Leading article: Equality in the air - and elsewhere

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Nine blind and partially-sighted passengers were ordered - or "invited" - off a Ryanair flight shortly before take-off to Italy. Some were accommodated on later flights, others spent the night at the airport. The reason given by the airline was that it had exceeded its safety "quota" for disabled passengers.

There is one small issue here and one much bigger one. The small issue is whether blind passengers could impede the evacuation of the plane in an emergency. On this score, the group leader said she had informed the airline months before departure that the group included blind people, and was told there would be no problem. At very least, Ryanair needs to sort out its policy.

The bigger issue, however, is how airlines - especially certain low-cost airlines - treat all disabled passengers. Having disgracefully taken the blind passengers off the plane, Ryanair had a duty to treat them with dignity: to provide decent waiting facilities and accommodation if necessary.

This is not the first time that Ryanair has been in trouble over its attitude to disabled passengers. Last year, the company lost a case brought by a passenger who had been made to pay £18 for the use of a wheelchair. It now charges all passengers an extra 50p per ticket, stating that this is to provide wheelchairs for those who need them.

This is scandalous discrimination against travellers who are less mobile than others. Assisting disabled passengers should be part of the service provided - it is one aspect of being a civilised organisation; it should not need to be spelt out in law. People should not have to sue to be treated properly.

Cheaper fares have opened up air travel to a wider market and it is a boon that many more people, including disabled people, are travelling than ever before. But everyone who buys a ticket is a paying passenger and is entitled to be transported on equal terms. If Ryanair has to charge a supplement to those requiring wheelchair assistance, it is pricing all its tickets too cheaply.

Were an ethnic minority singled out for involuntary disembarkation, there would be an outcry. The outcry is no less justified where discrimination is - as it all too often is - against those who are disabled. We have left behind the world of colour bars; we should not tolerate a world in which air travel - or any other freedom of modern life - is only for the fittest.

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