Culture Fail of the Month: Ryanair

You’ve probably heard of Ireland-based Ryanair, Europe’s largest low-cost airline. You may have even heard stories about how the no-frills carrier has implemented or threatened to charge passengers added fees for everything from printing boarding passes at the airport, paying with a credit card, or changing a name on a reservation. They’ve even toyed with charging to use the toilet onboard, among many other unusual policies to maximize revenue and minimize expenses.

But you may not have heard of the accusation that Ryanair implemented a racist policy that discriminated against some Black passengers.

As recently reported by several news outlets, earlier this year Ryanair started telling South Africans traveling to the U.K. that they must answer a questionnaire to prove they are indeed South African. Passengers were required to take a quiz and asked to name the highest mountain in South Africa, name the country’s capital, etc., to counteract a high number of fake South African passports.

This might seem a plausible practice to some, but there’s one other issue: Ryanair’s questionnaire was written in Afrikaans—the language largely based on the archaic Dutch that was spoken by 17th-century colonists from the Netherlands. It was the mother tongue of the apartheid regime that ruled South Africa in the last half of the 1900s, and it is widely seen as a “white” language.

Today, Afrikaans is just one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. Reportedly, very few of South Africa’s Black majority speak it. Even though British authorities say the test is not required, Ryanair felt the test was justified.

“I’m not sure who advised Ryanair on this, but whoever it was gave them the worst possible advice,” wrote Melanie Verwoerd, the former South African ambassador to Ireland, in the Irish Times. “Black people from all countries are all too familiar with being treated with a much higher level of suspicion and questioning by immigration officials in Europe than their white counterparts. Whether intended or not, Ryanair’s ill-advised and frankly idiotic questionnaire would only add further insult to injury.”

After receiving huge backlash from South Africans and others around the world, Ryanair agreed to abandon the test on June 15th. Charging for toilet use, however, may still be in the works.

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