Ryanair declares: We don’t do package holidays

“Pirate of the month”: that unusual award is handed out to the online travel agent (OTA) that Ryanair believes is the worst offender at overcharging passengers when selling the airline’s tickets.

You might imagine that any low-cost carrier would be delighted to have its seats retailed by another company. But Ryanair is campaigning against “scams, overcharges and invented charges” imposed by these agents. The carrier is appalled at the profiteering by OTAs that inflate charges for seat selection, baggage, etc.

Some of these agents create arbitrary email addresses for passengers as part of the booking process, which makes it much harder for Ryanair to provide the necessary options when things go wrong.

Book through a “pirate” online travel agent and you may face a series of hurdles known as Ryanair’s “customer verification process” before you are allowed to fly. This involves creating an online profile, photographing your passport and providing a facial biometric.

As recently as February, On the Beach, one of the UK’s leading OTAs, was selected as No 1 pirate by Ryanair.

Yet at the On the Beach headquarters in Manchester this week, it became clear that all is now sweetness and light between the two companies. They have agreed a deal by which the online travel agent will sell Ryanair flights – and pass on passengers’ contact details to the airline for use at check-in or when managing disruption.

“Having them as part of our proposition is brilliant for us,” says Shaun Morton, chief executive of On the Beach.

“I always welcome competition. The more players you have the better. And I think it’s great for the whole industry. It makes sure that the market is not dominated by a small number of tour operators.”

On the Beach’s boss may possibly be thinking of Tui, which is Europe’s biggest holiday company, as well as the two thriving package holiday operations set up by Jet2 and easyJet.

Since the collapse of Thomas Cook five years ago, Jet2 Holidays has grown to become the biggest tour operator in the UK. Arch-rival easyJet Holidays has now leapfrogged On The Beach in terms of the number of holidays covered by its Atol licence.

Why does Ryanair not simply follow easyJet and Jet2 in setting up its own holiday company? After all, Jet2 has thrived since it launched its holiday offering 17 summers ago. Ryanair flies far more people to the Mediterranean, but rarely extracts any value from their spending beyond the flight.

It is worth remembering that easyJet Holidays made good only at its third attempt. Likewise, Ryanair has tried to launch a Holidays brand a couple of times, but the projects fizzled out.

Now, airline supremo Eddie Wilson has confirmed it will leave the packaging to companies like On The Beach.

“We’re the airline business, not the package holiday business,” he says.

Mr Wilson has arguably the toughest role in aviation: chief executive of Ryanair DAC, the airline’s main operating business.

The generally well-oiled machine that is Europe’s biggest budget carrier is vulnerable to disruption from all angles: air-traffic control strikes in France, periodic thunderstorms in northern Italy and Belarus Air Force MiG fighters “helping” a Ryanair passenger to divert to Minsk.

When things go Tango Uniform, Mr Wilson has to sort out the passengers, planes and crews that are not where they expected to be and manage the operation back to full speed. That leaves little scope for negotiating the best rates with hoteliers, marketing packages in a ferociously competitive market and providing the intricate response to holiday problems that the Package Travel Regulations require.

“It’s not a business that we have any intention of being in,” he says.

Ryanair flies safely and often undercuts other airlines. The ready availability of its flights from approved OTAs is excellent news for travellers.

Buying a package provides gold-plated consumer protection; it is up to the online travel agents to show they are fully respecting the rules. I will be watching.

Meanwhile, beware of pirates.

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

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