Firms specialising in carrying sick pilgrims protest against new deal for cut-price airline
BY SIMON CALDWELL AND MARK GREAVES
TOUR COMPANIES specialising in flying handicapped pilgrims to Lourdes have said they could face ruin because of ferocious competition from Ryanair, the cut-price airline.
The Irish carrier announced on Tuesday that it will run a twice-a-week winter service aimed at taking skiers from Stansted Airport, near London, to Lourdes in the French Pyrenees.
But small charter firms which have for decades ferried blind, sick and disabled pilgrims from Britain and Ireland to the Marian shrine say that Ryanair will be biting into their custom because of the generous "subsidies" that the airport is offering exclusively to the firm.
They claim that while the sick will continue to fly with them, their able-bodied carers will be attracted to cheaper "headline" prices offered by Ryanair.
They say that if they go bust the disabled will suffer the most because Ryanair has a strict policy of not allowing more than four people of "reduced mobility" on any single flight.
One British operator, Tangney Tours. flies twice a week to Lourdes carrying up to 15 wheelchairs and about 40 sick people on each aircraft.
It sells a return ticket for £240 with no hidden costs. Ryanair, however, can sell flights for a headline fee of about £45 each but hidden costs could soon stack up to take a return trip in excess of £300.
However, expensive marketing and advertising of the cheap headline fee has proved successful in beating competition and filling flights.
John Tangney, the owner of Tangney Tours, flew to Lourdes last weekend to meet airport chiefs to ask them to grant the same subsidies in landing and handling fees to smaller operators, in the region of about £1,.500 per flight.
At present the small operators pay the top rate.
He said the airport was effectively taking money from pilgrims to subsidise a service that will not carry disabled passengers.
"We can't compete against them," said Mr Tangney, whose Catholic family firm, based in Sevenoaks, Kent, has carried half a million pilgrims to Lourdes since it was founded in 1974.
"Ryanair's initial contract is until April 18," he said. "We will probably have to cancel 15 flights. If it goes on for a year we will have to downsize. It's going to cost us jobs.
"If we lose 10 per cent of our passengers to Ryanair then that is our [profit] margin gone — we've got to start seriously cancelling flights."
He added that Ryanair had been granted reductions on airport tax of 75 per cent in the first year, 50 per cent in the second year and 25 per cent in the third year.
Nicholas Tangney, managing director of Tangney Tours, said: "If we are left with only the handicapped and disabled our flights will no longer be financially viable.
"The wheelchair passengers would not be able to go anymore. Ninety-five per cent of wheelchair passengers travel with us."
Bosses of another tour operator, Mancunia Travel, are expressed fear that Ryanair will soon begin flights from Manchester to Lourdes.
Desmond Deignan, the director, said: "The fact that the airport is subsidising Ryanair with reduced charges is despicable especially with their limit on accepting special needs passengers."
Tony Mills, the chief executive of the Handicapped Children's Pilgrimage Trust, a charity which flies out 7,000 sick people to Lourdes each year, said that the demise of the small chartered companies would be a terrible loss.
He said: "Ryanair can't cope with the numbers of people with disabilities who want to travel there and in the end people with disabilities will start to miss out.
"They are a very valuable service to us, the charter firms. They do a tremendous job for us. The service we get is very good.
"You can't offload a plane full of disabled people in an hour, for example. but the charter planes will give you as long as you need to get on and off at your own convenience."
Stephen McNamara, spokesman for Ryanair. said he was unable to confirm that the company would be subsidised by the airport, which is owned by the Tarbes Chamber of Commerce.
"Ultimately we will work with any airport that will provide us with an attractive cost base," he said.
"Competition on any route can only ever lead to reduced costs for passengers and ultimately it will for the passenger to decide which carrier to use. What any carrier should do is to reduce their costs in order to carry passengers."
Michael Corley, another spokesman for the airline, later told the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme that that it was "completely untrue" that Ryanair received subsidies, though it received financial incentives of other kinds, such as help with advertising and the promotion of flights.
He added: "Ryanair doesn't siphon off passengers from anybody. Ryanair enlarges the market by reducing fares."
Lourdes has been a site of pilgrimage since the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared there to St Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.
Pope Benedict XVI will visit the shrine as part of a four-day pilgrimage to France, beginning today.
Lourdes is expected to attract eight million visitors this year for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the apparitions.
But in spite of the vast numbers of pilgrims the area around Lourdes is largely underdeveloped and the chamber of commerce hopes that leisure tourists will bring in income to regenerate local ski resorts. Ryanair already runs a service to Pau, 20 miles from Lourdes.