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.
The French civil aviation authority seized the aircraft 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.
‘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.
The plane ‘will remain immobilised until the sum is paid’.
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.
French airport official Didier Villat told Sud Ouest newspaper: ‘To my knowledge it’s the first time a Ryanair plane has been seized in this way.
‘Just because we manage a little airport in Charente it doesn’t mean we are not going to defend ourselves.’
A spokesman for the DGAC, France’s 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 will remain stationary until the debt is paid.’
Ryanair’s 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 labor laws after a series of strikes across the continent.