Italy’s aviation regulator has threatened to ban Ryanair from its skies, alleging that the airline has not complied with rules brought in to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
The Italian civil aviation authority Enac accused the Dublin-based airline of “repeated violation of anti-Covid-19 health measures drafted by the Italian government and in force to protect passengers’ health”.
Continued violation of the rules by the airline could mean it is banned from flying to or from Italy, or the regulator could impose a limit of 50% capacity on Ryanair flights to give passengers more space.
Ryanair planes use 29 airports in Italy, including those serving major cities such as Rome and Milan and popular tourist destinations such as Venice and Palermo. Any restrictions on Ryanair flights would represent a major issue for the company as it seeks to increase flight volumes back to 2019 levels.
Ryanair said on Tuesday that it carried 4.4 million passengers in July, 70% less than in 2019. The airline ran two in five of its normal July flights. Passenger numbers for the first seven months of 2020 were down 35% year on year.
The drop in passenger numbers prompted the airline to announce 3,000 job cuts, citing financial pressures from the pandemic. That came before UK restrictions on travel to Spain and its islands added to airlines’ difficulties.
Airlines operating in Italy are not required to ensure physical distancing of one metre if other safety steps such as mandatory wearing of face masks are taken, but Enac claimed Ryanair was failing to meet these requirements.
Ryanair said in a statement that the claims made by Enac were “factually incorrect” and insisted it was “committed to the highest level of safety for our passengers and crew at all times”.
It said its procedures were “in line with the safety recommendations and measures set out by the Italian government”. These include implementing contactless boarding processes, preventing “unnecessary gathering of passengers” at boarding gates and onboard, and making face masks mandatory for passengers and crew. The aircraft are fitted with air filters capable of catching particles similar in size to the coronavirus, the airline added.
Alleged breaches of new coronavirus safety rules could be damaging for airlines and airports, who have claimed they can pack hundreds of passengers into planes and terminals without causing a disproportionate risk of infection.
However, Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, has also been an outspoken critic of governments’ handling of the pandemic, including restrictions on travel. In June he labelled the UK’s quarantine restrictions on arrivals “rubbish” and said Britons were ignoring them.
O’Leary also described suggestions that airlines could block middle seats on flights to assist physical distancing as “idiotic”.
Ryanair has previously faced separate criticism over its handling of official requests for information to run test-and-trace operations. In Germany the Berlin-Spandau health office said Ryanair took several days to send a passenger list from a flight containing travellers who later tested positive for coronavirus.
Ryanair eventually sent more information to the health office just before midnight on a Friday evening, meaning it was not seen until the Monday, five days after the first contact, an official at the health office told the Guardian.
Ryanair said the German health authorities had not followed up until five days later, and that it had responded to requests on the same day they were issued.