Europe’s biggest airline by passenger numbers has just flown into another flock of PR seagulls.
The discount carrier, famous for its aggressive no-frills approach, has come under fire from passengers for not keeping soap in the bathrooms of its flights. And while the Ireland-based company denies the claims, passengers, who suspect another of the company’s legendary cost-cutting measures, are saying it just won’t wash.
It’s the kind of publicity that Ryanair could do without right now. The dust hasn’t settled yet since a spectacularly mismanaged internal restructuring of working rosters triggered a widespread pilots’ revolt and forced the airline to cancel thousands of flights. It raised customer temperatures even further by trying not to draw attention to their rights to compensation (something for which it drew a rare and public rebuke from U.K. aviation authorities).
Dr. Kay Leedham-Green, a clinical fellow at King’s College in London, told Fortune that she had made the uncomfortable discovery on a flight to Malta from London’s Luton Airport in July. Leedham-Green said that when she had told a stewardess about the lack of soap, the stewardess replied that “we don’t stock soap in the toilets any more,” adding “It’s not my fault, it’s policy.”
Leedham-Green said the cabin lavatory “reeked of c diff” (the clostridium difficile bacterium that is found in 2% to 5% of human guts and associated with various stomach disorders).
Two U.K. newspapers, The Sun and the Daily Mail, ran stories Tuesday that featured similar comments from dozens of other passengers. The Sun’s focused on the account of a former British Airways veteran, 71 year-old Alan Woodward, whom it quoted as saying “One stewardess told me she now brings her own hand soap to work.”
“These claims are untrue,” Ryanair said. “All Ryanair aircraft carry soap, which is replenished as required.” (A man purporting to be Woodward’s son immediately contradicted the airline’s denial on Twitter.
When Fortune put Ryanair’s denial to Louise Thomson, an Edinburgh-based PA who also featured in the Mail’s story, she replied: “I’m shocked that they’re denying it outright – why on earth would I and lots of other completely unrelated people be saying the same thing for no reason?”
Ryanair declined to give any further explanation.
In fairness to the airline, it should be pointed out that both newspaper had evidently trawled months’ worth of Twitter output for their material. And knocking Ryanair, which ‘enjoys’ the spurious reputation of being simultaneously the U.K.’s most popular airline and one of its most hated brands, is something of a national sport – one that has burst into life after the roster-driven SNAFU. Plus, it hardly helps that CEO Michael O’Leary himself is on record as speculating about the merits of charging passengers to use the bathroom.
But it looks like it could take more than a bit of air freshener to make this one go away. Ryanair’s shares fell another 2.6% to a six-month low Tuesday and are now down over 13% since the controversy over flight cancellations blew up.