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Why won’t Ryanair let passengers cancel a flight?

Ninety-nine per cent of my Ryanair flights have been excellent. Generally punctual, always friendly, almost always cheap.

Europe’s biggest budget airline has the added appeal of being the safest carrier in the world in terms of passengers flown without a fatal accident.

But some of its policies are bafflingly silly. As Jonathan W reminded me when he asked: “I’m due to fly with Ryanair imminently but cannot make the flight – is it OK just to not go to the airport?”

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The short answer is “Yes”. But the longer answer reveals a fair amount about the airline and aviation more generally.

Not only is it perfectly fine to be a “no show” for a Ryanair flight – there is no way to tell the airline “I won’t be on board” unless you decide to change it to another date and/or destination.

The airline cheerfully says: “All Ryanair flights are changeable but they cannot be cancelled.”

This is a daft and damaging policy. Given the fares at which Ryanair is selling many of its off-peak seats, it is rational from a purely financial point of view (though not an environmental perspective) to book a flight on the off-chance you will use it.

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During January next year it is quite difficult to pay more than €10 (£8.50) for a basic one-way flight from Rome to London Stansted. But whether you are buying speculatively or actually have a definite plan that then goes awry, changing the flight may well cost more than buying a new ticket.

Personally, I wish I could cancel without wanting a euro cent back – it would mean that the airline could re-sell the seat which would hopefully help someone out and reduce the per-person damage caused by the flight. But Ryanair gives me no opportunity to say, “Have it back – I can’t use it”.

At least being a no-show on Ryanair is cost-free, besides losing the money for your ticket. “You don’t need to notify us if you are unable to travel and if you can’t use your outbound flight,” says the airline.  “You can still use your return flight.”

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On other carriers, though, failing to turn up can have significant consequences if you have booked a return trip.

On most “legacy” airlines, including British Airways, being a no-show for your outbound flight will automatically trigger the cancellation of the inbound leg. Conditions of carriage generally state that you must use all the segments in an itinerary in the correct order.

As soon as you no-show, the whole reservation is rendered void. Buying a one-way inbound ticket can be painfully expensive – especially if you make the incorrect assumption that you are still booked on the flight. This automatic cancellation policy is not widely known, and I have asked BA at least to inform passengers who no-show that they have lost the whole booking so that they can make plans to rescue their itinerary.

Being a no-show for the return leg of the flight can, in theory at least, also trigger costs. For example, I have just got back from Florida. I travelled here on a London-Orlando return flight that cost me £498 from British Airways.

Should I fail to fly back as booked, the product that it turned out I actually bought was a one-way flight. For arcane reasons, the fare for a single trip is around three times as much. BA could legitimately recalculate the contract and say that I owe a further £1,000 or so. As far as I know this has never happened with British Airways, but it has with some other airlines.

Both of these potential problems are as a result of the strange practises in the airline industry before the likes of Ryanair came along, and the sooner they disappear the better.

Finally, some people who decide not to take a Ryanair flight are still prone to check in, hoping that the departure is cancelled or heavily delayed and that they will be able to claim compensation.

I recommend against this course of action: morally, it is the wrong thing to do because you will not have suffered any harm; the chances of “success” are extremely low; and having passengers checking in who do not show up is an operational pain in the neck for airline staff.

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