A LEADING European business regulator has accused Ryanair, of "almost taunting" passengers in a fierce attack on its online charges.
John Fingleton, chief executive of Britain's Office of Fair Trading, described the airline's levying of fees for paying by card online as "puerile" and "almost childish", adding the carrier was only operating within "the narrow letter of the law".
Ryanair advertises taxes and other fees upfront but only mentions charges for paying by plastic at the end of booking on the grounds that customers could escape the fee by using an obscure prepaid card.
The carrier -- along with other airlines and ticketing agencies -- is being investigated by the OFT over online pricing and advertising.
Of particular concern is "drip-pricing", where shoppers only discover the full cost of a service late in the booking process, which makes it difficult to shop around.
Mr Fingleton, whose organisation has previously clashed with Ryanair, criticised the airline's "funny game".
"Ryanair has this funny game where they have found some low frequency payment mechanism and say: 'Well, because you can pay with that [the charge is optional]'," he said.
"It's almost like taunting consumers and pointing out, 'Oh well, we know this is completely outside the spirit of the law, but we think it's within the narrow letter of the law'."
Mr Fingleton -- whose criticism elicited an angry response from Ryanair, Europe's biggest airline -- hopes that ironing out problems on airline websites will set standards for online shopping, which is forecast to account for half of retail sales by 2020.
At the payment stage online, Ryanair levies a debit or credit card charge per passenger, per journey, which is many more times what using plastic costs to the company, according to the card industry. The charges can add substantially to the cost of a return trip for a family of four.
From last month, payments by Electron card that had previously been free began to attract the fee and Ryanair switched its free option to MasterCard pre-pay.
In July, Ryanair agreed to give more prominence to fees and charges on its website after the intervention of Britain's Office of Fair Trading. The OFT had been asked to act by the Advertising Standards Authority, whose rulings have been repeatedly dismissed by Ryanair.
Ryanair responded to Mr Fingleton by referring to the OFT's ongoing inquiry into the long-running price-fixing of fuel surcharges, which eventually led to British Airways being fined £121m three years ago.
Stephen McNamara, of Ryanair, said: "As a general rule, anything that comes from an office that has chosen to ignore fuel surcharging airlines like British Airways and remained mute while London air passengers were being ripped off by the BAA monopoly should be taken with a pinch of salt."