When five members of the Caribbean Steel International Orchestra queued to board their Ryanair flight home from Sardinia last New Year's Eve, they had reason to be content. The London-based steel band had just been lavished with critical praise for its performance at a world music festival on the Italian island.
But that satisfaction evaporated rapidly shortly after the British musicians took their seats for the two-hour journey to Stansted airport. They found themselves being escorted off the plane by armed police on suspicion of being terrorists, seemingly for the offence of reading out the football scores to a blind colleague.
Now the group is suing the budget airline for compensation after its crew members allegedly refused to let them back on to the flight after they had proved their innocence, forcing the men to miss their planned New Year's Eve celebrations with their families on 31 December 2006. They did not arrive home until 2 January, after a circuitous and costly journey that involved taking the only available flight on New Year's Day, to Liverpool, and paying their train fare to London.
The five men are claiming £800 from Ryanair to cover the cost of their tickets and the inconvenience they suffered. Their county court case to be heard at the Mayor's and City of London court on 28 November.
The incident, at Sardinia's Alghero Airport, happened after another passenger claimed the musicians were acting "suspiciously" as one member of the band read aloud some football scores to Michael Toussaint, a leading steel band musician and the only blind professional tenor drum player in the world, as the plane waited for take off. Italian airport police were called and they asked all five men to leave. Mr Toussaint produced his disability card and removed his glasses to prove his blindness.
The group were told by the Italian authorities that they were free to continue their journey, but it is claimed Ryanair refused to allow the men to rejoin the flight.
One of the musicians, Jason Constantine, 43, from Norwood, south London, told the Evening Standard: "It's a disgrace. This stemmed from one man who created a situation that led to five people being wrongly accused and stranded when we should have been with our families on New Year's Eve. There was a lot of confusion when the Italian police came on. They were holding guns and didn't speak English. It was very distressing. Even after Michael proved he was blind, they still wouldn't let us fly. We were the only black people on the plane and I see no other reason than racism."
Ryanair offered the men compensation of £100 each and flight vouchers. But Mr Constantine said: "I'm appalled by the way Ryanair has acted. It is not really about the money. It is the principle." Ryanair declined to comment yesterday, saying the matter was sub judice.
The people vs Ryanair
* In 2003 the company was reprimanded by the ASA for misleading passengers over which airports it serves. The airline claimed to fly to dozens but in fact lands at small airfields up to 70 miles away.
* In 2004 the airline was forced to pay Bob Ross £1,336 in compensation after charging him £18 to use a wheelchair.
* In 2005 British tourists at a fog-bound airport in Italy had to spend £5,000 on a coach home after being told it would be five days before they could get another flight.
* Last year up to 130 customers were stranded in France on Christmas Day when their flights were cancelled due to poor weather conditions.