‘Be very afraid’: what I learned from a 26-hour Ryanair delay

Our summer holiday, in Spanish Galicia and northern Portugal, was glorious. But our return, on Ryanair, turned into disaster after the airline booked too many people on to the flight.

What followed was two days of airport misery. Along the way we were surrounded by armed police and marched away; rerouted on two flights via another country; denied the food and drink we knew we were entitled to; got no sleep in a smoky and noisy hotel room; and repeatedly given contradictory information about our flights and our rights.

Fortunately we were not part of the air traffic control meltdown last week that hit hundreds of thousands of passengers with cancellations and delays. In that instance, the airlines could at least blame an external cause. In our case it was an overbooking problem that was entirely the responsibility of the airline.

The 26-hour delay happened despite booking and paying for the August flight in February, at a full price (€228 for one-way, Porto to Dublin), and paying for priority boarding.

Overbooking is not uncommon on airlines. It is when they deliberately sell too many seats, guessing that some people won’t turn up – enabling them to increase the profit they make on every flight. Or when they have a different plane available on the day, with fewer seats on it than they sold.

That’s what Ryanair had done – as we later found out, it had booked us on to a Boeing 8200, which has 197 seats, but turned up with a Boeing 800, which has eight fewer seats.

Given that Ryanair is now flying at very nearly full capacity – it said this week that it was carrying record numbers of passengers and had a “load factor” of 96% – every time this happens, it ensures misery for customers.

What airlines are supposed to do in this situation is ask for volunteers to come forward, with an incentive such as cash or flight vouchers. But it wasn’t the path Ryanair followed in our case.

The first inkling of our impending misery was at breakfast time in Porto, when we checked in for our 4.35pm flight. Our boarding pass gave us seat numbers “00” and stated that our seats would be “assigned at gate”.

Passengers putting their carry-on hand luggage into the overhead locker on a Ryanair flight.
The 26-hour delay happened despite having booked and paid for the August flight in February. Photograph: Lewis Oliver/Alamy

If you are ever given a “00” seat on Ryanair, be very afraid.

We left early for the airport, nervous about what might happen. The first Ryanair rep said we had a “standby” ticket. I said we’d bought it in February, checked in on time, and it wasn’t standby. We were ignored.

At the gate, things got a lot worse. The flight was delayed by an hour but Ryanair then started bringing passengers forward. We went up with our tickets only to be told to stand aside. We would not be “assigned at gate” after all.

Why, I asked, was Ryanair not asking for volunteers to fly later? The agent said he could not be bothered to ask, and told us again to stand aside. We did so, but I showed him the Irish government website detailing how they should ask for volunteers in an overbooking situation. He ignored us.

Behind us, a Portuguese young man, desperate to return to his wife in Dublin, asked the same question. He argued with the agents robustly but politely.

Minutes later, four, maybe five, burly police officers, armed with guns and batons, arrived at the desk. The agent pointed to us, and we and other passengers were kettled to one side. About an hour later, we were marched through the airport by the police, and released only on the other side of security.

At the Ryanair helpdesk, the situation went from bad to worse. The only way Ryanair could get us back home to Dublin was for us to come back the next day, take a flight to London Stansted, wait there for seven hours and then take a flight home to Dublin.

Travellers queue at a Ryanair customer service desk at Stansted airport
Ryanair’s largest base is at London Stansted. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Could we not, say, fly on TAP Air Portugal and get home earlier? No, she said, Ryanair would not pay if we went on another airline.

This is incorrect. Experts in airline compensation say carriers should provide you with the next fastest route, even if it is offered through another company.

We were then made to wait for more than an hour while the agent searched for a hotel room for us. I showed her reasonably priced rooms I had found on within seconds. She ignored them.

A different, rather more kindly, Ryanair rep took us to the bus to take us to the hotel. Along the way, she said the overbooking problem was happening more often.

In the morning, tired and hungry (I’m gluten-intolerant and had almost nothing to eat), we headed back to Porto airport. Mercifully, the Stansted leg of our journey took off on time. But on arrival at Stansted, we had no choice but to shuffle back through the UK border and then re-enter the airport.

I approached the main Ryanair helpdesk at Stansted, Ryanair’s biggest base. After waiting patiently in line, I asked the Ryanair rep: was there any possibility of getting on to the earlier, 7.10pm flight to Dublin? And maybe some assistance with food and drink, given we were anticipating a further six-hour wait, entirely caused by Ryanair?

No chance, he said. The 7.10pm flight was fully booked and we would have to fly on the 9.35pm flight. And nope, Ryanair had no obligation to give us any food and drink vouchers. He said we had been given breakfast and that was all we were entitled to. By this time it was 3pm.

This is incorrect. Under the EU261 compensation rules, the Irish government says “passengers are entitled to meals and refreshments reasonable to the waiting time”. It is not limited to just breakfast at the hotel.

Wearily, we went through security again. But not one to give up, and now airside, I went to the next Ryanair helpdesk. A miracle happened: in complete contradiction to what we had been told minutes earlier, the rep said: “The 19.10 is now minus four [passengers], so we should be able to get you on that. And we should be able to get you food and drink vouchers – we’ll have to email someone and get them printed off for you. Come back in an hour.”

Michael O’Leary, Ryanair chiefRyanair’s booking system is full of people who said they’d never fly Ryanair again

He even made a point of taking us to the gate and telling the Ryanair staff there in no uncertain terms that we should be boarded on the 7.10pm flight come what may.

Back in Dublin, landing 26 hours after our scheduled arrival, I sought our €250 compensation. I had to make all the running to secure it.

Will I fly with Ryanair again? Yes, of course I will. As the chief executive, Michael O’Leary, once said at a press conference I attended: “Ryanair’s booking system is full of people who said they would never fly Ryanair again”.

I live in Dublin and there are no trains to the continent. Ryanair is an Irish airline and dominates the skies here.

What have I learned? When you buy a Ryanair ticket, you will probably get a seat. Then again, you may not. Check in at the very first moment Ryanair lets you: you may actually get the seat you paid for. Don’t assume Ryanair staff will tell you correct information, or that they even work for Ryanair. But don’t assume they are all ghastly either. Many try to do the best they can.

We put a number of questions to Ryanair. It sent us a short statement.

It said: “Due to minor technical issues with the original aircraft, we were forced to make an aircraft change from an 8200 (197 seats) to an 800 (189 seats). As a result, a very small number of passengers on this flight from Porto to Dublin (12 August) were moved to the next available flight to Dublin (via Stansted) departing the following day.

“This passenger was provided with full duty of care including overnight accommodation and meals as entitled under EU261, and €500 compensation was processed to this passenger on 21 August.”

It’s worth nothing that the €500 was for two passengers, not one, and had not been sent. When I pointed this out to Ryanair’s press office, the money appeared the next day.

You can get compensation not only from Ryanair, check easyJet flight delay compensation rights.