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Do you now have to pay to check-in for your Ryanair flight?

Confusion reigns about a possible change of practice by Europe’s biggest budget airline, Ryanair, requiring some passengers either to queue for a paper boarding pass at the airport or pay for seat selection. Travellers have accused the carrier of imposing a money-making policy ahead of the Christmas rush.

An airline spokesperson said: “There is no new procedure in force.”

But some travellers have told The Independent that they were informed the standard option to show a mobile boarding pass on their smart phone was not open to them.

The issue is still far from clear. But these are the key questions and answers about Ryanair check-in and boarding policies as we understand them so far.

What’s the background to Ryanair’s check-in requirements?

In 2008, Ryanair became the first airline anywhere in the world to ask passengers to check in online before reaching the airport. The aim was to cut costs: drastically reducing the number of travellers who had to see a check-in agent at a desk, and commensurately allowing Ryanair to pay less for space at the departure airport.

The option of checking in at the airport has remained available – but at a high cost. The fee started at £10, but within a year increased to £40. It is now £55 for each passenger on a booking.

Initially the boarding pass had to be printed out to avoid the charge. This was annoying and difficult for people on holiday abroad.

Soon, though, Ryanair aligned with other airlines that allow boarding passes to be carried on mobile phones and shown while going through the airport and at the departure gate.

Can I use mobile boarding passes everywhere?

No. Ryanair says: “We accept mobile boarding passes on flights from the majority of airports on our network. However unfortunately some airports cannot accept mobile boarding passes yet.”

These airports including Kefalonia in Greece, the Albanian capital, Tirana, and all airports in Morocco, Turkey, Israel and Lebanon.

Ryanair says: “Customers travelling from these airports must check in online and print out a paper boarding pass for their flight.”

Wasn’t there a controversy about airport check-in earlier this year?

Yes. In August, Ryanair was heavily criticised after charging two elderly passengers £110 at London Stansted airport, after the couple inadvertently checked in for their inbound rather than outbound flight to France.

At the time, a spokesperson for the airline said: “In accordance with Ryanair’s T&Cs, which these passengers agreed to at the time of booking, they failed to check-in online before arriving at Stansted airport (11 Aug) despite receiving an email reminder (10 Aug) to check in online. These passengers were correctly charged the airport check-in fee.”

How do travellers avoid charges for extras on Ryanair?

Simply by declining all invitations to pay for extra services, and complying with the rules on cabin baggage (carrying no more than one small item measuring no more than 40 x 20 x 25cm).

Consider the £15 one-way journey (correct at time of research) from Edinburgh to Shannon on 11 December. Options offered include:

  • a 10kg checked bag for an extra £18

  • priority boarding and an additional, larger piece of hand luggage for an extra £22

  • fast-track security for £7

  • selecting a seat in advance, a minimum of £8

If all these extras were chosen, the fare would increase by £55 – to nearly five times the original price. Passengers, though, are able to opt out of all the extras.

What has happened now?

Some passengers who decline the option to book a specific seat in advance, and instead accept random seat allocation, say they have been told they cannot use an online boarding pass.

They say they were invited to choose between paying for a specific seat, at which point they could use their smart phone, or queue up for a paper boarding pass at a Ryanair desk.

One passenger, Andrew Brown, told The Independent: “Ryanair says that you can check in but if you want to avoid queuing for a free-of-charge printed boarding card at check in you should pay for a dedicated seat. Then you can have your boarding card on your phone as before.”

He speculated: “They’re trying to discourage people from selecting a free random seat. It was brought in without notice and there’s nothing on their website about the policy change.

“It puts an end to my practice of taking just hand baggage with no allocated seat and no extras, so just the fare.”

Another passenger, Neil Gregory, told the BBC: “The app said if I opted for a free random seat I’d have to go to check-in to get a paper boarding pass, which I’ve never seen before. If you wanted a digital boarding pass, it said you had to pay for a reserved seat.”

The BBC said a traveller was told by staff at the airport check-in desk that the new policy was only for the last 20 passengers checking in for each flight.

On a “random seat assignment” booking for a flight from London Stansted to Italy for 5 December, The Independent experienced no difficulty checking in online as normal and getting a digital boarding pass on a smart phone.

What does Ryanair say?

The Independent has been trying to establish exactly what the airline’s policy is.

A spokesperson for the airline said: “All Ryanair passengers can pay for a reserved seat if they so wish or if passengers wish to avoid this seat fee, they can select a randomly allocated seat entirely free of charge.”

All of this is true, but it does not explain the current issue.

The Independent has asked specifically: “I am a regular Ryanair passenger. I always accept random seat allocation. With the exception of certain airports (eg in Morocco) can I always check in using only a boarding pass on my mobile?”

So far there has been no response to this question.

What could be going on?

Some background: Ryanair has been conducting a campaign to try to persuade passengers not to buy tickets for its flights through online travel agents (OTAs). One aspect of this involves requiring some passengers who do book through an OTA to go through a series of verification checks before being allowed to check in.

Travellers are told: “Your booking is blocked because it looks like it was booked through an online travel agent who has no commercial relationship with us to sell our flights.

“Online travel agents often do not provide us with your correct email address and payment details, so we need to verify your identity. We also need to carry out this process in order to ensure we can comply with safety and security requirements.”

This very process comes at a cost to Ryanair – as would requiring some passengers to go to a desk at the airport

One theory is that the airline has a new policy of asking some passengers who opt not to select a seat to queue up for a paper boarding pass, in a bid to increase the proportion choosing and paying for a specific seat.

Passenger Andrew Brown said: “I’m a regular and think Ryanair is great. But this is a stealth charge.”

The Independent has seen nothing to substantiate the assertions.

The airline spokesperson said: “There is no charge for a Ryanair digital boarding pass – ever.”