EasyJet vowed yesterday to press ahead with legal action against the Italian government after it was prevented from launching a new low-cost route between Milan and Sardinia.
Italy's National Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) refused easyJet permission to begin services even though it has already sold 13,000 seats on the route and was due to fly 149 passengers to the Sardinian city of Olbia yesterday on the inaugural flight.
The Italian Transport Ministry blocked easyJet from starting operations in competition with the Italian carrier Meridiana by designating Milan-Olbia as a "public service obligation" (PSO) route. This gives governments the right to determine which airlines fly the route.
To try to get around the PSO restriction, which applies only to "the transport of passengers for remuneration", easyJet proposed to operate the route for free, to highlight what it claimed was a "ludicrous" breach of European law. But the Italian authorities also prevented it from flying on this basis.
EasyJet, whose chief executive is Andrew Harrison, had already filed a legal challenge in Rome's administrative court against the Italian government as well as lodging a complaint with the European Commission over what it claims is a flagrant breach of EU law. The court is expected to rule on the case in the next two weeks.
The 149 passengers who turned up yesterday at Milan's Malpensa airport to fly with easyJet were redirected instead to Meridiana, which had a specially prepared aircraft waiting. They were also offered a €100 voucher to fly on another easyJet route in the future.
Arnaldo Muñoz, easyJet's general commercial manager for southern Europe, described the ruling by the Italian authorities as "a clear example of blind bureaucracy". Mr Muñoz added: "Not only is the Italian Government's attempt to impose a PSO on this attractive route ludicrous, it goes against every PSO principle and is a clear breach of European law. In order to sustain their untenable position, ENAC is willing to stamp on everything and everyone, and passengers first of all."
EasyJet's starting fare on the Milan-Olbia route was €30.99, which it said was far cheaper than the price offered by the monopoly operator Meridiana. A spokeswoman said: "This suppression on free competition only benefits a few high-cost, inefficient, incumbent airlines that receive subsidies. It also continues to promote high fares and hampers tourism in Sardinia."
EasyJet launched its Milan Malpensa base - its first in Italy - in March and also plans to start domestic services to Naples and Palermo in coming weeks.