David Prosser: For once, Ryanair may actually have a case

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The Independent Online

Outlook It causes me great pain to say this, but it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Ryanair, landed with a bill of up to £35m following the great volcanic ash cloud debacle. Not for the airline's ridiculous suggestion, on which it quickly backtracked, that it would just flout the European law requiring it to meet the costs of the passengers it had been unable to fly to their destinations. But it does seem clear that Ryanair and the other airlines are victims of rules framed with no countenance of the possibility of the sort of stoppage we have just been through.

When a Ryanair screw-up means the airline fails to honour a contract agreed with passengers by selling them tickets to fly, it's pretty obvious those customers should be entitled to recompense for the costs they incur as a result. But what if the contract is breached because of an event over which Ryanair is genuinely powerless, as in this case? Why should it pick up the bill, particularly as the duration of the crisis means many customers will have incurred costs out of all proportion to the original value of their Ryanair tickets?

That's not to say passengers should simply be left without recourse. Isn't this where travel insurance is supposed to kick in? In fact, the ash cloud saga has again shone a light on the opacity of insurance. Some policies refuse to pay out on all "acts of God" – surely just the sort of unpredictable event for which you want cover? – while others have specific exclusions. But it is more reasonable to expect insurers to cover the costs of passengers stranded by this sort of event than the airlines.

One final thought. Had Ryanair spent a little more time in recent years on its corporate reputation – rather than seeming to spend every waking minute thinking of new ways to irritate customers and the authorities alike – it might now be getting a fairer hearing on compensation and a change in the law concerning the rights of stranded passengers. To the detriment of both it and its fellow airlines, you reap what you sow.