Ryanair in last-ditch bid to save Charleroi

Ryanair is seeking a meeting with Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, in a last-ditch lobbying frenzy aimed at saving its Charleroi base in Brussels.

Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of the Irish low-fares airline, said he would appeal to the British minister because "we're all good Europeans... and member states have an impact into any European Commission decisions". The carrier may be forced to abandon its Belgium hub and stop flying to 19 French airports if the commission decides to stamp out airport subsidies - Ryanair's lifeline.

His comments came as the no-frills carrier launched its most aggressive seat promotion yet, promising to pay passengers to fly with it. The airline is offering to pay £1 towards airport and government taxes levied on each flight on 1 million seats booked before midnight on Thursday. "I can imagine the diary writers now. 'Ryanair is so desperate that we will pay passengers to fly with us.' Well, Godspeed," Mr O'Leary said, throwing down the gauntlet to his rivals. He denied that the gimmick, which will cost it £1m, would mean the airline's average fares would fall even further than expected this year.

The Irish carrier intensified the price war earlier this year by pledging to sacrifice margins for lower average fares. "We said we expect fares to decline by 10 to 15 per cent. This is within that range. This is the time of year when we do very aggressive promotions," Mr O'Leary said. The offer, which accounts for 40 per cent of seat capacity during the period, is available on all routes for one month from this Thursday.

He added: "The net fare will be a negative £1... or €1 for passengers booking outside the UK." However, customers could pay up to £42 for a return flight once airport and government taxes are included.

Mr O'Leary did not rule out paying passengers even more to fly on Ryanair in the future. "We will always find some way to keep ramming home the message that the industry is hamstrung by the high-cost operators," he said. Given that airport operators such as BAA make money from passenger shopping at its terminals and parking in its car parks, he added: "There is no reason why [flights] shouldn't be free for everybody or you couldn't pay people to use the services."

Customers wishing to take advantage of the offer will find that the group's website automatically deducts £1.01 (the extra 1p is to overcome technical difficulties) from the cost of their taxes. Last year, Ryanair gave away 2.4 million free seats; this year it plans to give away some 4.7 million.

Commenting on last week's draft report from the EC into the company's 20-year agreement at Charleroi, Mr O'Leary said: "Fundamentally, it's an attempt to block the development of a free market." He warned air travellers "not to underestimate the force of the lobby against [low-fares airlines]". Ryanair shares fell 4 per cent to €6.40 on worries of further terrorist attacks.

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