Ryanair has been ordered to pay nearly £5,000 to five black musicians, including a blind man, who were asked to leave a flight at gunpoint after another traveller wrongly expressed concern that they were terrorists.
The budget airline was criticised by a judge for its treatment of the members of Caribbean Steel International, a London-based steel band, after they were escorted off a Ryanair service from Sardinia to Stansted airport by armed police on New Year's Eve in 2006.
District Judge Roger Southcombe said the airline also made claims that were "false and misleading" in a statement it made to the media about the incident.
The ruling capped a bad day in the law courts for the Dublin-based company, which warned this week that it expects its annual profits to be halved. A court in Paris awarded damages of £45,000 to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his new wife, Carla Bruni, after the airline used a picture of the couple in an advertisement without their permission.
Judge Southcombe ruled that the members of Caribbean Steel International were entitled to damages because of the "completely wrong" claims of the passenger and Ryanair's response to them.
The men arrived home two days' late after they were put on a flight to Liverpool and spent the night at the city's coach station because they missed a connecting bus to their homes in London. Jason Constantine, a member of the band, who have performed worldwide, said: "We were treated disgracefully and it is very important to us that the court has recognised that Ryanair's behaviour was wrong. There was ample time for the pilot to allow us to get back on the aircraft and return home as we had planned."
The musicians, who had performed to critical acclaim at a festival on the Italian island, allegedly aroused the suspicion of another passenger on the aircraft after he noticed they were not sitting together. He claimed that Michael Toussaint, the blind band member, was able to read newspapers. It transpired that the men were not sitting together because several of them wanted window seats and had purchased priority boarding passes.
After the concerned passenger, who said he was a university psychology lecturer, approached the pilot, Captain Sam Dunlop, with his concerns and threatened to take his family off the flight, the pilot asked for the musicians to be removed so their identities could be checked.
A flight attendant had also expressed concern about the men. The Mayor's and City of London Court heard that the band were "scared and embarrassed" when police took them off the plane at Sardinia's Alghero airport, not least because they were the only black people on the flight. When they requested to be allowed to return to the aircraft, the court was told, the request was turned down by Capt Dunlop, who said there had been "tension" on the plane because of the incident.
Ryanair said it would appeal against the ruling and insisted it had taken the "safety first option" in asking for the men to be removed from the flight.