ryanair aircraft, the civil aviation body added.
Regional newspaper Charente Libre reported that the airline owes the regional authority 525,000 euros ($595,000), the paper said on its website.
French airport official Didier Villat told Sud Ouest newspaper: To my knowledge its the first time a Ryanair plane has been seized in this way.
Just because we manage a little airport in Charente it doesnt mean we are not going to defend ourselves.
A spokesman for the DGAC, Frances aviation authority, said: By this act the French state reaffirms its desire to guarantee the conditions of fair competition between airlines and its airports.
The plane was close to take-off when a bailiff declared it seized on the tarmac and sealed the aircraft. Some 149 passengers on board the plane had to wait five hours before being able to take off from the Bordeaux-Merignac airport (pictured) in another Ryanair aircraft
Ryanairs fleet is made up mostly of Boeing 737-800 aircraft, which have a list price of more than $90 million each.
Last month, EU anti-trust authorities opened an investigation into whether Ryanair benefited from measures at a German airport that give the Irish low-cost carrier an unfair leg-up over competitors.
And last week ministers from five European governments warned Ryanair that it could face legal trouble if it ignores national labour laws after a series of strikes across the continent.
The pan-European stoppages prompted the airline to cut its profit forecast, but it still expects to make profits after tax of 1.10-1.20 billion euros in its current financial year.
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French officials seized the aircraft on Thursday ahead of a planned flight to Stansted and forced 149 passengers to disembark.
The French civil aviation authority said it was regrettable that the state was forced to seize the plane, but that it took the measure because the low-cost airline had repeatedly ignored demands to repay subsidies a regional government handed to Ryanair.
The European commission ruled that about €1m of subsidies paid to Ryanair in return for it providing flights from Angoulême, 80 miles (130km) north-east of Bordeaux, to London between 2008 and 2009 were illegal.
Ryanair was ordered to repay all the money, which the commission said gave the airline an unfair advantage. But the French government said Ryanair had only paid back half the money, so it seized the plane and demanded the balance. The airline paid the bill on Friday.
It is unfortunate that the state had to take such action, which led to the inevitable inconvenience of the 149 passengers onboard the immobilised plane, the French civil aviation authority said. Those passengers were able to eventually reach their destination later that evening on another Ryanair plane, but with a five-hour delay.