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Italy regulator orders Ryanair to stop curbing ticket sales by travel agencies

A Ryanair Boeing 737 MAX 8-200 Aircraft prepares to take off from the Nantes Atlantique Airport in Bouguenais

ROME (Reuters) -Italy's antitrust regulator ordered Ryanair on Monday to stop limiting or blocking the sale of its flight tickets by travel agencies, as it probes the Irish budget carrier's possible abuse of its leading market position.

Ryanair, which has become Italy's largest carrier, has eight days to present its counter-arguments and request a hearing, the watchdog, known as AGCM, said in a statement.

AGCM opened the investigation in September.

Ryanair is urging customers to book directly on its website for the cheapest tickets, ease of managing changes and requesting refunds, saying that unauthorised online travel agencies add fees and do not share booking details with the carrier.

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Ryanair is also in a dispute with the Italian government which is trying to hold down the price of domestic flights to its main islands at peak times.

Il Messaggero newspaper had reported that the authority was concerned about Ryanair's actions causing "serious and irreparable" damage to travel agencies, other airlines and passengers. The daily added that Ryanair could be granted a hearing with the AGCM on April 18.

In response to the report, Ryanair told Reuters by email that online travel agencies had misled AGCM. It added that the regulator had wrongly ignored a Milan Court of Appeal ruling in January that Ryanair's direct online sales policy was reasonable and helped sustain lower fares for Italian passengers.

The airline said unauthorised online travel agencies continued to scam Italian passengers with hidden mark-ups and inflated prices for Ryanair services.

"The Milan Court also ruled that Ryanair undoubtedly benefits consumers, which clearly disproves this AGCM case," Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary added in the statement.

The carrier said in January it would expand in Italy if more airport slots become available as a result of a potential tie-up between ITA Airways and Lufthansa, citing a particular interest in Rome's Fiumicino hub.

(Reporting by Giulia Segreti, Alvise Armellini and Elisa Anzolin; Editing by Janane Venkatraman, Ros Russell and Richard Chang)