Consumers warned of airline website cheats

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Consumers warned of airline website cheats

Post  Twosox on Fri Apr 11, 2008 12:07 pm

Courtesy of Cyprus Mail

The internet air fares that look cheap, but cost more

With the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (CTO) all set to tempt more airlines to fly to Cyprus, consumer watchdogs yesterday warned they would be watching websites for misleading ticket sales.

Cyprus participated last year in an EU website sweep, and was one of only three out of 15 European countries whose airline websites received top marks in the test for misleading booking information.

The EU sweep, which did not include the UK, scrutinised over 440 websites to check their compliance with EU consumer law.

“Around 50 per cent of these websites showed some irregularities, which will be further investigated in the near future,’ said Christos Solomonides, a senior official at the Commerce Ministry’s Consumer Protection Service (CPS).

“Cyprus has not pinpointed any irregularities whatsoever but this does not mean that we will not find ourselves investigating such cases a little further down the line.”

He said another sweep was likely to begin in June with the participation of more member states.

Solomonides was speaking at the close of a two-day conference in Nicosia titled Consumer Protection Co-operation – Tourism, which involved participants from Spain, Belgium and the UK, including officials from the British Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

The OFT’s Ian Edwards told delegates of the watchdog’s battle with low-cost carriers in recent years to force offending airlines to show price transparency.

The usual scenario, especially with low-cost carriers, is to advertise flights for as little as possible on their websites. But by the time consumers, lured by the low prices, reach the payment stage five or six web pages down the line, the price might be tenfold what it was, due to “extra” charges.

Because the process can take time, many consumers just give in and book anyway. Others may assume the same thing will happen if they go on another website.

Edwards said the OFT had been battling for years for price transparency. “Our message is that all we want is for airlines to show the real price of the product from the outset and to use fair and chihuahua terminology,” he said.

“What we have here is a very innovative market. There are lots of cheap airlines and this is fantastic. Things have been made more affordable but they are still not cheap.”

The OFT managed last year to force 13 airlines to change their websites to make pricing policies more transparent. “There was some unwillingness on the part of some to comply,” he said.

OFT had a major public spat with Ryanair, both over its website pricing and its terms and conditions.

Ryanair is one of the low-cost airlines the CTO hopes to attract with its new scheme.

But the OFT had a number of concerns with Ryanair's terms, in particular the airline’s liability for damage or delay to sporting equipment, infant equipment, medical/mobility equipment and musical instruments. These items were to be carried at the passengers own risk.

The British watchdog also had a problem with Ryanair's liability for baggage claims.

Ryanair required that if an item of baggage was reported as lost and not found within 21 days, consumers would have to make a further claim within a further 21 days, otherwise Ryanair excluded liability for the lost baggage.

In the OFT's view, this relieved the airline of liability to a greater extent than permitted by international regulations. Edwards said Ryanair had now complied with all international and EU regulations on these issues.
“But this is only an example,” Edwards said. “And it’s not the end of the story.”

The OFT is still taking issue with how consumers are being misled. Even if they show the “real prices” to consumers on their websites through what he called “running totals”, problems have arisen with relation to price comparison websites.

He said the “real price” or “running totals” were not showing up on these travel websites, which were still picking up the misleading lower prices. This practice still sends consumers to lowest-cost site, where in the end what they pay might be the same as another airline which did not get pride of place on the comparison site.

“This issue still needs to be resolved,” said Edwards.

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