Ryanair is to be investigated by Irish and Spanish aviation authorities following accusations from pilots’ leaders that the budget airline is ‘courting disaster’ by flying planes with near-empty fuel tanks to cut costs.
Spanish pilot union leaders accused Ryanair of ‘operating on the very limits of legality’ in the way it fuels its planes.
Ryanair denies any wrong-doing and insists its planes are safe with sufficient fuel reserves.
The decision to investigate came at a meeting of Irish and Spanish air safety experts in Dublin on Tuesday.
The investigation relates specifically to the diversion to Madrid of a Ryanair flight from Paris to Tenerife on Sunday.
But it follows a spate of incidents in Spanish airspace involving Europe’s largest budget airline – including a number where flights have declared ‘emergencies’ and demanded to land because they were running low on fuel.
In a joint statement Ireland’s Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport and the Spanish Ministry of Development met ‘to discuss oversight of Ryanair’s operation in Spain.’
They added: ’As an example of this increased cooperation it was agreed that the circumstances of a specific incident in Madrid airport on 16th September would be jointly examined.’
Spanish authorities are also investigating emergency landings by three Ryanair planes in Valencia on July 26 after they approached their minimum required fuel after being diverted from Madrid because of bad weather.
The pilots had been asked to circle above Valencia because thunderstorms in Madrid prevented them from landing there as planned.
They were asked to join a queue but were given priority when they declared an ‘emergency’ because fuel was running close to the 30 minute minimum.
Ryanair has said the July landings were fully in line with EU safety procedures and that passengers were in no danger.
Ryanair has also rejected claims by the Irish pilots’ union (IALPA) that it pressures flight crew to carry the minimum amount of fuel required under European regulations.
Last night Ryanair’s Stephen McNamara said: ‘We welcome today’s joint statement from the Irish and Spanish Governments which affirms that Ryanair’s safety standards are on a par with the safest airlines in Europe.’
Ryanair said it had invited the Spanish Ministry to send a team of inspectors to Dublin to correct any ‘misplaced concerns’ about Ryanair’s compliance with Europe’s highest operating and maintenance standards.
It was providing them ‘with unfettered access to Ryanair operating, maintenance and flight training facilities and unlimited access to Ryanair’s safety, flight management, engineering and maintenance personnel. ‘
Spanish authorities are also looking into an incident in which a Ryanair flight diverted and landed at Barcelona’s El Prat airport after a possible engine fault was detected.
Ryanair has accused the Spanish aviation authorities of falsifying information on incidents involving its planes, an accusation Spanish officials have rejected.
The Irish department of transport added in their statement after the meeting: ‘The Irish authorities gave an assurance of the Irish Aviation Authority’s rigorous oversight of Ryanair’s operations and on their satisfaction with Ryanair’s safety standards which are on a par with the safest airlines in Europe.’
The row came as an official of the Spanish pilots’ union SEPLA criticised Ryanair for pushing legal and safety limits to the maximum.
Accident investigator and spokesman for the union’s technical department, Juan Carlos Lozano warned that cost-cutting on fuel by Ryanair compromised safety stressing they were not breaking the rules but adding: ‘They are operating on the very limits of legality.’
He explained: ‘Having a bit of spare fuel allows pilots to think and to make decisions, and if this variable is limited, obviously the crew’s capacity to react is compromised, and the chances of a mistake happening are suddenly multiplied.’
He added: ‘The executives send instructions to the crew, emphasising that for every x kilos of fuel they pump in the airline loses x amount of money.
‘As a consequence those in charge of the aircraft are confronted by a cost-cutting exercise that could lead them into difficult situations.’
In an interview on Spanish national radio on Monday, Lozano said Ryanair’s low fuel emergency landings were on the increase. It was not possible to operate an airline with ‘this policy of pressure always working to the limits,’ he said. He said if no action was taken then Ryanair was ‘courting disaster’.
Ryanair last year carried more than 30 million passengers in Spain making it the country’s largest passenger carrier.
Spain’s Public Works minister Ana Pastor, whose ministry runs aviation safety, has called for tighter safety regimes at low-cost airlines following a series of media reports about emergency incidents.