An appeal by Ryanair against an order made by the Health and Safety Authority began in the Dublin District Court today. The airline had been ordered by the authority to change its baggage handling system to cut down on the risk of back injuries to workers.

On foot of a complaint by the trade union SIPTU, the Health and Safety Authority carried out an inspection of Ryanair's baggage handling system at Dublin Airport last year.

The following November, the Authority served an improvement order on the airline, demanding it change its system. Its safety inspector believed that there was a real risk of injury to workers because of the manual loading system being used by Ryanair, and this risk was not being reduced by the airline.

The Authority recommended the airline switch to a system which uses a mobile conveyor belt called a "wompo" - a system used by all other airlines at Dublin airport. But the airline does not accept that it should switch to the Wompo system.

In court today, counsel for Ryanair said that moving to this new system and obeying the improvement order could actually be detrimental to its employees' health.

Counsel dismissed the Health and Safety report into its handling system as fundamentally flawed, claiming that it does not take into account the adverse consequences of any change on some members of its baggage handling team.

Health and Safety inspector Hilary Byrne denied this accusation. She said in evidence that the current system involved repetitive twisting and turning, and the lifting of heavy loads.

The Ryanair legal challenge is believed to be only the second of its kind taken against the Health and Safety Authority. The case continues tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Ryanair has announced it is giving away 300,000 seats, with passengers having only to pay government taxes and airport charges. The budget airline has targeted flights in early December and in January for the promotion, which began today.

The airline, which has in the past offered fares for £1, said today that 200,000 free seats would be for its operations at London's Stansted Airport, 50,000 for Glasgow and 50,000 for its continental hub at Brussels' Charleroi Airport.

Ryanair said that the move was intended to get more people to fly again. The seats will be available on flights from 1 December to 18 December and again between 8 January and 31 January.