Accusations fly after Ryanair jet is hit by sudden loss of cabin pressure

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The Independent Online

Passengers on board a Ryanair flight to Spain spoke yesterday of the dramatic moment that their plane lost cabin pressure and was forced to make an emergency landing.

The chief executive of the budget airline, Michael O'Leary, was quick to defend the actions of the crew on board flight FR9336, which took off from Bristol on Monday night bound for Barcelona-Girona airport. Some passengers had been critical of the crew's lack of communication during the incident.

Mr O'Leary also denied the suggestion that oxygen masks had failed to deploy properly.

Ryanair said its plane, a Boeing 737-800, was diverted to Limoges International Airport, in central France, as a "safety precaution". It added that engineers who were sent to inspect the plane confirmed that oxygen masks had deployed correctly.

None of the 168 passengers was seriously hurt in the incident but 16 people were taken to a local hospital suffering earache bought on by the rapid descent.

Some passengers on board cried with relief when the plane touched down safely. Others broke into applause.

One of those on board was the Arctic explorer Pen Hadow, who was on the flight with his wife and two children. His son was one of those taken to hospital. He said he heard a "loud and unnerving sound" as the pressure in the plane began to fall.

"I would say some people thought we were going to die – that is how frightening it was," said Mr Hadow, who was the first person to walk solo from the north coast of Canada to the North Pole. "The woman sitting in the seats in front of us was whimpering," he said.

"There was a sudden drop in temperature and a rush of cold air. It actually felt like someone had opened a door at the back of the aircraft.

"The next thing, the oxygen masks were dropping. My highest priority was to get a mask on my son who was sitting next to me in a bemused and frightened state."

According to Mr Hadow, some of the oxygen masks in the plane failed to work properly. "Mine wasn't filling up with oxygen and neither was my son's," he said.

"He was hyperventilating. I looked at the lady on my left and her's hadn't filled up either.

"From where I was sitting, I could see about 20 masks and only a few of them were inflating. It was extremely variable as to who got oxygen in their masks, and the cabin crew didn't seem to know what to do." But Mr O'Leary responded quickly to the allegations yesterday, saying there was no problem with any of the plane's oxygen masks.

"The oxygen masks were working, the correct safety procedures were followed," he said.

He added that the crew were unable to make an announcement about the loss of cabin pressure because safety regulations dictate that pilots and all cabin staff had to wear oxygen masks once they had deployed.

"The first thing we do in these situations is divert to safety," he said. "[The crew] can't be making passenger PA announcements when they have their oxygen masks on.

"As the passengers confirmed, the pilot did make an announcement once he got down to 8,000ft where it is safe to take the oxygen masks off."

A replacement aircraft took passengers on to Spain yesterday. Those taken to hospital travelled to Spain by coach, with 18 others who decided not to fly.

Ryanair said yesterday that the aircraft was a five-year-old Boeing 737-800, which had been serviced just a month ago. It had completed more than 13,400 hours in the air without any problems. A full investigation was under way last night.